In an environment where everyone is connected and sharing their every experience, learning how to observe incoming data without reacting to every stimulus is a critical cyber-survival tool.
While we struggle to develop appropriate shields, filters and firewalls, a key lesson of spiritual practice that can help us navigate our “always-on, always-connected world” is the recognition that our consciousness is shaped by how we choose to process the signals of our senses. Data awareness is a skill that can be cultivated into a powerful tool for not only coping with electronic overload, but also a doorway to greater peace and personal power.
Our flood of tweets and emails can inundate and overwhelm, or like the stick of the Zen master, invite us to pay attention to where we habitually put our attention. The cyber-shaman’s skill is cultivating a wider-seeing vision that takes in all vibrations, while at the same time developing “the shield of discernment,” allowing her to know what signals truly require action, and which ones are part of the background.
The mystic sees all reality as a stream of compressed data (like our mp3 or mp4 files) that most of us decode using habitual, consensual algorithms. Many forms of spiritual practice involve stilling the busy mind and being present to, without being hooked by, these incoming data streams. Data awareness meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of reality without processing them into thoughts, emotions and suffering. In Buddhism this is called mindfulness; in Sufi practice it is called Vairagya, watching the codes (or hearing the tones) go by, “indifferent” to one story over another, processing the reality of the outer world in full consciousness that one is, in fact, data processing.
Without the cultivation of discernment, our technologies of connection will continue to overwhelm us with “data smog” — drawing our attention to every stimulus, resulting in either debilitating hypersensitivity or protective numbness. With practices that expand consciousness and teach appropriate filtering, we can see in all of our tweets, texts, emails and videos the raw data that we use to create personal and consensual “stories” through patterns of prediction (habit) based on limited data. Stopping the processor that Joseph Chilton Pearce calls our over-eager “reflective memory” gives us a moment, however brief, to be in the Now.
I believe that our manipulated addiction to attention-based social networks must be managed by conscious practice. Meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of reality without processing them into thoughts, emotions and suffering. We can choose whether to engage or to just observe the flow. We have the power to decide whether to identify with the stories of life experience, or be the silent observer of the codes. Our gullible consciousness responds to any software we put into it. A discerning awareness of our “programming” can take us out of our self-imposed prison of identification.
As we become more adept at taking in all the signals of our various networks, we may find ourselves reaching beyond the equanimity that comes from awareness practice to something even more powerful: the “seeing-everything-all-at-once” consciousness where one is a node on the network, and simultaneously the entire web itself — part of a joyously noisy communicating system.
The eye is opened to the cosmic, but grounded in compassion. It decodes all incoming signals and discerns which ones to act upon, knowing all the time that there is always more than one story to believe, that all the stories are maya — essentially false. It sees not only the frames of each “life movie,” but the projector, screen and audience, as well. This is what Buddhism calls Dharmadhatu, where “to see one object is, therefore, to see all objects.” In poet William Blake’s words: “to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”
From this stance of loving observation, one can become, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, more than “a laborer in a thought factory, but a receiver of knowledge from all the hundred realms of being.”