"Still" in America

Americans are not big on the idea of being still.

Even when our bodies aren’t moving, our minds are under continual assault from increasingly unavoidable media. There are televisions in our minivans, and in our fast-food restaurants, too, so we can hear the day’s headlines while connecting to free WiFi, gorging on a half-pound hamburger and quadruple-thick milkshake. The image on the TV screen is crowded out by the station logo in the top right, the perpetual crawl across the bottom, and pop-up ads reminding us what show is coming up next, and later, and after that.

Perhaps because so much food and entertainment and stimulation are offered to us each day, we come to expect their steady supply as a right and entitlement. We check emails on vacation, use cell phones while we drive to the mall, and bring our music wherever we go (on a device that has more computer memory than existed worldwide just a few decades ago).

We’re provided a constantly updated and refreshed list of things we should want, cunningly and deftly packaged by magazines, television shows, retailers; we drive as far as we must to get these things, and wait in line all night, if we need to. The restaurants, movie makers, and electronic stores have our number: they know who we are and what we want, and even why.

It can be really hard to be still when so much stuff is begging to be noticed.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I love some of the stuff, too, as much as you do or more. There is no “poor, poor pitiful me” or “nation of whiners” here.

But “still” in America is something that stands to enjoy a significant resurgence in the near future.

Not out of choice, though.

Our current long and shallow recession has shaken us up in a big way. This week, distant reports of Dow Jones drops, increased mortgage defaults, crises with Fannie and Freddie, and $145 per barrel oil mixed with the more immediate and tangible $160 I dropped at the grocery store. That’s about a 20% increase over what we spent on food last year. And that amount buys much, much less.

Some in Congress have begun calling for lower speed limits to reduce our use of gasoline (and, incidentally, save lives). The situation is acute when Americans seriously consider slowing the rate of their automobile travel. Going places fast costs more; to speed in one’s vehicle suggests that money does not matter as much as time. That’s right and proper – when we can afford it. But when we choose to act in a way that saves money and spends time, like slowing down our cars, we are making quite a statement.

More and more, Americans will have no choice but to be still because it costs so much to go to a mall, restaurant, or on vacation.

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“Still” is an art and state, long-forgotten, slow to be relearned.

The yogi Erich Schiffmann explains that stillness is not the absence of thought, activity and physical movement. Instead, it is the ability to focus our thoughts and actions completely and entirely on the matter at hand. It is thinking about doing the dishes as you are doing the dishes, instead of thinking about what chore you should do next, or that you need to finish quickly so you can be on time for something else. As a result, you come to understand more about the simple but essential task of dishwashing, and have cleaner dishes, too.

I don’t take much personal direction from Tom Cruise, but I often recall his character in The Last Samurai as he described his captors: “From the moment they wake, they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline. I am surprised to learn that the word Samurai means, 'to serve'. . . .”

And Richard Alpert’s (Baba Ram Dass) exhortation simply to “be here now.”

Obviously, it’s not practical to forego all planning and bounce from moment to moment with no long-term goals and plans. But having time to devote to thinking about “small” things and doing them well – time freed up from driving here and there to buy this and that, maybe – can bolster our ability to live in and appreciate the moment, and even to create better, more satisfying moments.

A society enslaved by technology.

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