Monday, 23 February 2009


This week's quote is not from Thoreau, but from a Buddhist academic called David Loy, basically because I read an article of his this week and found it interesting.

Also, an article of my own has been published on this week.

And now for the blog:

“... for many premodern societies, the physical conditions of their survival were often precarious, so we have embraced technology to control and secure those conditions. The supreme irony of the ecological crisis, from that perspective, is that our technological efforts to secure ourselves materially over the last five hundred years are what have caused the biospheric degradation that now threatens our very survival.” Loy, Remaking the World, or Remaking Ourselves? Buddhist Reflections on Technology

Using natural resources to develop technology is potentially dangerous. Not using natural resources to develop technology is potentially dangerous. Life is potentially dangerous. So maybe fear of danger isn’t the best criterion for making choices about how we organise our lives.

At the moment I am working out how to cultivate the spring on the land. I have been thinking about it, looking at it, musing, experimenting. At first there was a puddle. It was a puddle with potential, but still just a puddle. I dug a hole where the puddle was and it filled up with water. When the mud settled, the water was clear, but the hole overflowed, so you had to walk through boggy land to get to it. So I dug a channel from the hole. Now when it overflows, the water doesn’t flood everything.

I decided it was probably a good idea to cover the hole so that it doesn’t become the local hang out for all the thirsty animals. I have also started to surround it with stones.

This is an ongoing project. I have seen a few springs and so I have a sense of how they are traditionally cultivated around here, but I am also free to come to my own conclusions and to try things out.

The same is true of everything here. Making and maintaining the yurt, making a kitchen, a wood shed, and generally sorting out a functional (and beautiful) living space.

I am free to do all this as I see fit. I can’t get sacked, sued or passed over for promotion. And I don’t need to hire a contractor with a certificate in spring cultivation. If I want to stay in bed until the afternoon, in general I can do that. I have no demands for money arriving on my doormat from utility companies. I have no landlord or mortgage.

There is a general assumption that technology allows autonomy. All those labour-saving devices that let you spend your time doing other things. Mobile this and instant that. Do what you want, where you want, when you want. Do life your way.

One irritating characteristic of technology though, is that it doesn’t happen on a small scale. It happens in complex societies, with complex economies, and it happens usually out of a desire to make money. If you want to enjoy the freedoms that technology offers, you have to tie yourself into a whole bunch of relationships and contracts that you wouldn’t choose if you didn’t have to.

Let’s forget about the taxation levied to pay for infrastructure and defence of our stash. And let’s put on one side the utility companies wired into your home, so you are in debt to the company even if you just want to drink a glass of water or take a shit. Let’s stick to a basic example for now: how you spend your time.

If you want to own and use technology, you need money. For most of us, this means you need a job. That is, you need to sell your labour (i.e. your time). In order to sell your labour successfully in a complex economy, realistically you need to specialise. You need to be an X or a Y, and you need to build up qualifications and experience in your chosen profession. And if you don’t get the qualifications and experience for whatever reason, you will have to be really specialised. Screwing in widgets all day or making a machine go ‘beep’ at the check out.

In general, being an X means that you have committed to not being all the other letters of the alphabet that you might like to be sometimes. Further, you need to make sure that you are exactly the type of X that employers want you to be, so you probably need to go to college and learn what that is, then keep your head down and do it that way. There is little room for initiative, experimentation and doing things according to your own rhythms. Some of us manage to live creatively, but we are very much in the minority.

Contrast this with a self-sufficient life. The self-sufficient life most certainly has its limitations, and you need to do certain things you might not be in the mood for. But it is far more varied, and you are in a relationship with the natural world, not with an economy. Your immediate environment provides everything you need. No shops, no employers, no adverts. You look at what you need and what you want and you work out how to make that happen. You are free to make it happen any way that occurs to you. You are free to experiment and to make mistakes. You own your life.

There is a nice balance between mental and physical work. Your attention is engaged, but not overly taxed, to the point where your head is spinning at the end of the day and you feel like a brain on a stick, completely divorced from the gangly thing that people talk to when they want something from you (i.e. your body).

Your body is engaged, but you are generally free to work to your own rhythm, and because your mind is engaged in the work too, you don’t turn into a robot. The physical work in a self-sufficient life is varied. It does not require you to do the same thing again and again, from nine to five, five days a week, 48 weeks a year.

The embodied, engaged-but-not-hectic mind is exactly the kind of mind you are trying to develop in meditation, which suggests that leading a self-sufficient life helps you to lead a spiritually-nourishing life.

I am not self-sufficient, and I do enjoy technology. I wouldn’t want to turn my back on the whole thing, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge what it really costs, in terms of our life and our freedom to be who we are.

Loy makes an interesting suggestion about how we, as a society, could make choices about how we use and develop technology. Rather than leaving it to big business and the profit motive, he argues that we might be better to do things more democratically. We could discuss what we actually need and want as a society, and develop from there.

This kind of ‘discussion’ is not as far-fetched as it seems. Governments carry out consultation exercises as a matter of course when developing new strategies, that go on to become initiatives or legislation. Why not have a technological-development strategy too? If we could actually get this to happen, and provided the Government didn’t balls it up with red tape and too many layers of bureaucracy, this approach might produce quite different, more measured, and more satisfying results.


ms_mak said...

I doff my cap to you Mr Padma. You lead the way, your musings are as inspired as the moonlight that washes the mountains and as intrepid as the spring that disguised itself as a puddle until you saw it's potential in giving life. Atta boy, keep it up! Know that many are thankful for your light bearing in often dark times. Shanti x

Padma said...

And some metta and shanti for you too my friend. Thanks for your kind words! Padma

Padma said...
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Padma said...
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jason palmer said...

Your starting to sound like John Ruskin !

Padma said...

Just wanted to point out: The comments I removed were duplicate comments by me! (Pressed the button too many times). I am not much of a censor (provided you are polite!) so please feel free to disagree with me, without fear of censorship.

Sooty Cat said...

Hey, nice post once again. It seems that we're running around the same chain of thought at the moment, albeit from within very different environments.

Thinking around what Thoreau and Loy have to say, and then searching around the internet lead me to stumble across the ideas of Lewis Mumford, including the following quote:

"Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences."

This article expands on the idea:

And I like this from Max Frisch:

"Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn't have to experience it."

.. as your last post inspired me to meditate on the true nature of things, be it a tree or a concrete building.

Padma said...

Hey Sooty

Nice quotes! Will definitely check out that article - thanks for sharing it. Happy dwelling in deep samadhi.


jason palmer said...

If you read about 'the open society' you will see, best to just let people do what they want, as nobody is sure, about truth, correctness etc., so just let others use the tech and the grid and if you want to unplug, do so.

the open society

remember that term

Padma said...

Hi Jason

The thing is, in order for it to be an 'open society' we need to express ourselves openly. Hence this blog.

I was a little hesitant before opening my mouth on the internet, for the very reasons you mention: no one is sure about truth, correctness, etc.

But in the end I decided that there are so many people already speaking out: politicians, advertisers, gurus of various kinds. Often they speak utter shite, and many times this is conscious and designed to delude the public.

Since I've spent the best part of 20 years learning, reflecting on life and meditating, I figured that it was a bit selfish just to keep everything useful that I have learned to myself.

Matthew Tripp said...
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