A few days ago at a busy intersection, a man was trying to cross the street. He stood on a center island waiting for the walk light, surrounded by cars zooming in every direction. Although he looked calm and experienced, it had to be stressful being a lone person exposed to such fierce activity. What if he had been a primitive man, say from 10,000 or even 1,000 years ago. How would he have reacted to this environment?
If my reaction serves as a clue, he would become overwhelmed and want to withdraw, to escape, to hide. He may be fascinated by the novelty at first, but the effects of continual stimulation would soon exhaust him mentally and physically, sending him into a state of depression and confusion. That state would be a matter of survival, a strategy to protect the self from complete collapse, a defense against the unwitting assault of culture on the individual.
How do modern humans live amid such frenzy? Even away from the traffic, they constantly interact with signs, buildings, people, and trees as they whiz by in their automobiles. Even at home, the car parked in the garage or by the curb, their TV's offer a continual stream of voices and images, much like a rushing mountain torrent. Their phones ring and buzz like insects with calls and text messages. The sounds of traffic and aircraft penetrate their walls and ceilings, like the growls and wails of wild animals. Only in the depths of night does there seem to be a respite.
Take a single man from a small community in Wyoming, used to living by himself in a small space, one with no telephone or Internet access, whose closest neighbor is perhaps 500 feet away, and whose companions all day are squirrels and birds, and put that person into that intersection with all those cars, and what do you expect? Normally open to all forms of stimulation, the result would be sensory overload, anxiety, and paralysis.
Well, it wasn't quite that bad. We were in Sylvia's vehicle waiting for the light to change, with me watching the unfortunate pedestrian. Somehow there was a bond between me and him.
My challenge wasn't cars, but stimulation of another sort. We were on another shopping trip, to WalMart, CostsCo, and Target. Inside these places, instead of cars there were towers of products for people to buy, canyons of merchandise, corridors and intersections filled with shoppers and their loaded carts. From one store to another, more traffic and parking lots, more merchandise piled up to the ceiling, more people entering, shopping, and leaving with their purchases, it was starting to affect me consciously, which means it had been affecting me unconsciously for some time already.
Don't mistake me for a yokel or hermit who only enters civilization every six months to provision, get drunk, and head back to the hills. We have WalMart stores, and maybe CostCo and Target somewhere in Wyoming. My habit at home is to go to WalMart every three weeks or so for fresh vegetables, soap, lip balm, and toilet paper. Going every week, sometimes twice a week with Sylvia to three or more of such monster stores is way beyond my experience, and my limit.
An antidote would be to camp in the desert, and indeed this was a deeply calming experience three years ago. After a month in the pristine emptiness of sand, brush, and sky the world seemed comprehensible again. All of the demands of culture fell away and all that remained were the day-to-day activities of work and survival. It opened up space for walking in the desert, looking at the variety of plants, noticing the few rabbits and coyotes, and of course the spectacular sunrises and sunsets in the wispy high clouds.
If a monk is someone who retreats from the complexity of civilization and society to contemplate the complexity of the human mind and psyche, then that is a good description of my adopted role. At home in Wyoming, books provide controlled and carefully selected stimulation. Interactions with other people range in frequency from several per day to one per week. My car sits un-driven for weeks at a time, as my bicycle gets me to and from the library and Shirley's house. Thinking occupies most of my time.
In California, my challenge is to find a workable compromise, something between the desert and the busy intersection, to find a way to safely cross the intersection of one culture and another. Perhaps Sylvia can drop me off at the library while she does her shopping. Maybe a day or two spent in the studio reading books or sketching landscapes from photographs would restore my balance. Maybe once we get our construction projects under way my sense of purpose will clarify.
The answer clearly isn't avoiding all experience, though. That would be impossible in this environment, and indeed in most environments in the modern world. It might reside in the witness consciousness, a state the Buddhists describe where you retain awareness of your surroundings, but don't feel obligated to react to the stimulation. It isn't a numb state of non-feeling, but a state where feelings flow freely and do not manifest themselves in physical action.
Think of this environment as a training ground, a problem to solve, a koan. Finding the right tension for the stringed instrument is the way the Buddha put it. There could be much to learn here.