The Dark Room

(This story was written in response to the prompt:  ” Fuck that, a guided meditation video” by Michael Fasman)

At a conference, I once met a Franciscan monk who told me that I would be the blessed child of God if only I could put my fucking phone down.

It’s hard not to laugh when a monk says “fuck.” I don’t know if he knew that or not. I’m not sure if I’d rather it was an honest mistake, or I’d prefer it if he was deliberately fucking with me.

“But Brother,” I said to him, very politely, “I thought we were all the blessed children of God, no matter what our sins?”

He sighed and asked what I thought it meant to be made in God’s image, and then we were pulled away by the conference organizers – he was giving a lecture and I had been asked to live Tweet a dialogue between a group of Japanese and American Zen practitioners.

I thought, as I walked towards my session, about all the ways that my phone actually makes me more divine: I can access all the world’s information through it, which makes me closer to omniscient. I can affect devices at a distance, which makes me a small step closer to omnipotent. I can use it to monitor my heart rate and vital signs, so I might live longer, which makes me one step closer to immortal.

I had the thought, it’s not the first time, that the Bible has its chronology wrong: it’s not “in the beginning there was God,” but “in the end, there was God.” That God is a creature we’re building – maybe the singularity? – out of the internet of things, who will dwell in the cloud. It’ll take a while, probably: maybe whole planets covered with circuits the size of atoms will need to be networked together before a whole universe can be created in six days. Or, maybe, we’re one connection away, and creation is a lot easier than we think.

All of which are good theological reasons not to put my phone down, right?

The Buddhism session was surprisingly contentious, because the American Buddhists said that when they achieved a state of selflessness, it taught them not to care what other people think, while the Japanese Buddhists said that when they achieved a state of selflessness it taught them not to get in the way of what their society and their families needed.

These people had been had been practicing their whole lives to reach these selfless states, and suddenly were getting undercut – told they’d interpreted it wrong by other people who’d been practicing the same things, just as sincerely. A weird tension enveloped the room because this sort of thing shouldn’t bother them … they were selfless now, right? … but it obviously did. I wasn’t sure what to Tweet.

There are some moments, this was one of them, that you can only approach with a sense of cynicism or tragedy. These were disciplined, serious, people who could sit still in a quiet room for hours – which only sounds easy until you try it, and you realize that just 10 minutes of quiet stillness might kill you. A couple psychologists recently conducted an experiment showing that most people, especially men, would rather give themselves painful shocks on an electric battery than sit and think in a quiet room. We would rather do something, even if it hurt us, than be still for a little while.

So much of our world makes sense when you think of it that way. You wonder – well, I do – how much of our history would be different if people could sit still with their demons, instead of pushing them out into the world.

We would rather hurt ourselves than just sit with ourselves.

Well, these people could do it. They had spent years mastering this skill. They carried this sense of peace with them, they seemed happier than most people I’ve met. And yet here they were, arguing about the most basic thing: does achieving peace mean being true to yourself, or does it mean giving yourself up?

If we can’t agree on that, what can we do?

A sense of gruesome futility was gripping the room: it was like someone had been murdered in front of our eyes, and we were trying not to name the killer, because deep down we were all guilty. Because if this “enlightenment” thing wasn’t going to work out, it was our fault. And I wanted to think of something smart to Tweet, but, my phone just kept chiming with alerts from other sessions and clever things people were saying about unrelated topics and I realized: this is how I keep from having to sit still in a quiet room. This is the battery I use to shock myself rather that sit alone with my thoughts. And maybe omnipotence and omniscience and immortality are stupid ways to measure divinity: maybe “omniscience” is just “distraction” and “omnipotence” is just the equivalent of shocking yourself with a battery. If God is “love,” then maybe “love” is the opposite of “distraction.” Love requires attention, not omniscience

And I was pondering this, wondering if I’d gone crazy, if we’d all jumped down some kind of mystical rabbit hole together, when the microphone was passed to an elderly Japanese man – a former Zen monk who’d left his monastery to care for a nephew who’d been orphaned after an earthquake. And he quoted a piece of scripture I’d heard before but can’t remember the source of:

“Before enlightenment: eat, work, sleep. After enlightenment: eat, work, sleep.”

And the whole room burst out laughing, because that was it.   Because enlightenment isn’t a change agent. Because the singularity has already come, and passed, and we’re living in the same world we always were. Because if we don’t know what to do next after we’ve learned how to sit quietly in a dark room, the answer is: we’ll sit quietly in a dark room.

We’ll be still. We’ll face our thoughts and our demons and our families, and we won’t hurt ourselves.

If we can do that, the rest will work itself out. Fuck it. I put my phone down, and was reborn.

Like this?  Benjamin’s collection of short fiction “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is available. 

“Benjamin Wachs reveals a distinctive and highly personal flair for storytelling that will engage the reader’s total and rapt attention throughout.” – The Midwest Book Review