Windows to the Material World

January 24th, 2010

I just finished assembling my journals into book form for a final edit. Fortunately, I finished the work before my computer crashed. I knew it was on the blink, but I dreaded the day when it need to be sent for repair. Leaving the shop on my way home, however, I felt a surprising relief, a sense of liberation. Even though I use the computer almost exclusively for my writing and correspondence, it felt as if some shackle of illusion had been lifted.

I vaguely remember a popular book from my college days called The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan. His point was that the medium in which one receives information has a greater influence than the message it conveys. I recall him describing television as a cold medium because one generally learns passively from it. In contrast, he described the press as a hot medium because we have to activate our intellect in order to assimilate what we've read. McLuhan concluded that cold mediums, like television, make one lazy and dull the intelligence, while hot mediums have the opposite effect, regardless of the content one receives from either.

I am convinced that, like television, the medium of the computer also has insidious effects because it subtly injects one with the need for incessant distraction—an especially menacing prospect for those on a spiritual path where the mind needs to be calmed to touch one's essence.

I lived in Vrindavana for 20 years without even a phone. I didn't die of boredom; instead, I remained absorbed in scripture, nama (meditation on God’s names), and seva (service). To be peaceful now, I require the world at my doorstep with the click of a button, even while living in Vrindavana. Something is wrong.

According to the Svetasvatara Upanisad, God sits within our heart to observe and advise us in the form of the paramatma, the Supersoul. It describes this by the analogy of two birds in a tree: one bird is eating the fruits of happiness and distress, while the other is watching, waiting for his friend to turn to him. The observant bird is compared to the Supersoul and the engrossed bird is compared to the individual living entity. The idea is that as long as we are externally absorbed in the chatter of the mind, we cannot hear the voice of God in the heart directing us.

Riding home, unshackled from my computer, it suddenly hit me how the medium of mass communication so strongly allures us to the platform of the mind, and how the effect is so pervasive that we usually mistake our bondage for normal life. I felt cheated of my innocence, a life unfettered by the unremitting dialogue of the mind that affords one the quietude to turn toward the Lord in the heart. Sadly we have been drawn in droves to the life of the engrossed bird. Perhaps it is more like lemmings to the sea.

Just to the right of the foot of Srila Prabhupada's (my guru's) bed in Vrindavana hang two beautiful paintings: one of Krishna and the cowherd boys returning home from the forest of Vrindavana, the other of Radha and Krishna by the bank of the Yamuna under a kadamba tree. Srila Prabhupada called such paintings of Krishna “windows to the spiritual world.” In my early Vrindavana days, I would gaze at these masterpieces during japa and think of Srila Prabhupada's “windows” analogy. It made so much sense. Today I thought of another “windows” analogy, and unfortunately, it made just as much sense: Computers are the windows to the material world.

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