My girlfriend Sol and I have been traveling for months through India and Nepal without any electronic devices. We’ve come to learn that there are levels of reality: there is the world of screens, full of names and faces we will never meet but which succeed in exciting us all the same, and then there is everyday world we see with our own two eyes, comprised of people and places we might actually affect. These two planes have a complex and dynamic relationship, but for the most part, they remain more or less separate for months, years, even decades. For the first time since we were children too young to understand the talking heads on TV, Sol and I feel ourselves tuning back into the mythical Here and Now. Long ago I looked at a globe and thought, “Gee, India is far!” but now I realize it is the ground beneath our feet which is furthest of all.
But little do I know that the world of the screens we’ve fought so hard to keep at bay will soon eclipse our lives as never before. At Chitwan National Park in Nepal, we encounter unusual wildlife but even more unusual human behavior. I’m struck by the fact that several people on the jeep tour are wearing masks. I ask our guide about it. “They’re Chinese,” he says. “Haven’t you heard about coronavirus?” I tell him I have not, then ask, “But surely there’s no virus here in the middle of the jungle?” He shrugs. “Who knows?”
I quickly forget about it as we make our way to Varanasi, India. “Samosa! Samosaaa!” the food vendor cries as our bus arrives. This is the holiest town in the country, where many make pilgrimages at the end of their lives in order to die and have their bodies burn beside the Ganges. A ten-year-old tour guide takes us up close to see. “But no photo,” he says. “This sacred.” Mouth muffled behind my handkerchief, I reply, “Don’t worry.” I begin to reflect: if photography defiles the sacred, then the fewer photos you take, the more sacred life becomes. Then I hear Sol whimper. Her eyes are rolling up. The sight of bubbling flesh has made her woozy.
We head up into Himalaya now, to a place called Heal Farm, where idealistic young Westerners like us come to volunteer in exchange for yoga and meditation classes, pristine nature, composting toilets with a view of the mountains, and unparalleled peace of mi—
“Twenty-three dead in Spain!” one volunteer announces in the middle of our supposedly silent lunch. He mutters more gruesome details but they are lost in the sloshing of the meal in his mouth.
“Well, no one’s dead at Heal Farm today!” I snap back on reflex. It was only the second time I’d heard about coronavirus, but even knowing what I do now, I would have responded just as feistily. Among environmentally-conscious people, we often hear about eating locally, reducing carbon footprints, and supporting community farmers by avoiding importing produce from the other side of the world. That’s great—but what about thinking locally, experiencing locally? The mind too is a fragile ecology worthy of our protection, and it is contaminated every time we miss what’s beneath our noses because we’re squinting beyond the horizon. Here, at a meditation retreat in Himalaya—where not so long ago villagers on one mountain might have never communicated with villagers on another—was a man reading the news and failing to taste his curry. There is a global crisis, yes, but is that really an excuse for not appreciating a home-cooked meal?
In March we arrive in Rishikesh. After months of anticipation, my mother makes the strenuous two-day journey through airports and airplanes and gives me the long awaited sweaty hug. Our reunion is full of smiles and laughs. But then we make it back to the guesthouse and the fateful moment occurs: “Here’s a bag of chocolate chip cookies I baked, and here’s…your phone!” I gaze upon that sleek black rectangle for the first time in half a year as though it were an alien artifact. I know that it holds vast power, both for good and for evil. It can be used to check train timetables and help us navigate labyrinthine cities. But then there are those other uses too, the short suicides which glaze the eyes with zombie static as life drowns in its own live-stream.
The senseless memes and cat videos. The celebrity photos. The presidential tweets. The people I haven’t seen since high school, wrenched up like forgotten shipwrecks, posting photos of breakfast and ugly babies so that we may incessantly compare our lives and net worths. The news articles, Wikipedia pages, must-see interviews, and the million other open tabs—each is a gaping wound in information’s murder of knowledge and wisdom. As I reach forward to reclaim the dreaded device, the question that makes my hand tremble is: am I ready?
My mother’s three-week visit is sure to be filled with yoga, peaceful hikes, delicious cuisine and carefree moments. Things don’t quite turn out that way: with only four hours of anticipation, the Indian prime minister declares the largest lockdown in world history, grounding all flights, buses, and trains in a country of a billion people. Many Indians—especially migrant workers—find themselves stranded far from home, some of them deciding to walk hundreds of miles to reunite with family. We have no choice but to ride out the storm together in a one-room apartment near the river, where we set foot outside only between the permitted hours (9 AM to 1 PM) and do our best not to go insane and flip the Scrabble board.
My mom’s short visit becomes longer and longer as the lockdown is extended and flight after flight is cancelled. Eventually, a month after her original departure date, she manages to get home. Sol and I debate whether it’s possible to continue our travels. But it soon becomes clear COVID-19 is not just another one-hit wonder like Swine Flu or SARS. We resign ourselves to catching the next flight back, but the lockdown drags on—two more weeks, then two more, then two more. It’s the end of May when we at last make it back to Kansas City.
Here I am on the front porch, reunited with my favorite drug again, shoulders slouched and brow furrowed. As the birds sing and the cicadas blare, I’m wishing they’d pipe down so I can concentrate. Gazing at one of my many sleek rectangles, I reflect that though the screen closes the window to the real world, it opens others. Now I glimpse back into the collective psyche, and this is what I see:
We all fear the plague, but the real plague is fear—far catchier than COVID-19 and the Billboard Hot 100 rolled into one. Catch it from your family! Catch from your friends! Lock yourself in a hermetically-sealed bubble, to no avail! Fear travels faster than the plague rats in the bellies of medieval ships, because now we’ve each got a personal plague rat in our pockets and the palms of our hands, infecting us again and again dozens of times a day.
During lockdown in Rishikesh I saw locals transform from smiling faces eager to welcome tourists (or at least make a buck off them) into suspicious masked marauders who whispered “corona, corona!” each time a foreigner passed. I saw my girlfriend’s nightmares return and my meditative concentration shattered with a flash-crackle-pop like a Hollywood action film. And this was in a town without a single confirmed case! So what changed more: reality—or our perception of it? Who has the wiser and more complete view: the news junkie, surrounded by glowing rectangles, stockpiling food like a comet’s coming—or the cow meandering in the alley, happily munching dumpster debris and discarded newspapers and not seeing the difference between the two?
I don’t mean that the coronavirus is not serious. I am only saying that one plague is more than enough to deal with, so why willingly infect ourselves with another? Clearly the situation is different for a stranded tourist relaxing beside the Ganges and an overwhelmed healthcare worker in the epicenter. But no matter who we are, all of us must learn the wisdom of that meandering cow who has never known the dreaded “c”-word, for peace must be found even in the most chaotic of times. As in a hurricane, each disaster is an opportunity to seek a stable center.
The pandemic is a reminder that sometimes, we must stay reasonably informed for everyone’s safety. We must, as they say, be “in the loop,” to know about social distancing and mask regulations, or to avoid breaking a curfew. But there are many kinds of loops. Some, like lassos, drag us along against our will. Others, like nooses, choke the life right out of us.
I close my eyes now and remember my final moments beside the Ganges, rolling on and on and on, sharing in none of these angsty thoughts. Its soothing murmur seemed to hush “Shh! Shh! Like my current, everything arriving is also leaving. Corona too will pass. The lockdown will pass. Given enough time, even the technology in your hands will pass. Meanwhile, thanks to the economic collapse, my water is clean enough to drink for the first time in decades! So breathe easy, friend.”
The Ganges was right. I probably wouldn’t bend to sip it, but I will go back inside now and lock this sleek rectangle in its drawer. Yes, Sol and I have our gadgets again, but we will not let them have us. We feel somewhat like naked yogis returning to the concrete world to put on jeans again, but we won’t forget the silent truth of the forest. And so we permit ourselves to use our devices only on alternating days, and even then between fixed hours. In other words, we treat a phone like a bottle of whiskey. I’ve found that keeping it out of sight keeps it out of mind, hence the drawer. Otherwise, with even a single glance at it I hear its eerie robot voice beckoning, “Use me! Uuuse meee!”
For millennia, sages in India have practiced the art of renunciation, forsaking career, money, property, family, sex, meat, alcohol, even clothes, in order to strive towards enlightenment. The premise has always been this: by giving up one thing, something far greater is gained. These traditions date back to prehistoric times. Now, the world presents us with new obstacles and new opportunities for spiritual growth. A plethora of dystopian stories warn that our relationship with screens has the potential to transform us into unfeeling droids trapped in illusion—but I assert that it could also inspire us to rediscover our humanity like never before. The difference between scenarios comes down only to the smallest drop of willpower.
Will we condemn ourselves to the fate of passive consumers who mindlessly accept every new gizmo presented by the market, like a sacrament for the god of progress? Will we remain forever prisoners on life’s threshold, binge-watching show after show of life happening to other people as we ourselves fail to step forward? Or will we remember those precious things: the brain, which strives to question; the heart, which strives to feel; and the soul, which strives to exist as fully as possible?
Now back in the real world, the immersive nature of our trip is impossible. We have a variety of tempting gadgets at our disposal and, thanks to lockdown, we have very little to do with our time. There are people to keep in touch with, articles to write, perhaps even the occasional YouTube video. So how do we go forward without forsaking the spirit of our quest? And how can others—who do not have the luxury of being grungy backpackers—experience the essence of screen-free existence themselves?
Many people have begun the practice of a screen sabbath, a secular tradition of disconnecting to reconnect, one day of the week, accessible to practitioners of all religions and atheists alike. Imagine cafés and restaurants which, along with no-smoking sections, have no-zombie zones. Imagine bars and clubs where all you can do is talk or make music or sit in silence—lest a buff black-shirted bouncer escort you to the street. “Sorry sir, that kind of nonsense is not allowed.” Or if you need to start small, imagine just one hour every day, whenever it suits you, when the screen gets set aside, no matter what.
In time, I believe we may witness the birth of a new spiritual movement, based around disconnecting in order to reconnect. We, the younger generations most ensnared by tech, are also the best equipped to overcome it and initiate this new movement, because when we at last take off our pixelated glasses to behold the real world, the contrast will be all the greater.
If you want a glimpse of nirvana, you don’t need to come to India. All you need to do is press the power button. Don’t believe me? Go on, give it a try: turn off and see what turns on.