Cultivating the Present

We talk, endlessly, it seems, about the impact of technology on our lives, our relationships, our work, and workspaces and we worry about what it’s doing to our physiologies. Now the inimitable writer, Diane Ackerman offers, in her blog in The New York Times, a characteristically elegant and pointed commentary on this topic; it’s been on my mind ever since I read it. (The volume of comments from readers suggests that others found resonance there, too.)

Diane Ackerman is a poet and naturalist, and author of many books, including A Natural History of the Senses, one of her best known works, and One Hundred Names for Love, her most recent (and a Pulitzer finalist). In her essay last week, she asked: “Are we living in sensory overload or sensory poverty?” While bemoaning the “myopic daze” in which so many people seem to wander around these days is not new, she takes a hard look (in the spirit of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature) at what it might be costing us. Here’s an excerpt—
As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. Strip the brain of too much feedback from the senses and life not only feels poorer, but learning grows less reliable.

I’m certainly not opposed to digital technology, whose graces I daily enjoy and rely on in so many ways. But I worry about our virtual blinders. We’re losing track of our senses, and spending less and less time experiencing the world firsthand. At some medical schools, it’s even possible for future doctors to attend virtual anatomy classes, in which they can dissect a body by computer — minus that whole smelly, fleshy, disturbing human element.
What can we do? Ackerman suggests that we teach the value of “cultivating presence” and that this can be done quite easily: spend a few minutes each day “paying close attention to some facet of nature.” Or, as Dayna Baumeister and Janine Benyus, founders of the Biomimicry Guild would say, “Go outside!” (Ackerman suggests that you can even do this inside.)

Architecture professor Jean Gardner, who teaches at Parsons/The New School, has long explored elements of this topic. She and her students have been researching effective ways to cultivate presence. Gardner believes that our interface with electronics is literally changing our brains, and she has written and spoken about what that means for us as humans and designers. (She has written about some of these issues in Metropolis before; here’s her response to editor Susan Szenasy’s Design + Pedagogy = Fit Cities column.)

I asked her about this article. She shared her insight about what she calls  “cultivating presence”: “In my undergraduate and graduate courses, students spend ten minutes or more at the beginning of every class cultivating presence. I lead them through yoga asanas to bring their mind, body, and breath into alignment. After these wake-up exercises, we sit quietly for several minutes, experiencing our attentive selves. With this as a base, I have developed exercises to attune our students with the living world through first-hand engagement. Students often react initially with bemused compliance to these nontraditional ways of learning. But after a couple of classes, they eagerly anticipate waking themselves up.” Below you can see a video of some of the exercises from YouTube.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is director of communications for William McDonough + Partners, an architecture firm with studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, and San Francisco. She is also co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design.

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