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From Content to the Mother-Jungle of Contemplation
Surviving the Digital Deluge
I used to make content, now I make contemplation.
In 2005, the year YouTube launched with 2 million views a day, I saw the dance film, Bones in Pages by Saburo Teshigawara at the Dance on Camera festival. It was a surreal portrayal of the tug between divine freedom and the mundane. At the top of a clocktower, a woman flails toward a square of light, doves calling her forth, juxtaposed with a man contemplating at a table with shards of glass resembling tiny knife-like mountains, a wall of perfect shoes poking out under the massive wall on his right. It was at this moment that I realized despite being a movement artist, the seeds of my work were rooted in powerful images. I asked, what if I took my dances to the screen? This is when I decided my next dance piece would be a film. I wanted to experiment with the moving image – and that’s what I did.
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In 2009, four years later, YouTube passed one billion video views a day (5,000 more times than in 2005) and I am so struck by making moving images that I find myself enrolled in an MFA program at CalArts studying film directing. 2009 was also a year after I opened a Facebook account and purchased my first smartphone.
The world was changing while I was busy making scene breakdowns and casting actors for my films. Even so, in 2009, you would have never said, I’m going to spend the holidays, “catching up on content” – like a friend recently said. At that point, “content” referred to the things in your bag or closet – not something to to catch up on. The idea of “content” as we know it now, took off around in 2013 (just a year after I finished grad school) when Netflix produced its own series, House of Cards. This is when content became king, and “content” was designed for quantity and addiction, because customer attention kept the lights on. It also happens to be the year the quality of video on smartphones drastically improved.
In 2018, almost ten years after stepping into my dream of making films. I released a four-part comedy web series about online dating called Run for Your Life into the YouTube machine. One of the episodes even went viral which meant I also landed the opportunity to use the YouTube studios for free so I could make more “content”. At that point in time, an average of four hundred hours of video content was being uploaded every minute to YouTube and there were 1.5 billion regular monthly users.
Making art is how I work out the incongruencies of life and the world around me, and I made Run for Your Life because I was seriously disturbed by what I experienced in my own romantic life – which was palpably different after digital dating hit the scene. In each episode, there is a disconnect between the characters who show up as: not listening, projecting, aggressive, selfish, fetishizing, and objectifying – all portrayed through an absurdist lens. It’s not to say these things didn't exist before online dating. It’s just that now these attitudes were being normalized. As dating became available 24/7 via our phones, it became a thing to be consumed – swiping as mindlessly as we might scarf down a bag of popcorn while watching a romcom.
The sheer mass volume of possible mates, along with the Pez-dispenser ease of access depersonalized one of the most intimate, vulnerable aspects of my life and I found myself embodying an unfamiliar air of complacency. I was ultimately left with a sense that there was a “poverty of scale”. Sure there were more options, but I valued the people I was dating less and even began to value myself less. Ugh. This was no way to live – to treat people as disposable or to be treated as such. I was disconnected from the rich humanity of the people on the other side of the app, who were distorted by algorithms, distraction, and overwhelm. I acted in ways that were not as kind as I would normally be if I were face-to-face with them. I found myself being snarky, rude, or avoidant. But underneath all of it, I was heartbroken. Online dating is about speed, quantity, and voracious consumption – values that severed me from my true north and my passionate heart.
At the same time that I’m melting down around romance, the avant-garde, independent artist deep inside me was being crushed by the same “poverty of scale” I found in digital dating. The sheer volume of film, TV, short-form video, video ads, “content”, etc. being churned out was mind-blowingly ever-present and growing exponentially, and this was even before Tik-Tok. In fact, the total time spent watching videos has increased by around 249% in the last 5 years. Was all this screen time really making a better world? Is more what we really need? I had moved toward film/video because I loved the poetry of the moving image and it helped me express the profound discordant complexity of modern life. Instead, I found myself in the YouTube content factory of rapidly decreasing attention spans, bottomless algorithmically-fueled infinite scroll, and the “opportunity” to make more, more, more work. Sure, I had made the choice to launch my series on YouTube – but regardless of whether I launched on YouTube or had the opportunity to be produced by HBO, I needed to step back and reassess.
With both online dating and filmmaking, I had become disconnected from myself, the value of others, the value of my art, and most importantly the deep and sacred inner explorations that had always been so central to my life, art, and cultural activism. There seemed to be a parallel here. In both worlds, I found myself choking on a deluge of digital content – and it was making me sick.
When I finally stopped to look around during those days of unraveling in 2018, I saw that I had tumbled not only into my own flavor of overwhelm and disconnect, I awakened into a whole new world where disconnection ruled. The same dithering bad behavior in online dating was on all digital platforms: Facebook fights, Twitter meltdowns, breaking up over text, total utter judgmentalism, no longer being able to talk to relatives with differing politics, disbelief, overwhelm, jealousy, and unbelievable distraction. These communication mediums (texting and email) and algorithm-driven machines (media, social media, online dating, streaming content) had taken a surprisingly confident front seat in the lives of so many as if we had no choice – a “choiceless choice” that led to tremendous polarization and fighting, where morality was being batted around like a dime-store piñata. In this new digital world, mass consumption has led us right into the jaws of mass disconnect – a disconnection from the slow subtle power of being connected to our common humanity.
I know, it’s a bit dramatic but mass disconnection is reflected in some startling stats. In Peter Coleman’s book, The Way Out he notes there was an increase from 23.2% in 2007 to 41.1% in 2018 of moderate to severe depression and the suicide rate has increased by 35% from 1999 to 2018. More than 1 in 3 Americans are lonely, per a Harvard study. That rises to 61% when looking at younger people, and 51% among mothers with young kids. When I began to understand the implications of disconnection in my own life and the disconnection at large, I felt an overwhelming urgency to reconnect to my subtle humanity and to help others who are also seeking reconnection.
This is when I broke up with both online dating and video content.
It was time to slow down and start asking questions. How can I, at the very least, not be part of the problem? What is the point of all this digital mishegoss? While all the voluminous content that’s being captured, digitized, extracted, generated, algorithmatized, hashtagged, and manipulated is quite daunting, it’s also simultaneously miraculous, scary, useful, lifesaving, destructive, and all the rest. I asked, what is really going on at this moment in time? And as it is true in most breakups, I asked: Is it me? Or is it you – the cold, cold digital world? It turns out, it was both.
Yes, it was me. So I made some changes that helped me to retether; I changed my diet some, curbed my social media and phone usage, reached out for support, became less obsessed with work, and generally slowed down. But it wasn’t just me, it was also you – the digital world – you robbed us of nuance and firehosed us with choiceless choices, untethered us from our shared humanity and a cohesive sense of what was right – which is what makes us a “people”. I was flailing about like a broken fence in a dusty windstorm and I wasn’t alone. Everyone felt it on some level.
It was time for me to move from the arid frenetic desert of digital content, where nuance was mangled in the motherboard of 1s and 0s, to the deep fecund mother-jungle of contemplation.
Contemplation is about questions. Big questions. Questions that are ultimately unanswerable. Questions that birth more questions. What is this world? What does it mean? To me? To us? What matters and why?
But why contemplation?
Let me start with this idea of the mother-jungle of contemplation. It’s commonly understood that tree roots deep underground, are working in the dark, in the unseen, and they operate together to thrive – as the actual brain of the tree. You can draw a parallel between the way tree roots function and our shared humanity, shared beliefs, our shared sense of “who we are as a people” – so much of which is unsaid, unseen, and underground. Of course “who we are as a people” is also partially visible, in our laws, customs, and stories – perhaps like tree trunks – but those are just expressions of what is working under the surface. Under the surface is where our values, our compassion, our shared humanity, our shared meaning live. When our roots are not tended to – through contemplation, intentional celebration, art or ritual, etc. – we can become untethered to what roots us. When we are untethered, we lose our way as a “people” and thus become susceptible to the whims of trendy thinking, charismatic leadership, or on the other end of the spectrum…nefarious forces. Ultimately, feeling of disconnected from a sense of rootedness can create tremendous distress at the individual level.
So as our unseen communal, cultural roots are rotting in a rancid puddle of consumerism and informational overload, we become severed from our shared humanity. And although this disconnection is hard to see, it is easily felt and reflected in much of our modern-day societal strife.
This moment for me was an opportunity to truly get curious about – to contemplate – the cultural ground we walk on, not to find some magical answer but to find powerful questions. I began my journey back to reconnection by getting my hands dirty. I began digging in the soil and contemplating the roots that connect us.
Just yesterday, my partner and co-author of this channel, John Scilipote (whom I did not meet online) was reading Abraham Heschel’s God in Search of Man and he randomly opened to this passage and I found it presciently relevant:
The roots of insight are found… not at the level of discursive thinking, but at the level of wonder and radical amazement, in our depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our sense of the ineffable.
To me this eloquent statement says contemplation connects us to the subtlety of life, the complexity of the unknown, and the wise wanderings of the heart, both your own personal mystery and the mystery of the world – perhaps the unseen and unknown. You could even say, as in Sabura Teshigawara’s Bones in Pages, contemplation is both reaching up towards the dove out there in amazement while also sensing the shards of glass at the table.
Contemplation, wonder, and curiosity help us connect to the unseen and unsaid places that run under the surface of our everyday lives, down into our roots. For many, this is a familiar personal practice.
But how about collective contemplation?
When we regularly contemplate our shared meaning together new understanding emerges and more importantly new roots grow and the healing salve of reconnection begins. Instead of the media, politics, experts, self-help, religion or even art telling us what to believe, what if we looked to each other, in everyday community for the ground of our shared meaning? It’s time to reclaim our shared meaning together as a “people”.
But what do I mean by “meaning”? This broader take on deep shared meaning includes all the subterranean goingson; conscious as well as unconscious beliefs, personal as well as shared stories that guide and weave our lives together. Imagine having a more conscious, gentle, embodied connection to our vast collective beliefs and stories where we intentionally create and claim shared meaning as our own instead of it being doled out in ration lines by a disembodied establishment. Imagine a world where contemplation as a community practice stirs the soup of complexity and ignites reconnection and care for ourselves and each other. Deep conscious community grounds us and keeps us safe (and sane) in a world drunk on consumerism, engorged with digital junk food, and set ablaze by media-induced polarization. And the very act of community contemplation nourishes our connection to each other and to a greater sense of “we”.
In order to contemplate well together, we also need to dust off and exercise our sharing and listening skills. And this takes practice. This means consciously and intentionally moving away from conversations consisting primarily of small talk, gossip, complaining, righteous defending, power playing… the weather. It means slowing down, becoming present, opening our senses to listen beyond the words and into the silence, to the in-between, where the unsaid speaks from the heart in poems and paradox. This means we need to get off our devices and search out more nourishing, playful conversations where wisdom is revealed and insight can delight us. I’m not talking about formal debates which are more focused on changing minds and arguing which side is right and which is wrong. I’m also not talking about clinging to questions where we expect (or demand) definitive answers (such as any question you can get a reasonably satisfactory answer from Google).
I’m talking about conversation as a practice of connecting with our innate curiosity, wonder, and imagination to explore our living roots – the roots inside ourselves and the roots that intertwine with others.
This would be my new project.
This is when BreakBread World was born – a contemplative collective conversation process often over food that my partner, John, and I developed. I asked, what if we took control of our situation and brought people together for communal nourishment and contemplation? What if we built our own intentional communities where we practiced personal and cultural reflection – collective conversation – while growing and nourishing our roots together? Not for the purpose of arriving at definitive answers but for the purpose of re-rooting together, honoring the wisdom inside of us through questions… while also having a good time and enjoying each other’s company.
When I say intentional community, I’m not talking about starting a commune (although I’m not fully opposed to that). I’m talking about intentionally cultivating contemplation in our families, neighborhoods, amongst friends, at our local YMCA, our food co-ops, our places of work, our governments and even our churches and synagogues. I mean being nourished by asking what lies beneath our assumptions about each other, self, and the world, deepening our listening to include what we can’t see or hear. And what if we made it a community practice? We have been so outwardly focused – searching for answers and connection from sources and experts emanating from the glowing slab of light in our hands that’s often digitally moderated and geographically far-flung. But what about the wisdom and connection right here in our own backyard?
Quantum Physicist and author of On Dialogue, David Bohm says, “Culture implies shared meaning in which everybody participates.” What if we were more actively engaged in creating our shared meaning, instead of consuming it like a sugary drink?
Practicing contemplation and conversation in community helps us to claim collective power and move through the world more fully connected with each other in the wake of subtle as well as blatant mass culture shifts. And more than that, contemplation kicks the digital intermediaries and algorithmic machines out of the driver’s seat and helps us to get back to the mother-jungle of our own personal and collective truths.
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