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Outside the Machine

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*This is the third in a series on Slowing Down.

“Knock, knock, knock. Must, must, must. Must go, must sleep, must wake, must get up – sober, merciful word which we pretend to revile, which we press tight to our hearts, without which we should be undone [...]. But we must go; must catch our train; must walk back to the station – must, must, must” (The Waves, Virginia Woolf, 195-6).

The central line of inquiry for my Masters dissertation on Virginia Woolf was Woolf's treatment of moments of heightened awareness, her pursuit of moments spent “outside the machine.” To Woolf, the machine consists of all of the routines, the mechanisms of day-to-day life that impose “musts” or that involve what she calls “nonbeing.” “Nonbeing” are those hours spent doing things on autopilot, or without our full intention or presence. They are moments spent in the “musts” or the mindless mundane. In her absorbing, autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf describes examples of non-being in an ordinary day in her life:

I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea;

although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript

cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously.

One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum

cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner;

bookbinding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had

a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being” (Moments of Being, 70).

Peering through cotton wool is Woolf’s prevailing metaphor for non-being. The metaphor appropriately suggests a glimpse of something more genuine and meaningful, marred frustratingly by foggy vision. Interestingly, this concept is very similar to that of “the blue flower”: that symbol of yearning after the ineffable, that insatiable longing for that which we sense lies just beyond our grasp. In both Woolf’s autobiographical essays and her novels, this theme of striving to see beyond the “cotton wool” and to resist and remain outside of the machine of modern life persists. In The Waves, Bernard expresses, “ I am exhausted with the strain and the long, long time – twenty-five minutes, half an hour – that I held myself alone outside the machine” (The Waves, Virginia Woolf, 130). To Woolf, attempting to stay outside of the machine is hard work and draining, probably because everything about modern culture tries to squeeze us back into the cogs. Indeed, Woolf’s own mental breakdowns generally coincided with periods of intense writing when, through her craft, she intently reached for the beyondness of things and tried to capture “being,” to transcend the daily musts and the monotony to get at something more profound beneath, within or above. She was exceptionally good at it, but for her, it came with a price.

In my previous post, I mentioned the stress and rage that readily comes from living fast-paced and complicated lives. In his book In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré writes about the dangers of a hurried lifestyle, including the unhealthiness of overworking. “Overwork is a health hazard in other ways too. It leaves less time and energy for exercise, and makes us more likely to drink too much alcohol or reach for convenience foods” (7). Honoré asserts that it’s no coincidence that many of the fastest countries are also those struggling with an obesity problem. I would add that it’s probably no coincidence that many of the most hurried cultures are also cultures fraying at the seams from the impact of addictions of many kinds: alcohol, opioid, and countless others. Our lives in the machine feel out of our own control. If it’s true that the happiest, most contented people feel a strong internal locus of control, then it’s no wonder addictions abound in America. So many of us feel out of control. We suspect on a visceral level that the machine is in charge, and we are simply the human power sustaining it. And so we reach for something to give us a sense that we can control our levels of joy and manage our ability to relax. We search for whatever will help us survive being working parts of an apparatus we’re not sure we even want to be a part of and don’t fully understand.

Many of us also live with an aching sense of aloneness and emptiness. Honoré explains why this happens. “Inevitably, a life of hurry can become superficial. When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people” (9). Johann Hari’s 2015 TED Talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” is still widely discussed, and with good reason. His startling and compelling conclusion is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. For a thought-provoking article on the subject, check out Dr. Robert Weiss’s accessible Psychology Today article (2015) by the title, “The Opposite of Addiction is Connection.” If we want to rescue our culture from addictions of all kinds, we have to start with facilitating authentic, nourishing connections. This kind of connecting takes time. Overwork makes it hard to form connections that really minister to our deeper selves. Too often we end up with surface-level acquaintances and inauthentic social media “friendships” that do little to ameliorate our loneliness.

Adding to this soul-level starvation for real sustenance, is the way that frenetic lives leave us feeling unmoored and uneasy. Honoré addresses this by noting, “As Milan Kundera wrote in his 1996 novella Slowness, ‘When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself” (9). It’s almost as if Honoré and Woolf are in conversation with each other, when Honoré’s statement is paired with Woolf’s comment, “Is human life this? Is human life that? One never had time to think about it” (To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 89). Who has time to think about the greater questions of life when we are so caught in the manic machine? We are left soul-weary and bereft, and we haven’t the time to sort out anything different for ourselves. We don’t know how to avoid the relentless rhythm of the gears. We are disillusioned, our spirits are withering from lack of care and nurture, but we’ve hardly the time to choose to live otherwise. Perhaps this is why statements such as “It is what it is” are so de rigueur. We know there must be a more beautiful and gentle way, but we certainly haven’t the hours or the resources to seek it out. Acceptance seems to be the only option, and certainly acceptance can help us diffuse some of the bitter unhappiness and has helped many people escape addiction. (Recall the Twelve Step program’s application of the serenity prayer: “God, grant the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”). But there are ways to infuse even the busiest lives with meaningful connection and spiritual food.

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Our desperate need to nurture our souls make artist and author, Julia Cameron’s concept of “artist dates” a potentially life-changing idea. Cameron insists on two indispensable practices if one wants to access greater creativity. One is the writing of “morning pages,” and the other is the regular scheduling of “artist dates.” Let’s focus on the concept of the “artist date.” In her hugely influential book, The Artist’s Way, Cameron describes an artist date as, “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers” (18). She gives examples such as, “A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone, a visit to an aquarium or an art gallery – these cost time, not money. Remember, it is the time commitment that is sacred” (19). Cameron also insists that we conduct these artist dates alone. You might be thinking, “But I’m not an artist. I am less concerned with cultivating creativity and more concerned with surviving.” My suggestion is that these “play dates” with yourself, these sacred times set aside for doing things that inspire and feed your spirit or stir up your creativity or bring deep joy, are necessary for all of us, whether we see ourselves as artists or not. This is about survival. This is soul food, and too many of us are currently suffering a deficit that is leaving us disenchanted, lost and unhealthy. It might manifest as depression or rage or addiction, but spiritual starvation will manifest. Making an artist date requires slowing down long enough to plan one and to make it a reality, but you will never regret that you prioritized this time. It might help you to think of artist dates as time spent in pursuit of “healthy highs.” What gives you a “healthy high?” Time spent in nature works this way for many of us. Following healthy highs leads the way out of the machine.

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The machine will grind us up and spit us out, a husk of ourselves if we do not push back with intentional self-nurture, spiritual development, and soulful explorations and pursuit of creativity. One of the things I love about creativity is the way it subverts the machine. It says, “I’m not going to just see this in the automatic, conventional, mechanical and efficient way. I’m going to put a twist on it. I’m going to show a little artistry. I’m going to take the bare-bones reality you offer me, and I’m going to infuse it with color and spirit and unconventionality.” It is so life-affirming. We need to perpetually pursue creativity, connectedness, spirituality, and nurturing habits.

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This is also why making time for prayer and meditation is so essential. It’s not for no reason that the wave of mindfulness practices taking hold in recent decades coincide with our descent into superficial social media mania and greater disconnectedness from each other. Those practicing meditation, mindfulness, and centering prayer recognize the need to slow down, to focus on our breath, and to tap into spiritual depths as an antidote to shallow breathing and shallow living. These practices also offer us time outside the machine.

In what ways does the machine have you most thoroughly caught in its mechanisms? How can you begin to address those areas of disconnectedness, dissatisfaction, and emptiness? Can you plan an artist date for yourself in the next two weeks? Guard it against all interruptions. What are some natural highs you can make time for this week? Is there a spiritual practice you’ve been meaning to try out or to prioritize?

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