Bleaching the Soul

I’ve been extremely busy lately. It’s been the kind of busy-ness that bleaches the soul of joy and spontaneity. It just feels wrong. And such feelings should be listened to, like a wise old man. Like Terrence McKenna, perhaps (in the video, below).

Yesterday afternoon I finished an exam invigilation for my university. I welcomed the students into the room with a hard, black metal detector, waving it about like a policeman’s baton. Lee, a fellow teacher shared responsibilities with me. We stood for two hours in silence while 15 students sat strapped to desks, scribbling upon bleached paper. Each separate. Each silent. The room clock went tick tock. Tick tock. It just damn well kept going tick tock.

During the exam three university supervisors entered the room, each masked, scribbling on their own paper, when they deemed it necessary. We didn’t know why. It was a secret. They stayed but a few moments, then left. Without speaking.

At no stage was there any eye contact amongst any of us in that hallowed room.

After the exam and the students had left the room, I bantered with Lee, who was from Hong Kong. He told me that the previous day a student had been caught cheating. He had arranged for another student to sit his exam for him. It seemed the fake student had jumped the fence of the university to make his way to the sacred space of examination.

The teachers who were assigned the invigilation duty didn’t spot the imposter. He was identified by one of the university supervisory staff.

For a moment I felt pity for the two students. They would be expelled, their lives irrevocably damaged. And the teacher-invigilators who had not spotted the infidel in their midst? Well, there would no doubt be some price to pay. Perhaps not quite excommunication, but their teaching record would likely take a hit.

My colleague laughed at the absurdity of it all. “The university has become so strict. What has any of this got to do with learning? It’s just about control.”

We collected the bleached paper and left.

On my way home I stopped in at a local Starbucks in the tech bay area, ten kilometres or so from the university. I had about forty of my own class assignments to mark that night, and no time to prepare dinner. I bought a coffee and a sandwich. Silent and alone, I sat at my little table, scribbling furiously.

After about half an hour a small, strange person came to sit at the table beside mine. He was young, but there was an air of aged weariness about him. He wore a black mask, a black t-shirt and black shorts. The unusually dark skin on his arms and legs was heavily tattooed. In black. He leaned over to me and said “Hello, how are you?” He was speaking English.

“I’m good, I mumbled, barely looking at him. I was busy, and my experience in China of tattood people who start up conversations in Starbucks wasn’t good. But he persisted. He asked me my name. I told him, and he said his name was Steven. He went on with the usual small talk you get from some strangers in China… Well, that was what you used to get. In recent years China’s fascination with foreigners has evaporated, replaced by a greater fascination with small screens. We laowai can’t compete.

I kept scribbling. But after a little while I felt uncomfortable with my own aloofness, so I put my papers down and looked up to talk to Steven. Rather abruptly, he got up and sat at the opposite seat at my table. He asked me how old I was. I said 56. He then told me that he was 27 years old, was married and had a 6 year old daughter. And that he was a computer programmer. I was surprised, as he looked more like a farm hand or delivery guy than a techie. But this was the tech bay area, after all.

I think I mentioned that Steven was strange. “What advice would you give someone my age?” he suddenly asked, his voice dropping. “I feel lost.” His eyes were heavy, not quite present. I could feel his sorrow.

I wasn’t sure what to say. So I said something about finding out what you really want. Then staying focused. And I told him not to spend too much time staring at screens. It wasn’t good for the soul, I said. Make time each day to get outside and be with nature. I could sense his disconnectedness, and felt that would help. Finally, I said China was rich in spiritual and mindfulness traditions, and that he might like to explore one of those.

Steven nodded his head. But I knew he just wanted to talk to someone, and to be heard. This tattood techie wished to speak of deep things. Of being lost.

After a while I rose to leave. We shook hands and I went home.

Terrence McKenna knew about the things we’ve lost. And he knew something about finding our way back. He understood the importance of beauty. He puts it a bit differently than I do, but he understood that beauty is a key to living life via the authentic self, and to creating deep futures. We have to make a place for the imaginable realm, McKenna said. For the spirit.

We must not let let the world of business and busyness steal that realm from us. The trivial is not worth your time, much less your life.

Our time spent online is increasingly being eaten by forces that care naught for our authentic selves. The web is mostly a world of projection and drama, where hyperbole, fear and catastrophic narratives are pumped into us, such that our consciousness can be fed into their machines. Much of the internet is the imaginal gone wrong. The more we bury ourselves in that, the more lost, angry and alienated we become; because we have unwittingly betrayed our authentic selves. Because we have betrayed our own spirit.

Learning to listen to the heart may take a lifetime. Even longer. Or just a moment.

As Terrence McKenna knew, we humans have always done virtual reality: in our words, in our stories and in our dreams. Today and tomorrow, as we build offline and online worlds, this will remain little different; though the stakes may be higher.


Marcus T Anthony’s latest book is Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Digitized World.

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