The title for this blog comes from the recent book Hamlet’s Blackberry, by William Powers. Powers describes the way new technologies through the ages—including the invention of writing itself—caused shifts in the way people related to each other and to themselves. In one chapter, called “The Spa of the Mind: Seneca on Inner Space,” he describes how the Roman philosopher Seneca sought respite from the busyness of city life:
….the busy Roman was constantly navigating crowds—not just the physical ones that filled the streets and amphitheaters but the virtual crowd of the larger empire and the torrents of information it produced. Seneca spent most of his life at the throbbing center of it all. Though he flourished in the crowd, he also struggled with its demands and was acutely conscious that if he were not careful, it could take over his life.
Sound familiar? Though Powers is writing of a time centuries ago, it mirrors our current culture of “busyness,” of inundation. I am, I confess, addicted to the Internet—it’s become nearly a form of gluttony, especially at night: consuming email and Internet pages, every bit of stimulation leading me to crave another. I keep clicking and clicking long past my bedtime until my brain sizzles, and then I stumble to bed, try to read a book about how the digital age is changing our brains, but I fall asleep after a few minutes with the book thumping on my chest. So each night I have to pick it up and start over; I read the same two pages over and over for three nights running.
It didn’t used to be this way. I’ve always been a person attracted to quiet, meditative activities: attending 10-day silent meditation retreats as a young woman; living at a hot springs resort in northern California; practicing yoga diligently; becoming a writer who wrote in solitary environments for long stretches at a time. I read and read as a child, completely lost in one world at a time.
I want to somehow return to this state of calm focus, while acquiescing to the reality of my life, even embracing it. Here’s where Seneca comes in:
To fend off the crowd…it was essential to cultivate inner self-sufficiency, and Seneca returns to this notion over and over. Learn to be content within yourself, to trust your own instincts and ideas. Those who achieve this autonomy, he argues, are best able to enjoy and make the most of their outward lives. They thrive in the crowd because they’re not dependent on it.
One of the ways Seneca cultivated self-sufficiency was through the practice of letter writing. He wrote letters to his friend Lucilious everywhere, even in a room above a spa with “a babel of noise going on all about me.” As Powers puts it: “…the act of writing has helped him focus his thoughts. The letter is the object of the journey inward, and it works beautifully, taking him to his desired destination.”
This blog will be my letter to you, my friends. By using a medium of the connected, outer world, I hope to (paradoxically?) regain a sense of inner space and thoughtfulness. Welcome to the spa of the mind; take off your shoes, sip a cup of tea, and stay awhile.