Sunday, February 17, 2008

How to deal with the postmodern predicament?

Of course, it’s news to no one that circumstances change constantly — certainly pundits and sages have purveyed this truth for ages. But at no time in history has change been as pervasive and relentless — or affected our lives so deeply — as during the past 10 or 15 years. Watching the evening news or reading a paper, we’re flooded with statistics and images of violence, famine, and disease; environmental depredation; and economic instability; all depicting a world that seems to be coming increasingly unstitched.

On a more personal level, you may have lost your job because of corporate downsizing, ended a relationship because your lover was shipped off to another state, been a victim of a violent crime, or lost a bundle in a volatile market. Perhaps you spend your spare time figuring out how to stay one step ahead in a competitive work environment. Or you may simply lie awake each night worrying about when the tidal wave of change will finally reach you and sweep you away. Does any of this sound familiar?

Sociologists call this period the postmodern era, when constant change is becoming a way of life and time-honored values and truths are being rapidly dismantled. How do you navigate your way through life when you no longer know what’s true and you’re not even sure how to find out? Do you search for it on the Web or somehow glean it from the latest pronouncements of media soothsayers and corporate CEOs?

Despite the unarguable advantages of all the electronic gadgets that have become indispensable since the 1980s, you may have noticed that the faster you communicate, the less you really connect with others in a rich and meaningful way. A cartoon reprinted in Newsweek sums it up well: Entitled “A ’90s Vacation,” it shows a family on a beach, each person using his or her own personal electronic device: Mom’s on the phone, Dad’s on the Internet, one child is picking up a fax, another is responding to his beeper, a third is checking her voicemail — and they’re all oblivious to one another!

Such relentless change exacts a steep emotional and spiritual price, which we tend to deny in our collective attempt to accentuate the positive and deny the negative. Here are a few of the negative side effects of life in the postmodern age:
  • Anxiety and stress: When the ground starts shifting beneath your feet, your first reaction as you attempt to regain your stability may be anxiety or fear. This gut-level response has been programmed into our genes by millions of years of living on the edge. These days, unfortunately, the tremors never stop, and small fears accumulate and congeal into ongoing tension and stress. Your body may feel perpetually braced against the next onslaught of difficulties and responsibilities — which makes it virtually impossible to relax and enjoy life fully. By relaxing your body and reducing stress, meditation can provide a much-needed antidote.
  • Fragmentation: Most Americans once lived, shopped, worked, raised their kids, and spent their leisure time in the same community. They encountered the same faces every day, worked the same job for a lifetime, stayed married to the same person, and watched their children raise their own children just down the block. Now we often shuttle our kids off to school or daycare and commute long distances to work, while checking our messages on the cellphone. On the way home, we may stop by the mall, and we may spend our evenings surfing the Net. We change jobs and partners more frequently than ever, and when our children grow up, they often move to another state — or another country! Although we may not be able to stay the tide of fragmentation, we can use meditation to connect us with a deeper wholeness that external circumstances can’t disturb.
  • Alienation: When our lives appear to be made up of disconnected puzzle pieces that don’t fit together, no wonder we wind up feeling completely stressed out. Despite the statistics that herald prosperous times, many people work at marginal jobs that pay the bills but fail to connect them to a deeper sense of value or purpose. According to an article in American Demographics magazine, more people are flocking to small towns in an attempt to recapture a sense of community, and fewer and fewer are voting in each election, apparently because they believe that they have little power to change things. Never before, it seems, have human beings felt so alienated, not only from their work and their government, but also from others, themselves, and their own essential being — and most of us don’t have the skills or the know-how to reconnect! By bridging the chasm that separates us from ourselves, meditation can help to heal our alienation from others and the world at large.
  • Loneliness and isolation: With people moving from place to place more frequently and families fragmenting and scattering across the globe, you’re less and less likely to have regular contact with the people you know and love — and even if you do, you may be too busy to relate in a mutually fulfilling way. Recently, I heard a radio ad arguing that since family dinners are clearly a thing of the past, why not purchase Family Net — a separate cellphone for mom, dad, and the kids — so that the family can keep in touch! Again, you may not be able to stem the forces that keep us apart. But you can use meditation to turn every moment together into “quality time.”
  • Depression: When people feel lonely, alienated, stressed out, and disconnected from a deeper source of meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder that some end up feeling depressed. In a nation where Prozac is a household word, millions of people take mood-altering chemicals each day to keep from feeling the pain of postmodern life. Meditation can connect you with your own inner source of contentment and joy that naturally dispels the clouds of depression.
  • Stress-related illness: From tension headaches and acid indigestion to heart disease and cancer, the steady rise in stress-related illness reflects our collective inability to cope with the instability and fragmentation of our times — and fuels a billion-dollar healthcare industry that at times only masks the deeper problems of fear, stress, and disorientation. As numerous scientific studies have shown, the regular practice of meditation can actually reverse the onslaught of many stress-related ailments.

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