The fourth week of our first themed edition,Your Tech Life, continues today with an essay. 

by Atreyee Gupta

I peek in through the jade filigreed portals to watch them prostrate themselves. Their shoulders graze the floor. I hesitate to intrude. Prayers rise like incense smoke towards the gold Buddhas along the altar. My mind aches to partake in the room’s timeless tranquility. Light has just broken outdoors, silhouetting the multi-inclined roof of the temple. Against the sleek skyscrapers the shrine’s squat blue ceramic gables almost disappear. Its sonorous bell, however, clanging to greet the dawn, captures the neighborhood’s attention. Once I pass through the iljumun, the first gate, I enter another world. No one here grips an electronic device; they do not furtively check email, or surreptitiously update their status. The cares of modernity are left with the shoes laid out on the steps.

Uncertainly, I kneel upon the prayer pillow and close my eyes. Instead of a cathedral’s strained silence, I listen to murmured chants cascading across the chamber. I allow their measured cadence to envelop me. I calm my breath, center my thoughts, attempt meditation. “What a fantastic soundtrack this would make,” my inner voice declares. I hush the impertinence.Did I get a reply from that editor?” my angst inquires. I swallow hard to concentrate. “Is it too soon to revamp my profile?” I refocus on my respiration. Notwithstanding, my senses veer towards desultory concerns. “Have I gotten any more views on that new pic I posted?….The deadline for my project is coming up….How do I get more followers?” The anxieties are relentless. The more forcibly I try to quiet them the louder they shout.

Restless, I wander around the courtyard. A gnarled pine tree dozes in its center. I regard the twisted branches with envy — in every fiber it is ever present. It has no need for instant gratification. I, on the other hand, struggle with being left out of the loop. I feel I’m lagging behind in the race. Everything seems yesterday’s news. The universe passes by in a whirl, me scrabbling at its edges. I worry about becoming obsolete. If fortune and opportunities favor the young, I fear I am regressing into my parents. I catch myself echoing their phrases, nostalgic about the “good old days” when moments marched at my speed.    

A monk rests on a bench near the pagoda. As worshippers pass him they bow. He takes no notice. Why can’t I emulate his stillness? Why must tension be my constant companion, sanity be a toe hold from the precipice? I approach the offering stand ready to wish for a postulant’s composure, when novices sweeping the monastery staircase distract me. Their movements are deliberate, their posture subdued. I cannot imagine modeling their attitude. My synapses fire at too rapid a pace. I crave too much stimulation.

I admire how the devotees here are able to separate themselves from quotidian affairs. Discarding societal woes, they immerse in the transfiguration of a purely contemplative life. I yearn to join them. So what should I petition for: more patience, duller perceptions, a miraculous incident? Unsure, I hover over the censer.

Gazing at the ascending vapor wisps, I consider the eternal truths to which I subscribe: compassion, courtesy, and our integral bond with nature. I believe these are everlasting matters of consequence, beyond the power of fads or headlines or gadgets. In the ceaseless clamor of superficialities they have influenced my inner growth.

I light a joss stick. In substitution of prayers, I send up my gratitude with the ringlets of haze. I realize I’ve created my own misery in the maelstrom of immediacy. I’ve succumbed to equating availability with relevance, likability for worth. In seeking serenity, I return to what abides. A desert wanderer discovering an oasis, I am reminded again of what is precious.

Locals scurry off to their hectic schedules. The awakened streets beckon to me. My phone buzzes with alerts. I linger, though, within the temple walls, keen to escape for a few more hours the press of social media, eager to enjoy my freedom from obligations.

The topography around this haven has changed; cultural revolutions have come and gone; digital diversions will fade too. I know what my petition would be now: that such sacred spaces survive and that I may retreat to them when necessary. A hermit’s isolation is impossible for me. But, I require pockets of absence from the common hubbub to regain my balance, to restore my core.