I Banished My Cell Phone and Laptop From the Coffee Shop and Something Wonderful Happened

A new coffee shop opened up in my neighborhood last week, and when I visited I made it a point to leave my cell phone and laptop in the car and bring along only the book I’ve been reading,  ‘Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.’

If you’re starved for a real conversation with interesting strangers, I recommend taking this book to a coffee shop and placing it face up on your table.  The book has much of the same magnetic power as a new puppy paraded through your local park.

People “get” that something is not quite right with the way we’re using our devices, and they are almost always happy to share their personal experiences and opinions.

Fortuitously, the woman next to me was also merely reading a book with an unusual enough title to pique the curiosity of the man who sat down next to her.  He immediately struck up a conversation with her.  After I ascertained that he was genuinely curious about the book and not just hitting on her (though perhaps it was both), I took the opportunity to join the conversation, which turned toward digital detachment at the sight of my own reading material.

This discussion roped in the counter staff, who observed how frustrated they can get with their customers’ device absorption.  More than inattention and rudeness, what they are most bothered by is their customers’ general air of “absent” defensiveness promoted by the “shield” of devices.

Before long, another woman sitting in the shop stowed her mobile phone and joined our conversation, which flourished for about fifteen more minutes before we all went our separate ways.  The conversation turned into an interesting discussion on how our neighborhood continues to change, and I ended up learning several new things about the area where I live.

So pleasing was the chat that we all exchanged contact information, and now I have three new friends who live close by.

This wouldn’t have been possible without digital detachment.  How many more opportunities do I miss daily because I’m absorbed in my digital media addictions?

This little incident made me remember a passage from Janwillem van de Wetering’s ‘A Glimpse of Nothingness,’ which I quote extensively for you below:

I thought of the short film I had seen in Japan, in a small cinema in an out-of-the-way part of Kyoto which I had found by accident.  

The movie shows a ramshackle house, in the slums of a large Japanese city. The owner is no longer interested and the house has been taken over by some shady characters from the underworld.  Two of its inhabitants are small time burglars, an old couple live in an attic, the husband is an invalid and the wife goes out begging.  The invalid repairs a few pots and pans but usually he lies in a corner, drunk, if possible.  There is an idiot who stutters and drools and an ageing whore who is running out of clients.

Suddenly a wandering monk appears in the midst of all of this misery.  He wears the Buddhist robe and owns a staff, a begging bowl and a bell.  The staff helps him to support his old body when he hikes through the mountains, the begging bowl provides his daily rice and with the bell he attracts attention.  He has a bald head and a kind old man’s face.

He is standing in the open door and asks permission to enter.  The people of the house are arguing, but they allow him to come in, they have plenty of a room and a wandering monk enjoys a certain respect, he may be an omen of good luck.  The old man finds himself a corner and sits down. He listens to the argument.  The room he is in is the living room, used by everybody, and they all claim that it is not their turn to sweep the floor that day.  As soon as the monk understands what the fight is about he gets up, takes a broom, and starts sweeping.  

From that moment, the mood of the house changes.  The inhabitants begin to help each other.  The burglars bring in an old blanket for the invalid.  The whore begins to watch her language.  The invalid says a kind word to the idiot and interferes when the burglars tease the helpless fellow.  The monk is very quiet, he only talks when he has to talk.  He greets politely, he wishes good morning and good night.  He helps.  When the old invalid dies the monk sits next to the sick man and holds his hand.  When the old woman wails, the monk comforts her.  When the idiot cannot find his flute, the monk finds it for him.  He never criticizes, he never praises.  When the burglars stop burglarizing and get jobs as laborers at a building site, the monk says nothing but he smiles when they invite him to dinner, paid for with honest money.  Even the whore changes her profession, she becomes a charwoman.  The film ends with a party.  The people of the house celebrate New Year with a feast.  After the meal there is music.  The only instrument is the idiot’s flute but everybody contributes.  The ex-burglars clap stones together, the charwoman taps a chopstick against a bottle. Everybody sings.  The song is very sensitive, delicate.  The monk strikes his handbell, the sounds of the bell begins to vibrate and the film ends, suddenly.  

You won’t find this passage online or completely available in google book search, so I took the time to type it out for you.  I have no idea whether this short film actually exists or is an invention of Van de Wetering’s.  It seems too good to be true.

And isn’t that the point of the entire parable?  It seems too good to be true that we can bend the moral arc of the universe toward sanity and harmony merely by picking up a broom and helping out unbidden.

It’s too good to be true, but it’s really the best we can hope for.

The scene in the coffee shop last week reminded me of this parable.  We weren’t doing anything special, just four random neighbors shooting the breeze over coffee before heading on our respective, anonymous ways for the morning.  And yet we all felt connected and invigorated by the experience.

My overall point here is that we too (by cultivating some digital detachment) can play the role of the understated-yet-powerful monk.  The next time you’re standing in line waiting for your coffee, make it a point to leave your phone stowed away. Take the “down” time to notice who and what is going on in the shop around you.   Give the man behind the counter your full attention.  When you receive your drink, you might just sit down and enjoy the first few sips … no phone … just observing a temple of caffeinated commerce in action.

Perhaps your “energy” will draw some interesting person or persons your way.  Perhaps you will attract a tedious boor, who you nevertheless might help  suffer a little less that day.  Perhaps nothing will happen.

Either way, the world of your devices and online connections will not suffer without you and it/they will be waiting for you when you decide to return your eyeballs to their insistent supervision and voracious demands.

I’ve found that applying digital detachment techniques in “low stakes” even “boring” situations like the coffee shop line is good practice for all the occasions where the stakes are much higher, whether I know it or not.

If I can turn off my device and practice some basic mindfulness when I’m driving or attending tedious work meetings … then perhaps I can bring more focus and less distraction to complex projects or parenting my child or being a good husband.

It’s true, my family now lightly rolls their eyes when I’m making a demonstrated effort to hide my  phone and be “mindful.” They’d prefer I just sweep the floors without making a big deal of the whole thing.  

Progress is halting and incremental.  But worth it.    

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