According to a November 2021 survey by the market research company Rhyme and Reason, GenZs spend 7.2 hours a day watching videos. That’s about half of all their waking hours in a day watching Netflix, Instagram reels, and TikTok. My own generation, GenX, averages just about an hour shy of this at 6.3 hours a day. Fast forward to today in November 2023, GenZ has cranked it up to 9 hours a day. Soon there will not be enough waking hours in a day. The companies that control the media we consume already know that. Reed Hastings, ceo of Netflix said in a 2017 article in The Guardian: “[W]hen you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. We’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.”
A very large pool of time, indeed.
This is not the direction society should be travelling. Already studies have shown correlations between screen time and issues as diverse as health, cognitive dissociation, body-image disorder, impulse control, learning disability, and even public discourse. And these are just the physical effects. We can only imagine what the psychic effects are. The individual and social repercussions of wasting time are more ominous than previously imagined.
How do we recover this time? How do we reclaim our humanity as agents who operate in the physical world, who enact meaningful change, who make connections, who privilege the heart over the eyes? The obvious answer is to cut down our screen time. And we should realise our agency; that we can reclaim our time. Regular readers will know what I will say next. You reclaim your time by reading, because the secret gift of reading is time. But I am calling to attention something of a higher order: contemplation.
The Quran repeatedly emphasises contemplation as a crucial function of the heart that interprets meaning within natural phenomena, the theatre of human history, and even our own lives. There is meaning everywhere, and as Muslims we reject the view that life is meaningless. We are meaning-making beings, or more accurately, meaning-discovering beings.
How do we recover this lost art of contemplation? I can do no better than Imam al-Ghazali who among many other things lists ten benefits of looking at the sky in The Book of Contemplation, Kitab al-Tafakkur, brilliantly translated by Muhammad Isa Waley.
Contemplation at the level of ibadah (worship) is not what I can speak about (I will leave that to Imam al-Ghazali), but at the level of personal practice, I can say that reading printed books and writing with pen and paper are crucial to building a more contemplative heart.
I emphasise the printed book and the pens and papers because their very physicality is important. As humans we need physical things in time and space to anchor us to the moment. As philosopher Byung-Chul Han explains in Non-things, the digital simulacra – ebooks and writing apps – can only store but cannot embody presence, memory, story, let alone meaning. Digitisation is the accumulation of ones and zeros, while human memory is a network of meaning and memory.
I have written before about annotating and marking in books. On the surface of the page, we can quite literally sequence, order, and interrogate ideas. We can physically interact with the book and its ideas. This is not so easy to do in an ebook. Similarly, writing in physical notebooks with a pen has a messiness to it, a certain work-in-progress-ness about it. This contrasts with the always-perfect typeface of the word processor on screen, and we are lulled into believing that our ideas are as beautiful and as fully formed (and fixed) the digital words we see. But when we write with a pen on a page, the ideas that flow from the nib are messy, dynamic, and alive with the imperfections that come with creative energy and possibility. Reading and writing on physical media can help underpin a contemplative life. And what we gain, in terms of improved mental health, sleep, introspection, insight, should tip the balance in the calculation for what we should spend our time on. Even when we find ourselves in interstitial time – the time between other things – we should resist the temptation to scroll on the phone. Reach for a book, or a pen to write instead. Or simply observe the world around you; be in that moment.
One of the best things I have done in recent weeks is to move my reading/writing table to face the window. The view triangulates my corner of the world: tops of trees, haze-pale sky, a segment of the East-West MRT track. It anchors me in time and space when I look up from my reading or writing so that I can contemplate, let the ideas breathe, even to daydream.
There are other reasons to recover the art of contemplation. In the wake of our post-truth media environment and the rise, at global scale, of multiple artificial superintelligences, contemplation will not just recover our lost time, but also our humanity. Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic said in her June 2023 essay ‘In Defence of Humanity’ that we should ‘in an age of anger, and snap reactions, and seemingly all-knowing AI, put more emphasis on contemplation as a way of being.’
In the early 2000s, I attended a seminar on contemplation by Professor Malik Badri, the author of Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study, at Masjid Abdul Aleem Siddique. Technically I was not a participant of the seminar, but rather I was there in my capacity as bookseller. I was seated at the back of the room with a table of books for sale. Nevertheless, I came to the seminar with a burning question. I wanted to know if Professor Malik Badri considered reading to be a form of contemplation. When I had the opportunity to ask him at the end of the seminar, he said yes, without hesitation. Afterwards, I wanted to ask a follow up question, whether he thinks writing could also be a contemplative practice. But I never met this pioneer of modern Islamic psychology again and he sadly passed away in 2021. Later in August that same year, I came upon Shaykh Hamza Yusuf's foreword to The Book of Contemplation and he wrote:
"Each one of us has our own individual mode of meditation. Each of us designed to reach the source of all knowledge — God."
I think I have my answer.