Zen and the Art of Droning

Illustration of Gail Orenstein by Magda Kovačić for A Drone of Her Own©

Years ago I read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig an American author and philosopher. It had a profound impact on me. In fact the more I drone the more I think about Pirsing’s book.

Before you start reading this article if you are looking for a study of the practices of Zen or for that matter a drone maintenance guide you won’t find it here. I hope though you can take away some of the profound spiritual aspects droning have had on my life in the last 3 plus years. 

“Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.” Robert Persing

“Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.” Robert Persing

Situational Awareness

There has been a lot of talk about how the exposure to new tech is bad for our health, including real concern about the amount of screen time people are racking up on their mobile phones and gaming devices. We’ve come a long way from ‘if you don’t stop watching so much television your eyes will go square.’ Now there are so many options: tablets, phones, laptops, et al and scientists seem to be in agreement that excessive use of these devices can have negative effects that range from poor quality sleep to something called screen addiction that is said to lead to an actual decrease in grey matter. A person might even come to the conclusion that devices such as the iPhone and Android gadgets are the cigarettes of the 21st century in so far as being addictive items with long term negative consequences.

Then there is droning. No, not speaking in a low continuous hum as favoured by your first year mathematics professor, although the name does come from the sound the machine makes. I’m talking about flying drones, those unmanned aircraft or aerial vehicles commonly known as UAVs that have been in use for a variety of purposes for several years now. As a drone journalist, drones are an integral part of my life and when I am flying them I feel a deep sense of calm upon arrival to a new unexplored area. But also a burst of anxiety, which I argue can be good thing, as long as you keep the panic under control. I employ droning to combat much of the mindlessness of our digital culture and to combat much of my fear during times of war.

For me droning is akin to meditation and this is why I refer to it as Zen, or what I think I know of Zen. Drones connect me to my surroundings in a way that nothing else has. When I am remotely piloting a drone, I become acutely aware of my breathing, my heart rate and my thoughts; literally my ‘situational awareness”, a word UAV pilots are taught during training. In that sense it takes me to the point of enlightenment in the same way that meditation and self contemplation take Zen practitioners there.

It is the doing that is the essence of the activity and not just the end result. Yes, I want to get certain images or video because ultimately this is my livelihood but droning is beneficial to me in more ways than as a means of making a living. I genuinely believe that it is beneficial to my health and mental wellbeing. So much so that if I go too many days without droning, I begin to feel anxious almost in the way that persons addicted to a drug might react. For me however, droning is not like being addicted in the way that some people are addicted to video games and need to feel the thrill of competing or vanquishing an enemy. It makes me feel like a better person. If droning is an addiction it’s one that is good for my health, one that enhances who I am, one that helps me grow.

Droning is the ultimate lean forward technology. It looks ahead to the future and engages the mind of the user. It makes me focus and keeps me centred. It isn’t just about pushing a button and watching the UAV go while I sit around and binge eat. It is a craft that has to be developed to maximise the results and it also requires physical activity if it is to be done properly. Successful droning requires lots of walking and hiking to get to the right space to get the visual that really tells the story.

So is technology bad for you and I am just in denial or does the danger of overusing mobile phones not extend to the use of drones? I feel it is not possible to divide one type of technology from another. I recently got a brand new fancy iPhone XS. It has an excellent camera and enhances my ability to work as a drone journalist. I believe that all technology can be bad or good. It is just a tool and it is how we use it that makes it beneficial to us or detrimental.

Revelation and piloting

Many of the applications that are found on popular phones these days do not enhance our experience of reality. Instead, they take us away from the here and now into an imaginary social realm. A good example is Instagram. When eating out at a restaurant with friends, many people just post photos of their meals. Although they are sitting with other people they ignore them and spend the time attempting to impress social media followers, who are not present, with the quality of their evening out. That’s certainly not the App’s fault. It reflects on the mental state of the users. Eating at a restaurant with friends should be an opportunity to engage emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically with others but the person posting shots of their food is looking inward. It’s about look at me eating my meal rather than enjoying the moment with the others who are present or even being mindful of just how wonderful that meal is. I see this as a suffocating bubble of narcissism in which there is no authentic communication with others.

Droning does not encourage the pilot to look inward, to engage in navel-gazing, nor is it like playing a video game. There is no ‘zoning out’. Droning uses internet interfaces including GPS, mapping and firmware updates, all of which make the users more focused and aware of their surroundings and what is going on around them. The first rule of UAV theory class is to be mindful of your “situational awareness” when you drone or do not drone if you don’t have that critical awareness. Many Zen practices, including tea ceremonies (which involve a careful and detailed preparation and consumption of tea so that it becomes a meaningful experience that is shared by those involved), as well as archery, flower arranging, meditation and martial arts, lead to an increase in awareness on the part of those who participate. But these activities are not intrinsically meaningful. They don’t necessarily promote mindfulness every time they are performed. People can carry on a fight while making a cup of tea without paying any attention to what they are doing while they are flying or even the location of the fight.

 Zen trains the person carrying out the activity to do it in a way that is mindful. It is about learning to achieve a certain state through practice and discipline. Take meditation for example; you can’t ‘phone it in’; you have to go through the process of learning and mastering the art. It is the same with droning. To become a professional UAV pilot you have to attend school and learn the theory. You must earn hours of droning in flight school. You have to pass an exam. Just as with Zen activities, you learn to drone in a way that is mindful through practice and discipline.

The Drone itself uses advanced internet technology but to be a successful pilot you must think about where you are and what you’re looking at. You have to be observant. I might get anxious when I first test out a new drone but once we get used to each other and I become one with the device, all is revealed. A sense of calm descends on me and I become focused on the task and what the drone and I can make happen, we bond; how we can make the most of the moment, what revelations are behind that tree or castle wall. This is how I maximize my craft, through mindful exploration.

It is the same feeling as the one felt by people who use their smartphones to make films or computer programmers who create code on their laptops. This is why I am so saddened by the thought that UAV technology might progress to the point where drones are so so automated that they will become like all those selfie devices and all the artistry will be gone. I continue to hope that the human and emotion element is never a lost form the art of droning so that people like me who are drone pilots can continue to experience that connectivity to the here and now.

As of right now technology can still be meditative. Programmers can still experience peace and transcendence through writing computer code, as can graphic artists while creating artwork and writers while publishing online. The lesson is to find a way to keep the process thoughtful and creative. We must stay aware of what we are using the technology to do; to ensure that whatever we are creating remains a human endeavour rather than a series of clicks and posts to an internet that is really just a cyberspace fantasy.

    Written by Gail Orenstein and edited by Robert Hooker for A Drone of Her Own Blog©