“The Mind is it’s own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, or Hell of Heaven” John Milton, Paradise Lost
For some time I have felt an ambiguous restlessness and dissatisfaction following me around like a cloud, while the sun is shining on everything else. Try as I may, I cannot locate the source. I am not facing any personal challenges. No crisis has erupted suddenly. Wife and kids are fine, thank you.
So, what gives?
I have learned, but forgotten, that the quality of my life is determined by the many very small choices I make each day, all day. These choices all come down to what I give my attention to. That is where my life is, and that will determine where it ends.
When I am unsettled, or disturbed, and cannot for the life of me figure out why, I simply look at what I have been doing for the last fourteen days—precisely. What have I been reading? What or who have I been listening to? What have I been thinking about? Who if anyone have I helped? How much exercise am I getting? How much sleep? Do I start my day in thoughtful, mindful meditation and prayer? What and how much have been eating and drinking.
The psychologist William James said “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items I notice shape my mind.”
Even more to the point. poet William Blake said “We become what we behold”.
This feeling of being unsettled and off-kilter has prompted me to do a little inventory of my recent choices. This inventory revealed that I have given too much of myself and my attention to digital media— including TV, the internet, and especially social media.
The ease of access to information through digital media, along with the opportunity to comment, post, and receive immediate feedback, has unknowingly created a physiological response in me very close to the endorphin rush that over time can lead to addiction. Pleasure from gaining access and receiving immediate feedback over and over, create a sort of neural pathway that drives me back to it again and again. Like a frog in a pot of water on low heat, I was slowly becoming cooked in the milieu of the digital age. The information highway has become an information vortex, sucking me in, while sucking out my serenity.
If one loses the power of choice over this habit and becomes addicted, this pleasure feeling is chased until consequences create a level of pain and suffering that compels the addict to finally let go.
I think I am close.
When I ask myself what I have lost by flitting my time and attention from one bit of information and discussion to another on the web or in front of the TV, the list is long: Conversations with friends and loved ones, reading great books, poetry, essays, articles, prayer and meditation, getting outside, projects getting done, writing, spiritual connection with my God, and on and on.
How has time on the internet benefited me? To be fair, I have picked up information, here and there. I see the division and the intolerance that is displayed in comment trains. I know who is pissed off at who for what.
Yet, in closer look, there is not a direct correlation between gaining information and growing in wisdom. T.S. Elliot wrote “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.” I can have the same experience as the person next to me, but which of us will have the context to bring meaning to it? I need to fold my experience into the wisdom experience of the ages. I am not finding it on social media.
Today, adults are being diagnosed as having “onset of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder”. Most educators know they must allow for children’s attention span, but today, even the adult will not or cannot stay with a thought or activity or essay or article or anything that will take more than five minutes to read.
Deep, sustained attention is a rapidly receding attribute, while speed reading courses show us how to scan for just the necessary information, rather than carefully read for subtext and context. We are missing the meaning. As Woody Allen said, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
The popularity of “TED” talks is indicative of our desire to get the essence in the shortest time and least effort as possible. Churches who can’t get their members in and out of Sunday services in an hour will lose members to the church down the street.
In our desire to learn stuff fast, and get stuff done, we now pride ourselves in our ability to “multitask”. Yet, science has proved that true multi-tasking is nothing more than a mental illusion. In my work in employee safety, this illusion can be deadly. Forget about distracted driving, what about distracted machine operators, distracted chemical operators, distracted confined space entry workers?
What we are really doing when we say we are “multitasking” is giving partial attention to a task. We switch back and forth between multiple tasks so rapidly it creates the illusion we are doing them all simultaneously with equal quality, when in fact we are doing none of them with focused care.
So, what do I need to do to get back on the beam, to restore serenity and enjoyment to my life?
I need to answer for myself ‘what am I paying attention to, and why’? Then, I need to go back to making deliberate choices in where I place my attention and my actions. Instead of gorging on the simple carbs of internet information and feedback, return to giving my attention to soul nourishing protein of thoughtful reflection, action, and contemplation—of lingering over wisdom,
“Developing the cognitive control that leads to a more contemplative life is the key to living as free men and women” says Rod Dryer, author of the best seller ‘The Benedict Option’.
I need to pay attention to where my thoughts are going:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Phil 4:8. (It is interesting to me that St. Paul saved this as his last exhortation to the Philippians. He must have viewed this as of preeminent importance.)
I am left unsatisfied with TV and internet information. I am going to choose to go for quality, not quantity.
An ancient spiritual practice that is coming to light with the movement towards contemplative spirituality is the practice of “Lectio Divina” or “Divine Reading”. It is a practice that is at the opposite end of our modern desire for instant information. It is reading for transformation rather than information.
In Lectio Divina you select a short passage that speaks to the soul, to the spirit, to the immaterial. It could be the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, or any writings of your favorite spiritual author or poet.
First you read a short passage, very slowly. After a time of reflection, thought, and quiet, you then read that passage again, going deeper within the words with each reading. I call it the “Five R’s of Lectio”.
- Read: First for literal meaning,
- Reflect: how does this matter to you today?
- Respond: How does this passage challenge you?
- Rest: Sit silently for some time
- Repeat: Read the same passage again, this time for deeper metaphorical and spiritual context.
I am choosing to trade in my time on the internet and TV for time in Lectio, or for time in the library looking for books and periodicals that speak wisdom. I will read essays rather than posts, articles rather than rants, and plays rather than snippets. I am trading it in for walking more, working in the yard, completing unfinished projects and starting new ones I am trading social media for listening to music, playing my piano and guitar, reading and writing poetry, and more prayer and meditation.
I am swapping out screen time for being more present to my wife, my children, my family, and my friends.
I am withdrawing from the information vortex.
I am committed to becoming myself again.
Anyone want to join me?