Over the last few weeks I’ve explored some aspects of online spirituality. This is the final round-up and the temptation is to state the obvious. Spirituality is about relationships and the Internet at its best supports relationships.
However, many people believe spirituality is about our relationships not so much with each other as with God.
We become aware of God’s presence when we pay attention, through our awareness of the world around us. This is prayer and meditation’s essence. As we pray, we become aware of what is happening and of how easily we distract ourselves, allowing our minds to override experience.
There is probably nothing more distracting than the Internet. Walk down any high street these days and you will encounter dozens of people whose attention is held by their mobile phone or some such device. We speak to friends, text them, play games, listen or even watch recordings as we walk the streets (or many people do!)
The problem is not the Internet as such but screens. This was first true of television. Screens draw the eyes and where eyes focus, so too does attention.
Spiritual traditions have been aware of this for hundreds of years and spiritual techniques such as prayer or meditation, centre on controlling the senses, especially vision, to allow space for attention to focus on the world and not on distractions.
The paradox is spiritual techniques focus on awareness of the material world. The problem is we often base our lives on how we think the world is, losing track of reality. Indeed this has become so common it is dofficult to believe there is a reality to focus upon!
Our brains filter everything we perceive. If our brains did not filter our perceptions, we would be overwhelmed but filtering means we do not always perceive everything around us.
We might call this passive filtering. We have not made any conscious decisions about what we filter, it is just what happens.
Active filtering is where we adopt a worldview and filter everything to fit it. Problems start when we equate our filtered world with reality. This is common among religious people who believe they have the truth and so see everything that way.
This is a stage in faith development and most traditions recognise the need to let go of these prejudices as faith develops. This progress from certainty to awareness is sometimes called formation. The idea is you experience it through your chosen tradition. As you go deeper into your chosen tradition, you find you are able to reach out to others with confidence because your faith is no longer threatened by reality.
The Internet provides us with a great deal of information but it does not give us the means to process it. The screen itself compels us to consume information and disables our ability to process it.
Like a lot of things, the power of the screen is not so great once we become aware of it.
There are things we can do to reduce the power of the screen. It is not simply “don’t watch it”, that would mean many of us would be unable to run our businesses or take part in modern society. But here are a few things you can try. Some are more religious than others but none are specific to any particular tradition:
- Spend time walking everyday (or any kind of exercise): Solvitur Ambulando. This allows time to process what we learn. By walking we pay attention not only to the natural world but also to our thinking.
- Spend time sitting in silence. This does not have to be a great deal of time. You will find paying attention to your own thoughts incredibly frustrating. It’s much harder than when you are walking. However it is worth doing because you become aware of the infernal racket in your own head.
- Some people find focusing on an icon helps. Most religious traditions have loads. If you’re not religious focus on something like a flower or a shell. Best not to use candle flames as they have a similar effect to screens.
- Speak a liturgy to help you focus. Loads of traditions prepare material for private devotions. One version is a mantra, a meaningful phrase repeated many times to focus the mind.
- Read books because sustained reading helps focus attention. Real books are best but e-reader screens are perhaps the least-worst screens.
- Enhance these by doing them with other people.
Screens can be tyrannical but they can be our friends if we use them properly. They are a portal into the Internet. Once we break the hold screens have on our minds, we can be more discerning about the content we view on them.
The aim is to be alert to the reality around us, using the Internet to inform and enhance our lives and work. How do you do this? How do you make sure you are not driven by the pressures of modern technology but use it to enhance life activity?