I attended a basketball game this winter at the University of Maryland, accompanied by an intern at my workplace, a man in his twenties. For much of the game, we chatted about everything from politics to how North Carolina is far superior to Duke in all the ways that really matter (on the court, of course). During the conversation, between glances at the game, my colleague maintained steady eye contact … with his smart phone.
Later, as I pondered the interaction, I realized I wasn’t insulted by his seeming lack of presence — maybe it’s a guy thing, but having an external focal point (often a sports event) is pretty much normal and not some new, digitally induced phenomena. We’ve all had the experience of being in a room where everyone is looking, not at each other, but at their respective cell phones — especially when that room is a public place, like a subway or a train station.
But in a very direct way, this eyes-to-the-text-message behavior is the exact opposite of the spiritual concept of being present to the moment, or mindfulness. Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, of course, popularized the concept in this country, especially with his books such as The Miracle of Mindfulness. But mindfulness, under different terms, has a deep, rich history in Christian tradition as well, especially in the teachings of mystics from Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. The basic concept, at the risk of being simplistic, is reflected in the understanding that God is present in the here and now and that if we want to be open to God’s presence, we must ourselves be attuned to the present moment. (I’ve always liked the quote from C.S. Lewis, which to me seems related: “The present is the point at which time touches eternity.”)
So what does it mean, spiritually, to be constantly engaged with the social media tool in one’s hand and thus in some ways only tangentially connected to the living, breathing social (and natural) network all around? To practice mindful spirituality means to watch one’s breath, to quiet oneself in order to be able to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit. Is that voice squelched by the twittering chatter of digital media?
Spiritual growth requires an intentional commitment — monastics and others seeking to deepen their spirituality recognize the need for spiritual disciplines, for regular practices of prayerful contemplation. The very phrase “spiritual discipline” seems almost anachronistic in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world. And yet, such ancient practices might be more important than ever, as antidote and balm to the clattering swirl of data that bombards us and as a touchstone and grounding point in a world that for many seems to lack mooring.
The need for constant connection can be alluring, seductive, and even addictive, and it certainly can be a challenge to spiritual rootedness — it’s harder to adhere to spiritual disciplines when Facebook calls. It’s significant to note, though, that the psalmist didn’t write, “Be connected to your network, and know that I am God.” Rather, we’re invited to “be still,” to be quiet, and to be mindful in order to be open to the presence of God. It’s pretty clear that there’s no app for that.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine and a research fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology.