As I play with my young son, walk to the grocery store, or wait for a subway, I feel the presence of emails I haven't answered, Facebook invites I haven't responded to, tweets I haven't sent. They hang around me like friendly specters or nagging ghosts, depending on my mood. Checking email every three minutes can definitely impede "being present to the moment." A dramaturge friend of mine recently told me that he blames iPods and iPhones for the decline in good dramatic dialogue. No one ever listens in to other people's conversations anymore -- we are all plugged into our devices and miss out on the casual patterns of speech you might overhear on a bus, in a grocery store aisle, or just walking the street.
It is easy to feel like we must be the most distracted and least mindful generation of all time. And it is true that humans have never had the option to pay attention to so many sources of information at once. But multi-tasking isn't necessarily the enemy of mindfulness, any more than any other distraction or practice of human living.
In preparation for my dissertation, I've been reading a lot of sermons by Jonathan Edwards, a 17th century preacher in colonial North America. A third-generation Puritan in a colonial backwater, he and his congregants didn't have a lot of media distractions. They read newspapers and journals and even the occasional novel, but these might be months or even years out of date by the time they reached rural Massachusetts. And yet, reading his sermons, he is also concerned for what we might call the mindfulness or spiritual attention of his congregants. Instead of spending their few leisure hours in quiet contemplation, observation of nature, prayer, or meditation on scripture, his congregants prefer "frolicking in taverns" and "nightwalking." You can find similar frustrations in the sermons and writings of almost any great Christian preacher -- Augustine, John of Chrysostom, Dorothy Day. Being still before God, it would seem, does not come easy to any human at any time.
Clearly, learning quietness of heart will require putting down our iPhones and logging off of Facebook sometimes. The challenges we face as humans to rest in stillness, to be present to each moment, and to find God in the here and now are not new challenges. I am not prepared to say it is harder to turn off my iPhone than it would be to give up tavern frolicking to quiet the heart.
In fact, one difference I have from Edwards is that I probably think being present to the here and now means really being present to my friends in the tavern. Most of us who are frustrated by the distractions of new media would extol tavern frolicking as the height of spiritual connection if everyone would just leave their phones at home. It may also be that one day, not so long from now, sermons will be preached wishing people would just really pay attention to their tweets. Whatever new distractions are coming down the pipe, the discipline of spiritual practice will probably not be any easier -- or any harder. But it will certainly be just as necessary.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, where she also serves as the outgoing Director of Theological Initiatives. The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology.