Being contemplative in a digital world

by Kathleen Bryant


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Recently when I left for my annual eight-day retreat in the Arizona desert, I posted on Facebook my intention to do a digital detox and invited friends and family to consider "unhooking" for a period of time. That post got an amazing number of “likes” and comments. It raised questions for my Facebook friends. People pay hundreds of dollars for detox sessions for their physical health, how much more we need to do a digital detox for the wellbeing of our entire person! I find that in order to truly retreat I need to unhook. It takes about three days for me to slow down and get still. After a week I feel renewed and whole.

Living in a digital world has changed my prayer life. I now feel more connected globally, aware of what is going on in real time, anywhere, anytime. Through news alerts and in constant communication with community, family and friends, the reality of how we are all connected is immediate and concrete. I feel a solidarity and strong support from my social network on Facebook. TED video podcasts stretch my imagination and challenge my thinking, while Pray As You Go connects me to the scripture of the day through a podcast. Instead of sharing faith in a geographically local community, we have created a cyber community through Skype in which we pray, reflect and share together regularly with our sisters in Nigeria, Zambia, England and California. Technology gave us the resources to initiate this on our own, and it deepens the bond of union in real time.

I believe that if Jesus used our images today to describe the all-pervasive Kingdom of God he might say that the Kingdom of God is like free Wi-Fi. It is all around you but you can't see it! It makes connection possible; you have to log in once, and from then on it's accessible 24/7. The engagement with technology has expanded my imagination of how God is present everywhere and available, as well as how the complexity and diversity of life can invite us into an experience of communion through communication. I get so excited about the possibilities that living in a digital age offers us women religious, though I might be more wired than most because ministry has me on the move.

However, I noticed some changes in myself and my own contemplative practice about nine years ago. I noticed that even if I was very tired after a long day of ministry and could think of nothing more than jumping into bed, I had energy to check my email. Suddenly 30 minutes could pass in a flash. Puzzled as to what hold technology had on me, I began to reflect on how it is impacting our quality of presence to God and to each other. Listening to people I accompany in spiritual direction as well as observing my own changes, I hear a growing discomfort, after powering off devices, with being with the stillness, without engagement with focused thought, or productive purpose. I received a grant from the Louisville Institute to study these effects; my proposal was called "Being Contemplative in a Digital World." I read, studied, reflected, visited monasteries and listened to people about their engagement with technology while living contemplative lives.

I learned that our ability to reflect deeply and for extended periods of time is slowly being jeopardized by our constant attention to each incoming call, text, email. Many of us notice a "monkey brain" developing, as our thoughts jump from branch to branch. This development challenges our ability to stay present and aware of the present moment. At a dinner together in community or in families, you will see the quality of presence fragmented by incoming texts or even phone calls.

When I speak about the vulnerability of youth to human traffickers, I often remind parents of the power of their undivided quality presence to their children, a presence that nurtures in them a sense of how special and valued they are. Traffickers prey on those who lack that sense of self. In community life, you'll even see a woman religious texting or taking a call during a community dinner. There can be emergencies and times when we need to be "on call,” but I have even observed calls and texts being taken and exchanged in our sacred places for prayer. (I travel and visit a lot of communities, so please don't cast aspersions on my own congregation – although we are also subject to the same temptations!)

The studies on brain plasticity urge us to spend still time each day, in which we meditate without giving into frenetic thinking. Brain neurologists say that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The stillness that we cultivate in our contemplative lives strengthens neural pathways in our brains. We create a strong neural facility through daily discipline so that we can go to the center at any time to just be. Jesus' invitation for us to abide in him as he does in us sensitizes us to the movements of the Spirit. Cultivating that deep resting place in prayer is our calling and its daily practice strengthens brain circuitry as well as a facility in recognizing God's presence anytime, anywhere.

"I live in you and you live in me," echoes in both our still moments as well as active engagements. However, the repetitive attention to every single incoming text, call, and email also strengthens neural pathways. The immediacy of technology and accessibility can be a blessing or a curse. As we read in Deuteronomy, "I have set before you life and death. Choose life!" As women religious, our contemplative time of being is probably our most powerful revolutionary resource as well as the most effective grounding experience. We have always been called to be counter-cultural! Can we now, in this digital age, model times when we "unhook" and are totally still in contemplative presence? For those of us who are wired digitally for whatever reason, let us challenge ourselves to balance out our busy lives with regular digital detox or fasting. Perhaps it is your one hour of contemplative sitting in which you are totally free of phone, etc. and open to God or maybe it is the quality presence you give to another person in which you silence your phone. 

Just as the etiquette regarding technology is now part of our formation program, so it needs to be part of our community reflections and discussions. How can we use our digital devices and empower our sisters in order to further our union, our connectedness, and our sense of a universal consciousness? We are all one. We are all connected whether through technology or contemplative consciousness. As women we know it's a both/and or a win/win situation. However, we must, we have to be conscious, deliberate and focused in our use of this all-pervasive gift. Otherwise it will drive us and we will be digital robots responding to the next incoming message.

As Abha Dawesar said in a riveting TED talk, "The digital now is in competition with the present moment." I do not want to demonize the digital world. I embrace it and see it as part of the evolution of our consciousness. I prize my contemplative sitting and will not let any other gift, no matter how alluring, jeopardize my ability to be still, open, and aware over a sustained period of time. I also treasure my relationships and would like to continue nurturing a quality of presence to others that flows out of a contemplative practice. A favorite Rumi quote of mine explains my need to periodically unhook: "I have lived too long where I can be reached!"

I found through my grant study that in order to restore ourselves to balance in a digital world, we need some immersion in nature and beauty. A concert, a hike in the mountains, or a walk at the beach (all free of cell phones) are part of the restorative balance. When Chinese monks experienced a Zen sickness from overuse of their head and immobility in their lower bodies from sitting, they developed a form of exercise that restored balance. This was the emergence of Tai Chi. Previously, Zen sickness caused irritability, fatigue, impatience – would you recognize these symptoms when your computer or printer does not function or you keep losing your Internet connection? So we too need a form of gentle, meditative exercise to restore balance. Enhancing our daily contemplative practices with gentle exercise and some interaction with beauty, whether in nature or the arts, will grace us with the ability to live a balanced life enhanced by technology.

Our ability to simply sit, attentive to our breath, connected to all creation, wide open to God over a sustained period of time can transform the world, and I believe each attempt will strengthen the field of all those who want to reclaim their humanity in a digital world.

Link to video from Spiritual Directors International with me and Joann Kay Nesser discussing this issue:

[Kathleen Bryant is Religious Sister of Charity from Los Angeles, California. She has served as a teacher in California, Ireland and Africa, as the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 21 years, and as a trained spiritual director. Currently in leadership, she gives a variety of spiritual workshops, especially in the area of human trafficking.]