Welcome to our first “On Further Reflection with Norm Allen”. We plan for this to be a monthly podcast/journal to provide longer reflections on lessons we have learned over our years of the practice of Spiritual Friendship. I will draw on the freedom I have been given to listen in on the life journeys of hundreds of men and women over the years – they have been my real teachers.
Rest, Silence and Stillness
Many years ago, in my early studies of contemplative prayer, I listened several times to a series of cassette tapes by Henry Nouwen (many of you may never have even seen a cassette tape). Nouwen explored the development of contemporary prayer among the desert fathers centuries ago.
Nouwen spoke of life as a shipwreck – quite a metaphor. As we are going about our daily lives it often feels like things are falling apart, that we are in the middle of a shipwreck. His idea was that we regularly need to disentangle from the shipwreck, find the shore and take a breath. While we are coping with the challenges of life and trying to help others, the healthiest thing we can do is sit back and get some rest and perspective. Then we can reengage the shipwreck in ways that are helpful and healthful and hopeful. We are not saying that life’s a complete mess or without hope. But life can be overwhelming and regularly disengaging from the things that entangle us allows us to serve with love and hope.
I want to offer some encouragement toward the subject of rest, silence and stillness as a response to one of the pervasive entanglements in our daily experience – our electronic devices and the social media platforms that drive them. And our need to disconnect on occasion to find rest, silence and inner stillness.
Most mornings my ritual includes making coffee and going to our driveway and bringing in the newspaper. It’s been a ritual in my life since I was a kid. I’m a newshound, a political junkie- I love the news. But that very act of bringing the newspaper into the house is part of the challenge that we face in our culture today. Our weekly Orangeville Banner newspaper is a perfect example of it – a small bit of news and packed with stacks of advertising flyers (that usually go directly to recycling).
Tim Wu in his book The Attention Merchants talks about the technology progression that we have experienced over the last century. At one time advertisers used posters on the streets and we would see them as we walked around our cities. In the early 1900’s the first advertising supported newspaper was developed. The paper was made available to people because advertisers paid for the content.
Later there was radio. News and entertainment were created so that advertisers could get the attention of people sitting around their radios listening to the news, comedy or drama. The programming was designed to get attention in order to sell a product. Advertising had moved from the streets, to the armchair where you read your paper on your own, to the living room where the whole family gathered around the radio.
Over time the greater sophistication and prevalence of the media has invited the presence of the “Attention Merchants” to the screens of our computers and now to our smartphones right in our pocket or purse. But never far from our attention.
They have become extensions of us. Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media and the Extensions of Man was written in the 1960’s but he had this sense that we were developing, and much faster than he would have predicted, products that now are actually extensions of us. The microphone through which I am speaking is an extension of me and the phone on which you are receiving this is an extension of you. This has a lot of advantages, but it also has significant dangers.
It is clear, that as we listen to people who understand the “free” media, that they are designed to create a profit. Whether it is the producer of the phone or the producer of the social media, whether it be Facebook, or Google or Snapchat, Instagram – whatever the tools are, they ultimately have a commercial application. The evidence is there that our captured attention and our responses to that capture ultimately have turned us into a product that is for sale to the advertisers, to the “Attention Merchants”.
We are only beginning to understand just how addictive these platforms and devices have become. They are designed to modify our behaviour, collect our data, shape our responses and even our emotions, all to feed the needs of the advertisers to whom we are being sold.
I only go on Facebook on my birthday. This past year I went on to acknowledge the kind and sometimes sardonic congratulations of making it to my 71st year. In response I posted a funny birthday card that my grandson had given me to create a bit of a laugh. I realized the next day that I really wanted to know the reaction of the Facebook constituency that occasionally pays attention to me. So, I looked to see what kind of response I got and how many people liked it. There was a craving to know if I was “liked”. I had a fear of missing out if I didn’t go back and check. And that’s a key ingredient that these devices and platforms are using to engage us. One of the things that happens is that they provide us with rewards, some of them from themselves, some of them from the responses of our audiences. But the issue that becomes almost conniving is that they are able to provide rewards that are unpredictable which is even more addictive than the reward that is regular. Knowing the dangers is a first step. Managing our responses is more important.
This is very different from reading an hard copy of a book, newspaper or magazine. We may peruse the ads while we read the articles, but we are controlling where our eyes go. Neither the advertiser nor publisher are tracking our eyes to see what we are reading. They can’t analyse our interest instantly and start driving more content or advertising our way based on algorithms at work behind the screen.
There is another concern identified by some warning voices. The social media platforms have become terrific for communication, for gaining knowledge, for access to information and for giving voice to people who may not have a voice. It all seems to be free in reality but it is all managed and provided by the advertisers - the “Attention merchants”. The sinister thing is that negatives generate traffic most easily. Hence the negative voices, the conspiracy theory voices, the cranks, the paranoids get amplified on social media simply because they are free and easy to generate.
On the other hand, our devices and these platforms have many positive attributes. The irony that I am using these very resources to communicate their danger does not escape my attention. And yet the reality is that we are so easily distracted, we are so easily tied into negative and angry emotions that we get caught up in a divisive culture. It’s very hard to sort through that which is useful, that which is constructive, that which might even be true and yet at the same time benefit from the goodness of what we do.
We now live in an age when the distractions come at a pace that we can’t process and often don’t recognize. Employers are concerned that every time someone is distracted by an email or social media message it takes them 25 minutes to return to focus on their primary task. Indications are that we view our phones 150 times a day. If we multiply that by the 25 minutes it takes to return to focus, we need more than 60 hours in the day – and that’s just to return to focus, not actually do anything. Something has to give- and it could very well be our spiritual and mental health.
This also affects our relationships. Because of our focus on our devices we are less engaged with those around us. It may be making us less able to concentrate on our day-to-day tasks but it is also making us less able to be engaged with those that we care for, with those that we love. It is hard to really listen to our spouses, our families, our children, colleagues when we are constantly responding to the buzz of a device. We are being distracted from that which matters most.
We hope this series of podcast and blogs will encourage us to find rest, quiet and stillness in moments where step back and reflect about the bigger picture. If we take moments to somehow connect with the infinite then we won’t be people who are merely distracted, and maybe angry and resentful - caught up in the madness of what is going on in our culture.
“Rest, Silence and Stillness” is the title of this reflection and I want to take my final few minutes to offer suggestions of how we may find those three things in the midst of our busy culture.
I mentioned that I like to grab the newspaper with my morning coffee. That’s true but the more important commitment for me is sitting quietly, coffee at hand and reflecting on the day past and the upcoming commitments of the new day. Before I check email, I check my life and my relationship with God and those who are coming across my path.
Growing up in my Baptist tribe Sundays were also called “Sabbath”. A day for church, no sports or fun – except maybe playing catch in the back yard with my brother. It spoiled the word Sabbath for me, but it has gained increasing importance for me as I discovered its richness.
Setting aside time outside our normal round of activity is a form of "Sabbath". It is about being involved in something that is the opposite of work (both professional and recreational). Sabbath is a gift from God for his people. Jesus said it is made for us and for our benefit. Sabbath is not another obligation to serve; it is for us from our loving Father.
We spend our lives in managing, controlling and co-creating the space of this world which God declared “good”. We now take “time” different from our work which God declared “holy”. Disconnecting from work is almost impossible when we are tethered to our devices but it is important.
God created us to benefit from these moments of quiet and non-work. “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.” (Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis)
Resting for a time from work is not a selfish indulgence it is a liberating gift. God wants us to put ourselves in a place where he alone would renew us. These moments are not about self-focus. The purpose is to disengage from what has been called the "chattering monkey" in our brain and in the silence let the Spirit of God lead us to Jesus for no other reason than being together with God.
Creating silence allows us to disengage not only from the "chattering monkey" in our brains but those in our hands, our eyes and our consciousness.
Removing the bombardment of our senses which we experience on a daily basis in order to do just one thing for an extended period will stretch us. I remember sending a group away for 45 minutes of silent reflection and got this reaction. “I can’t remember the last time I did one thing for 45 minutes”. Doing one disconnecting thing for even 15 minutes is a challenge in our distracting world.
We are releasing control of our thoughts and minds to the Spirit’s guidance as we reflect on God, Scripture, creation and our lives. Most of us are activists by nature and we are invited to purposeful inactivity.
Initially this can be a frustrating experience – we tend to think linearly and are focused on outcomes and accomplishments. This is the opposite – it requires restful, passive listening in the silence. This is a different version of “the prayer of faith” – this prayer believes that God is present and speaking when there is no tangible material evidence.
Creating moments of silence, disconnected from the devices that engage us the rest of the time is hard work. Silence around us does not always mean we are experiencing inner stillness. That is a developed skill and comes over time as we patiently allow ourselves to rest in a quiet and comfortable space.
One of our good friends has a busy law practice. She has developed a simple practice of quiet meditation with a few simple steps. She has a favourite space to sit quietly. She prepares a tray with her tea, her favourite book of poetry, her journal and whatever gospel story is her focus that morning. She sits quietly, relaxing her breathing, sips her tea and in the silence opens herself to the Spirit.
You may do this differently. But the key is to prepare yourself to be quiet, open and as your body settles in, let the racing of your mind slow with the slowness of your body. Patience is necessary because distractions are inevitable.
Another good friend has senior responsibilities that demand long hours and intense engagement - like most of you. He wanted to move from doing spiritual practices that only engaged his mind to those that would engage his spirit – his inner being.
Over the past two years I have had the privilege of journeying with him in this experiential prayer. He would say that over the time it has been transforming in subtle ways that has enriched his ability to listen to God, listen to his loved ones and engage with his colleagues as fully human beings – not just means to an end.
That’s my prayer for all of us as we exercise our responsibilities in all areas of life. That as we listen deeply to the moves of the spirit in our own lives we will be more conscious of the needs and aspirations of those around us.
So create moments of disconnection from the devices that are relentless in their demand for attention. Replace the fear of missing out on something which drives our engagement with our devices with a desire to not miss out on our relationship with the God who loves.
Over the next few months in these “On Further Reflections”, I will explore conversations that Jesus had with people like us to help us better understand how we can have conversations with him, his Father and the Spirit.
Let me leave you with this benediction to take with you as you go about exercising your responsibilities in work, family, community and the world.
May Jesus who walked on wounded feet
Walk with us to the end of our road.
May Jesus who served with wounded hands
Teach us to serve others.
May Jesus who loved with a wounded heart
Be our love forever.
May we see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet and
May every one we meet see the face of Jesus in us.
And God will bless us
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen