Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.

Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.

The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”

These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:

“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*

This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.

Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:

“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**

If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.

Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.

 

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*Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 58.

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

Why Smartphones Are Terrible for a Little Bit of Zoning Out

“I’m just going to zone out on my phone for a little bit.” I’ve said that many times, assuming that staring at my phone would somehow be restorative or relaxing. I hear it quote often from others as well.

When I felt tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, I typically needed to take a break for a bit of zoning out and restoration. In the past I may have turned to a book, a run, or to even a darkened room for a little bit of rest. Then I started turning to my smartphone.

It felt a bit like giving salt water to someone dying of thirst or dumping a bag of lollypops on a dinner plate.

I noticed this tendency to zone out on my phone the most while parenting. When my kids wore me down with complaining, arguing, or crying, I began to zone out on my phone or tablet to give myself a break.

This is a common solution among parents and many adults I know. Smartphones have really useful and fun apps, from games, to articles, to friends on social media. A bit of fun on social media may feel really great in a moment of exhaustion or distraction.

The problem with using a smartphone for distraction is that phones and apps are designed to be as irresistible as possible. When we’re tired and worn down, our willpower is especially vulnerable, making it hard to set limits on our time or to respond to troubling news in healthy ways.

If Facebook alone aims to hook us for 50 minutes every day, and if the engineers who designed autoplay on YouTube or the infinite scrolling on Twitter and Instagram can’t regulate their own usage, we should beware using these apps for aimless diversion when we are most worn down.

Considering that thousands of engineers and psychologists have teamed up to make these networks addicting and consuming, it is ideal to only use them with intention and limitation.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to ask why we believe that using our phones will actually be restorative or helpful in times of stress or exhaustion. Do they actually help? Perhaps certain apps can, but for the most part social media also exposes us to disturbing news stories, divisive reactions, and the latest controversies. A game may be fun, but is it allowing our minds to process the day and to unwind what may be bothering us?

Perhaps it will be more helpful to plant a garden, to start a craft project like woodworking or knitting,  to keep a writing or art journal, or to go for a walk or a run when we feel most worn down.

The more space we give our minds to process our days, the better prepared we’ll be for the highs and lows of each day. That will also help alleviate some of the swirling thoughts that make it challenging to pray.

If I turn to my phone for a distraction or an escape, I try to ask myself what I’m running from and whether there is a better way to restore my mind or spirit. In my experience, turning to my phone as an escape has often left me feeling more trapped than when I began.

 

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Social Media Puts Me in a Position to Lose, So Now What?

When I log on to social media, I feel like I’m destined to lose.

Not to brag, but I follow some really smart and interesting people. It’s tough to stop scrolling through their posts, often to my own detriment. There’s only so much you can learn while scrolling through social media.

The infinite scrolling feature on most social media sites ensures that I’ll literally never run out of something else to find, not to mention the promise of refreshing my feed for the latest posts.

Then there’s the matter of notifications, because who can resist a bit of affirmation? I can get a daily dose of likes and compliments if I play my cards right and avoid controversial topics.

Two unhealthy false versions of myself face off, as the lazy, distracted side of myself meets the side of myself that craves to be viewed in a positive light as an insightful writer.

I can’t afford to let either fabrication override my true self that is a mix of both and a whole bunch of other things. That’s why I’m so uncertain about what to do with social media these days.

I’ve studied the tricks that include red notification buttons since red gets the most engagement, auto-playing videos that make it as easy as possible to keep watching, a spinning update wheel that resembles a slot machine when refreshing a feed, and even a slight delay in revealing notifications in order to build suspense.

I know all of these tricks, and yet I feel sucked in by them. Knowing that the creators of the red notification button and the infinite scroll buttons can’t resist them either makes me feel better, but only drives home the point that with social media the average user is destined to lose to the engineers because the engineers are even beating themselves with their design.

I simply don’t know what to do with social media. It’s conventional wisdom in marketing and publishing circles that Facebook offers great engagement per post, but I’m not sure how present to be when I know that I am more likely to lose time, attention, and focus when using social media, let alone my concern for other social media users.

Perhaps the question is this: What do we hope to gain from social media? And then there’s a follow up question about whether it’s actually delivering those things.

Is social media promising us a certain level of connection and interaction and then pulling a bait and switch with extremely addicting features that make it difficult to stop and do something else more beneficial with our time?

If our goal is to deliver a lot of data and view a lot of ads, then social media is working just fine as it is, but I don’t think the goals of social media companies line up with the best interests of their users.

As of right now, I’m not sure how to use social media, but I sure about how to not use it. I’m using time limiting apps, blocking apps, and tracking apps in order to keep my usage under control even if I can’t make good choices in the heat of the moment.

If the makers of social media are devoting so much time and so many resources to capturing our attention and time, it’s time for us to use time and resources in order to guard our attention and time.

 

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I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash