Mindless Scrolling and the Monastic Life
Discontent? Unsettled? Restless? Fidgety?
All of these possible feelings cause a longing in my soul that cannot be filled. Or should I say, cannot be filled well. I am very adept at filling them temporarily-like a patch that falls right back off. Simply by reaching for my phone and beginning the mindless scroll-I momentarily block these feelings. Maybe I get lost in Instagram, or the days news feed, perhaps it's Pinterest, or even a search for my next beloved book. Regardless of the possible "value" (a new book, learning the news-I argue have actual value), this scrolling is mindless. It's not really much different than eating when you are not hungry. One link leads to another, leads to another, and before I know it a chunk of time has gone by. During the blur of time my restlessness seems soothed, because I am not thinking about it, but the minute I pry myself away, the feeling is compounded-and I even add a dose of guilt to top it off. When I think about it, this unsettled feeling is familiar-it reminds me of the morning that I woke up on the second day of my first silent retreat. I had no phone, no computer, no tasks, no agenda and the restlessness was overwhelming. My mind was frantically reaching for something to do-something to avoid resting with itself. My go, go, go, constantly connected, never silent lifestyle had wired my brain to prevent its being still. John O'Donohue, a Catholic scholar says that this phenomena is, "at its root, a fear of nothingness. It panics in the face of the creative and generous uncertainty at the heart of life." Because of the cultural connectedness, I fear nothingness. Silence leaves open the space for thoughts and ideas. Silence is slow, maybe even boring sometimes. I recognize that my restless scrolling most often happens when I am tired, maybe late afternoon or evening. My exhaustion causes what is actually a longing. Our busy, bigger, better, comparison culture has conditioned me to believe I am longing for more-more images, more information, more clothes, even more books (really, is that so bad!!??). The problem is that this search, and its occasional related purchases are not actually soothing me. The opposite is happening-all of the scrolling, all of the accumulated stuff is actually making me less content-even less able to enjoy the moments, the people, the things I do have. The great irony of my life right now is that I find myself on one hand wrestling with this fidgity longing for more, and on the other hand being drawn to learning about and immersing myself in the monastic tradition. Through my studies this year I have learned the word asceticism. Merriam-Webster defines ascetic as, "practicing self denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline." This tradition is typically associated with those living in the monastic life, starting with the desert fathers and mothers who, "sold their possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ (Matthew 19:21)," moved to the desert to live in solitude (270 AD). While I have not, and do not intend to move to the desert, I do find peace when spending time at the nearby Dominican Center. The silence, the beauty, the simplicity slip on like my favorite sweater when I arrive. Ironically, the initial restlessness I felt at the first silent retreat does not often return. When I am there, I read a little, write a little, walk, sit, and pray. I do not scroll, I do not plan, I do not make lists. This makes me wonder about infusing a little asceticism into my scrolling, consumerist life. I've made baby steps-no more email, calendar or twitter on my phone, a striving to only buy secondhand or ethically sourced clothing, but honestly-I am still scrolling, still longing for more. What if the only way to soothe this longing for more is with less? What would a partly acetic wife and mom of three living in a house, in a town, with a job look like? I look to synonyms-words like avoidance, fasting, self control seem possible. John O'Donahue gives even more insight, "The ascetical approach is selective and subtracts from the feast of what is offered in order to enjoy, explore, and celebrate." Yes. Yes. Yes. If I were to attend an enormous banquet-with tables full of food-I would be selective, making myself a plate that is just the right size. If I was being aware, I might even make it a little smaller, knowing that if I stuff myself I will only feel awful. Our busy, consumerist, "more" culture is a feast of offerings and it is my desire to be selective and subtract from it. Less. Less for me needs to start with my phone. I simply cannot mindlessly scroll when I'm tired-which is often when I have time to do it. Instead I should practice the rest and care that my late afternoon/evening body actually craves. A glass of water (maybe followed by a small glass of wine), a small energy packed snack, a good book, 20 minutes of silence, a walk in nature, a sunset at the beach. I already know that I will arise from these activities more present, more calm, more energized. I will be so much more able to enjoy the beauty around me. Ready to truly live in to my word for 2018-celebrate. Again, in the wise words of John O'Donahue, "The desire to celebrate is the longing to enter more deeply into the mystery of actuality. Longing is no longer directed away towards an anticipated future (or anticipated "more," insert mine). Now, the present moment has blossomed. You really want what you have. You know the blessings and gifts that are around you. Celebration is an attentive and gracious joy of presence."
This piece was written over the winter, and led to an increased focus on presence, on celebrating the beauty of the ordinary, the now. We are on day 4 of my #14daysofastonishment on Instagram today. I encourage you to join us on this journey of noticing the astonishing gifts scattered about your ordinary day. Join us in this celebration.