In a crazy, consumer culture that is busy bombarding us with demands and desires, how do we touch the peace that reigns in the cave of every heart?
Author: Mary Camille Thomas
Mary Camille Thomas is a native of Santa Cruz, California who considers herself lucky to have returned after living internationally and on the road. She is a librarian by profession, and her poetry has appeared in The Moving Force Journal, Porter Gulch Review, and Sisters Singing. She is currently working on a novel called What Lies Buried and a collection of poems of the spirit.
I sometimes wonder about Saint Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Did he mean this literally? Surely not. Maybe he thought that by setting a ridiculously high standard, he was giving his readers a worthy if unattainable goal to aspire to, one that in real life only monastics can come close to. Or perhaps those early Christians who believed the end of the world was nigh could detach enough from the cares of daily life to devote every waking moment to prayer, but for me, caught up in all the demands of 21st-century life, it seems impossible. I feel impressed with myself when I find twenty minutes a day to meditate.
One foggy summer morning while on retreat at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, I took a walk as usual on the road that winds steeply down from the mountaintop monastery to Highway 1. This question of how to pray unceasingly lingered in the back of my mind as the mist and morning sun teased and flirted with each other up and down the mountainside. Along the way is a magnificent oak tree bearing a plaque with a verse from Psalm 34:
Here I was startled into stopping. A spider web hung between the oak’s branches, each silk festoon precisely limned with delicate droplets, and sunbeams pouring through the canopy above lit them up like jewels in a tapestry. This same glow highlighted each mote of mist wafting around the tree, and I stood transfixed, watching until the fog completely dissipated. With my mind empty of thought and my heart full of gratitude, an answer to my question came to me.
In her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Mary Oliver explains how she reaches for things, like the idea of God, that cannot be reached:
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.
In my moment of wordless wonder that foggy summer morning, it was as if I were embracing the scene with open arms, and I realized suddenly, this was prayer. My attention was my praise.
I wish I could say that ever since I’ve been a model of mindfulness, but no, I’m still working on this not-so-secret trick to blessing the Lord at all times, still aspiring to pay constant attention. As always, I’m grateful for Mary Oliver as a role model. Like her, may I morning to night never be done with looking as though with my arms wide open.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is to find the coffeeshop with the best mocha in town. (Luckily, this is a priority and pleasure that my sweetheart shares.) Even if the mocha disappoints, absorbing the atmosphere of the coffeeshop, observing and eavesdropping on the people who hang out there gives us an entrée to the locale that sightseeing doesn’t. Likewise, the local independent bookstore.
Yes, I am now going to out myself as a promiscuous book nerd. At home, browsing in Bookshop Santa Cruz or Bad Animal Books is a regular delight, but visiting a bookstore in another town offers a particular thrill. The differences are so alluring! Is the shop light and bright? Or dark, wood-paneled, and cozy? Busy or quiet? Are the shelves so high they need library ladders? Do books stacked up on the floor create a kind of biblio-maze? If I’m lucky, I discover a book I’ve never heard of but now can’t live without, or I come across a used copy in fine condition of a title I’ve been dreaming of. Even if this serendipity doesn’t occur, the quirky displays and books of local interest make browsing fun. Whether I’m roaming for hours in the multistory mecca of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon or breezing through Bookworks just down the road in Pacific Grove, the atmosphere of the local independent bookstore introduces me in a unique way to the place that hosts it.
And if, like Powell’s and Bookworks, it features an espresso bar where I can sip a mocha while reading a new book? Heaven!
Let me start with a confession: the only way I can sustain a tech sabbath is by cheating.
I should have admitted this up front because I felt terrible when one reader told me she liked the idea of abstaining from technology once a week, but she didn’t want to give up Facetime with her grandchildren. Another admitted she likes to watch television in the evening so she couldn’t do it either. Here’s the deal. When I decided to do a tech sabbath for Lent this year, I allowed myself certain exceptions: I can text, make phone calls, watch TV after dinner with my sweetheart, and attend Zoom meetings with my spiritual community. The practice was meant to disengage me from devices, not from my loved ones. “The solution to mankind’s most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization,” Rabbi Heschel writes in The Sabbath, “but in attaining some degree of independence from it.”
If you decide to try a tech sabbath, I invite you make Jesus your role model. One sabbath day He was walking through cornfields with His disciples, who began to pick ears of corn as they went. Judgmental Pharisees jumped all over them for doing forbidden work on the holy day, but Jesus admonished, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, don’t let rules get in the way of a meaningful practice.
Here are some ideas for designing your own tech sabbath:
Choose your time. I pick a 24-hour period over the weekend, usually 4 pm Saturday to 4 pm Sunday, but it’s okay to do a shorter amount of time, a different day of the week, or to change the day depending on your schedule.
Set parameters that work for you. Facetime with your loved ones if you want to. Photograph flowers with your phone. You are constructing your own unique palace in time, and it can be as simple or elaborate as you like. What soulful activities are calling you?
Create a ritual. At the beginning of my sabbath I light a candle and make a tiny ceremony of shutting down my laptop and iPad. Then I put them away in the closet. For the next 24 hours I mostly leave my phone out of sight in another room. When the sabbath is over, I again light a candle and smudge all my devices before I turn them back on, praying to use them mindfully in the week to come.
Reflect afterwards. As you dwell in your palace over the next weeks and months, think about what was hard, what surprised you, what you loved. You will notice the aspects of technology that are most deleterious for you — these are the ones to strictly avoid during your sabbath – but you will also become aware of surprising gifts. Keep and celebrate them!
In the fifteen years since the first iPhone was released, reaching for our smartphones has become a cultural habit. Whenever we feel the least inkling of boredom — standing in line, sitting in a waiting room — out comes the phone. I do it too. I like instant relief from that restless ennui, but sometimes I wonder what I might be losing by trying to avoid it. In fact, I originally planned to title this post “The Benefits of Boredom” and explore how it might encourage creativity. “The idea has an intuitive appeal and an illustrious history,” Margaret Talbot admits in an essay in the New Yorker, but then she quickly cites researchers who “say there isn’t much empirical evidence that boredom unleashes creativity.”
Yet during each tech sabbath, as I unplugged from my pandemic habit of listening to a podcast or audiobook when I went for a walk, I gradually recognized that my inkling was right. I was missing out on something: not boredom maybe, but the opportunity for reverie.It might seem like I was doing it all when I strode out with Airpods in my ears – exercising and absorbing Vitamin D while also indulging my love of literature – but I was giving up that dreamy and delicious mindset of looking up at the sky to find shapes in the clouds. I was sacrificing my own thoughts for someone else’s, for at its best reverie becomes a kind of sober intoxication conducive to deep and imaginative thinking. At the very least it can lead to rest and relaxation.
I used to judge people strolling along the ocean with a phone in their hands, but my AirPods made me one of them. I might be enjoying an entertaining novel, but I didn’t notice the sea otter frolicking with her pup. Forgotten was the Latin phrase I once claimed as a motto:
It is solved by walking. For me, solitude combined with the easy stride of my sturdy legs in the outdoors is a brain tonic. The “problems” I solve might involve mentally rehearsing a presentation for work or pondering the next line of a poem I’m writing, considering a decision as major as when I should retire or as mundane as what to have for dinner. I might just daydream.
Not that listening to a podcast or audiobook is a bad thing, but I can save them for the gym or my commute. Which reminds me of another Latin phrase, modus omnibus in rebus, moderation in all things. Mentally removing yourself from your environment may be okay when your environment is a tedious line at Safeway, but loss occurs when it becomes a mindless habit. Take time out from your devices to think your own thoughts and indulge in reverie! Pausing the constant stimuli from tech makes it possible for you to listen more deeply – to birdsong, your loved ones, the voice of the Divine. It might even make room for a creative spark, and who knows where that will lead?
William Wordsworth at the end of “A Poet’s Epitaph”
I don’t need a research study to tell me that my attention span has decreased since reading more on screens and digital devices. I feel it halfway through a Zoom meeting when I start to slouch and squirm. Sitting up straight and scolding myself barely check my desire to pick up my phone and do the New York Times Mini Crossword right now. Although I stay in my seat trying to listen, even the strictest self-admonishment doesn’t prevent me from mindlessly reaching for my chocolate stash or getting distracted by the blue jay that just landed on the garden arch outside my window.
More distressing than a case of the fidgets on Zoom is that I can no longer immerse myself in a book for as long as I used to. All those long summer vacation afternoons lazing in the sun with an Agatha Christie or a juicy romance, the pre-Netflix late nights when I dismissed all thoughts of an alarm clock just to read one more chapter lie far in the past. As much as I still love to read, I no longer spend hours lost in a book.
Part of the problem may be information overload. According to a 2009 study at UC San Diego, the average person reads the equivalent of 100,000 words a day. (As a point of reference this post has 506 words.) If you feel overwhelmed by all the information that lands in your email and pops up in your social media feed every day, you’re not alone. How often do you quit an article before you finish and move on to the next thing? Sorry, TLDR. (Too long, didn’t read.) As the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon predicted back in 1977, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
But surely another factor in our distractibility is that we consume those 34 gigabytes of word-stuff in short bursts across multiple digital devices. When your phone is at arm’s reach and you know that at any moment a seductive alert could notify you of a text, tweet, or coveted thumbs-up on Facebook, it’s hard to find the quiet eye that Wordsworth talks about in “A Poet’s Epitaph,” the sustained observation and musing that can harvest the gifts in the real world around you and within your own mind that lead to a new idea, a deep thought. When I have popcorn brain, it’s hard to hear the soft voice in the cave of my heart.
So, besides loosening the tether between my phone and me, another reason I decided to try a tech Sabbath was to see if stepping away from the wealth of information my devices offer could help restore my quiet eye. I want to build a palace in time that holds a wealth of attention.
How has your ability to pay attention changed in the last ten years?