Come Back to Still Water

The time has come

To stop allowing the clutter

To clutter my mind

Like dirty snow,

Shove it off and find

Clear time, clear water.

                        May Sarton in “New Year’s Resolve”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

Revelations of Reverie

Candle, book titled The Sabbath, and iphone

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 I also wondered 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 seemed like I was doing it all – 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, sacrificing my own thoughts. At the very least reverie can lead to rest and relaxation, but at its best it becomes a kind of sober intoxication conducive to deep and imaginative thinking.

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:

solvitur ambulando

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.

Author on a walk looking a creek

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?

A Poverty of Attention

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,

— the harvest of a quiet eye.

            William Wordsworth at the end of “A Poet’s Epitaph”

Photo of iPhone, candle, and the book "The Sabbath"

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?

A Palace in Time with a Kingdom for All

Have you seen the Lord of the Rings? Remember the scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring when Bilbo Baggins panics because he can’t find the ring only to discover with relief that it was in his pocket? Or how he transforms for a moment from a kindly old hobbit into an unrecognizable creature with a nasty grimace – just because Gandalf encourages him to give it up? I knew I was in trouble when I started to recognize myself in Bilbo. Just like him I was in thrall to an object — but it wasn’t a magical ring.

It was my iPhone.

I don’t think of myself as particularly attached to my phone – I put it away in social situations, and I don’t miss it when I’m on retreat at New Camaldoli where the absence of cell service renders it useless, but I’ve grown more and more attached. I feel Bilbo’s panic when I misplace it and that sweet relief when I realize it’s right there in my purse. I keep it close and grab it first thing when I get up in the morning — even if it is only to use the timer for my meditation.

The thought that I was addicted made me uneasy, so when I started to hear about a practice called a tech sabbath, I was intrigued enough to try it, and I’m pained to confess to you, dear reader, I couldn’t stick with it. Imagine my shock and dismay! I like to think of myself as a poet and a nature-loving spiritual being, yet I couldn’t live without my devices for 24 hours.

What exactly is a tech sabbath? It’s rooted in the Jewish tradition of observing God’s commandment to keep the seventh day holy by resting and refraining from work. In his beautiful book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel likens the Sabbath to “a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” framing it as “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives, to collect rather than to dissipate time.” A tech sabbath is simply when you avoid digital technology for one day a week. Why do this? In his article Should I Take a Digital Sabbath? one of the founders of the Digital Sabbath Experiment gives several reasons: to improve creativity, deepen connections with others, remember how to listen, and rest. We often turn to our devices for a quick break, but he calls this façade rest. After all, does scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix really refresh you?

This year I decided to give tech sabbath another try as my practice for Lent. After a lifetime of Lenten observance starting with giving up ice cream as a kid, Lent has a power that fills the sails of my self-discipline, and with a few bumps and lessons learned along the way, I more or less succeeded. In my next few posts I plan to delve into the reasons for trying this practice and share ideas for making it your own.

In the meantime, happy Easter, and blessings to my friends under the Tent of Abraham who are celebrating Ramadan and Passover. I’d love to hear from readers who observe any kind of sabbath. How do you achieve a day of rest and what does it mean to you?