Gadgets, Distractions, and the Art of Presence

Though I’ve long been curious about him, I have not yet read the works of the Canadian philosopher, technology theorist, and Catholic convert Marshall McLuhan. But my interest was piqued by an Internet discussion regarding McLuhan’s idea of technologies as “extensions of man.” An online acquaintance of mine, the electronic musician and author Alex Reed, outlined McLuhan’s view that our inventions are really ways of extending our bodies and minds: “the wheel externalizes the foot, writing externalizes speech … electricity externalizes the nervous system,” and so on, in Reed’s words. Our tools, on this account, enhance and extend the reach of our organic human functions.

This intriguing view of technology dovetails with a practical consideration of mine: namely, my own relationship to technology and media. Since I intend to become a monastic postulant in a matter of weeks, I am trying – though not always hard enough – to rein in my use of online social media. Things like Facebook are not entirely off-limits in our monastery, and they can sometimes serve good purposes in the life of the Church; but in general, the Internet, and social media in particular, are not conducive to contemplative solitude and interior silence.

It can be hard to change our habits if we do not know what drives them. So I have been trying to understand why I – who have criticized many facets of modern culture, including its aversion to silence – find it hard to break away from the parade of online news and commentary. If our technologies “externalize” some preexisting aspect of ourselves, what is one externalizing through his fixation on a real-time stream of news and discussion?

One of the answers to that question is obvious (though for that reason, not very deep or helpful): clearly, the Internet is a great “extension,” in McLuhan’s sense, of our nature as interconnected social beings. Digging deeper, however – and bearing in mind the idea of electronic media as an extended and enhanced “nervous system” – there is another way in which the Internet externalizes our mental abilities, for good or ill.

One defining features of human nature is that our minds are not bound by time and space as our bodies are. Physically, we can only be in one time and place at once; but the mind can – and often does – go elsewhere on a regular basis. The mind is often at work sorting through the data of various places and times, going over all kinds of facts, memories, and ideas in its ongoing (and not always fully conscious) search for the greater meaning and purpose of what it meets in the realm of experience.

This ability to be “elsewhere” – to go outside the bounds of our circumstances; to imagine, explore, and theorize – is a great strength of the mind, a strength the Internet can bolster. Nonetheless, the ability to be “elsewhere,” mentally stepping outside the present moment, is not always a strength. Anyone who has suffered distractions in prayer, or found it hard to focus on any other task, knows the downside of the mind’s freedom to roam and ruminate.

When we extend our minds, in McLuhan’s sense, through the use of electronic media, we externalize both the mind’s strengths and its weaknesses. The Internet enables our curiosity and speculative capacities (our abilities to “be elsewhere” in at least potentially good ways), but it also empowers our pre-existing inner capacity for distraction – the ability to be elsewhere when we ought to be present here and now. Without such technology, the mind “goes elsewhere” on its own: surfing through its inner realm of facts, commentary, and possibilities. With the Internet, it does so externally and visibly.

McLuhan’s idea of externalization suggests that our deepest problem is not our relationship to technology, but something more ingrained. Long before “smartphone” entered the dictionary, each of us carried around a resource with amazing powers of access and connection, as well as vast potential for distraction and self-indulgence. That resource is our own mind. Today, we have simply externalized and boosted its abilities and habits.

We may cringe at the sight of two people sitting across a restaurant table, both absorbed in their smartphones. But how often have we met with a friend or loved one, and ended up absorbed in our own inner thoughts and concerns, of one kind or another? It is the same tendency: unsatisfied with present reality – for trivial or serious reasons, or no reason at all – we look for ways to be elsewhere, ways of escape that become habitual and start feeling necessary.

Our dependence on technology turns out to be a symptom, more than a cause. Fundamentally, we lack training in the art of presence. It is not easy, as the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Thomas Hopko put it, to “be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.”

Yet our problem with technology is also an opportunity. In a world of ever-multiplying distractions and mental getaways, we can take another path by learning the art of presence.

*

I began to think about technology, and its relationship to the declining art of presence, when I recently made a series of trips to the post office near closing time. Some days the line moves quickly, but at other times, there is a lot of lag. It is the kind of familiar, everyday tedium that prompts many people to reach for their mobile device, fire up the Internet, and seek out something else: something new to think about, react to, appreciate, or criticize.

It makes sense that we want this: the mind craves stimulation and escape in the midst of seemingly dull experiences. But if we habitually use technology to give the restless mind what it wants, we will never become skilled in engaging fully with life as it is. And this inability will become a long-term problem: weakening our relationships with other people, and our connection to God – who is completely present in life’s ordinary details, just as much as in its peak experiences. It is only a question of our awareness.

The inability to stand in a long line without checking Facebook, or endure rush-hour traffic without the radio, turns out to be related to the more serious disconnections in our lives. We find it hard to give full, dedicated attention to someone whose interests differ from ours; or we meet with great difficulty when it is time to focus directly on God in worship or personal prayer. In some ways, the problem is not so mysterious: if we have not trained ourselves to be present, awake, and attentive in the small matters of daily life, we cannot expect the skill to materialize suddenly in more important moments.

“Appreciate your life!” – this was the refrain of the Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi; and while there is more to life than this, the practice of appreciation is crucial. It makes us more fully present to God, to the people around us, and to the amazing fact of our very existence.

Among other things, appreciation means not doing things simply in order to get them over with and move on to the next thing (to be discharged, most likely, in the same spirit!). To engage fully, even with life’s basic tasks – brushing our teeth, taking out the trash, washing dishes – is worthwhile in itself, and also prepares us for those moments in which our full attention is more important. Our life is full of chances to practice not “going elsewhere.” We learn to engage with what is before us, instead of surfing the mental web of memories, speculations, and commentary.

Granted, I do not think there is any moral fault involved if one neglects or chooses not to practice “mindful eating,” “mindful breathing,” and the like (though these are good practices, helping us cultivate appreciation). But I do know this: if we sleepwalk mindlessly and ungratefully through the familiar things of life, we should not be surprised if we develop a distant, disengaged relationship with God, other people, and the world as a whole.

It is sometimes said that we should expect to die as we have lived (meaning that one should not expect to “get religion,” or renounce sin, on his deathbed); but it is less often noted that we are also liable to worship and love as we have lived. The one who seeks distractions in line at the bank – with or without a smartphone – will find the same mental restlessness in the Communion line, or at a family gathering.

Additionally, I have found that it is impossible to live consciously in God’s presence unless one truly engages the reality of the present moment. The effort to “practice the presence of God,” without giving deep attention to the ordinary things of life, sputters out in an empty and vague intellectualism – the mere remembrance of a concept. But the concept of God is not God; the transcendent Lord is “everywhere present, filling all things,” and our primary point of contact with Him is in the stuff of present reality. As Fr. Ernest Larkin put it, in his article on Christian Mindfulness: “The given moment is the only place one can meet God” – not as an object or concept, but as the absolute Truth and Love behind all things.

The art of presence is not a marginal skill, but one of life’s fundamentals. There are many ways to practice it; among the most time-tested, in both the Christian East and West, is the use of a short, non-distracting mental prayer – possibly even a single word or divine name – that we can synchronize with our breathing throughout the day, to stay spiritually awake. (Attention to the breath itself, as a symbol of one’s continual dependence on God, can serve the same purpose.) The repeated invocation, or the awareness of one’s breath, becomes a “lens” through which we see reality as it is: filled with the Lord’s presence, at all times.

In moments that require concentration – such as driving, cooking, skilled or detailed work, etc. – our interior prayer (or breath-awareness, or any other technique) should cease, and be replaced with a singular concentration on the task itself as a manifestation of God’s will. Likewise, in our dealings with others, the same self-emptying attentiveness should ordinarily be given to them. And because the ultimate “Other” – God Himself – dwells in our neighbor, our undivided attention to them is also an act of devotion to Him.

These techniques of word and silence are our most powerful “wireless devices”: they connect us with the Holy Trinity, and – in a mysterious way – with the whole creation that He sustains in being. No piece of news or commentary is more important than these connections. And none of our technological self-extensions should be allowed to eclipse them.

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • noelfitz

    Great article. Thanks.
    I am reminded of a discussion in a Catholic group some time ago that priests should not be on Facebook. But a priest friend of mine is a regular participant and his contributions are always sound, helpful and constructive.

  • Cooky642

    Thank you so much for a well-reasoned and well-written article. This is a subject–a virtue–I’ve been working on with little success. I’ve learned to give my whole self and my whole day to God at the beginning of each day, knowing (as He knows) that I’ll get distracted at some point. When I can’t remember what I had for breakfast or which day of the week it is, I can always remember Him. I see Him working in me daily. To be grateful is enough.

MENU