I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.
On many, many occasions in my millennial life, more than I care to recall or admit, I have lifted my head, refocused my eyes, and come to my frazzled senses after mindlessly staring at my iPhone or computer, those glowing rectangles of distraction and dispersion in front of which I spend an alarming percentage of my time. In those moments I think, “What did I just waste my time on?”
It’s often then that I find myself with the prayer we just heard in the Psalm on my heart and in my mind: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” In other translations, it reads “turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity,” and “avert my eyes from seeing falsehood.”
Vanity, falsehood, worthless. These words pretty well describe the substance of much of the digital content so effectively designed to capture my monetized attention. The fascinating thing is that this verse appears in Psalm 119, a prayer of one whose heart delights in the law of God. By including this petition for God to keep his eyes from what is worthless, the writer shows that the inclinations of the heart are inextricably bound up with the things our eyes behold.
1 John 3:18—4:6
“You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
It’s a phrase that seems to appear everywhere these days, from bumper stickers to headline articles in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. It captures, in a brief and memorable phrase, some real wisdom about the nature of the mind. The mind is capable of being held hostage, by seemingly demanding and imperious thoughts and feelings, all day long. “What the hell is his problem?…I need to buy milk!…I love her so much I would die without her…That is the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen!… Why am I so worthless?” The mind is also capable of gentle, inner observation, quiet equipoise, and spacious non-judgment, capacities which can open a space of sanity and healthy detachment in our experience of self. Through the development of an inner, witnessing presence, we can begin to see the truth in that phrase: “I don’t have to believe everything I think.” We can forgive ourselves for the negative thoughts that arise and we can avoid the ego’s swift, smug self-congratulation for positive thoughts that all too quickly dissolve. We can actively engage our thoughts in prayer with a certain level of objectivity, as in the Ignatian spiritual practice called the examen of conscience – also sometimes called “examen of consciousness.” We can cultivate our inner muscle of release or self-emptying of thoughts through even older forms of contemplative prayer. We can begin to find in our thoughts essential clues to our integration and our salvation. We can lay claim to the thoughts that tell our true story.