One day last week, unfortunately, an individual lost his life in a fatal car crash on the street where I live. The wreck involved the taking down of a power pole, and most people on my street, including the entire complex in which my condominium is located, were without power. The power outage was short-lived, lasting nearly 90 minutes. In an all-electric home the loss of power meant I had no lights, no fridge, no AC, no TV, and, of course, no Internet. Several of us actually walked outside to check if other people had power. An interesting phenomena occurred. I began talking to people whom I hadn’t even met in the number of years I’ve lived in the complex. Of course, none of us knew what had happened, so we were not aware that someone had lost his life. We just knew we were without power. On reflection, I wonder if we learned anything once we knew the entire story. Reflection is an interesting word, and an experience that involves more than our simply moving through life everyday without knowing what life entails.
Last month’s blog article, The Call of the Spiritual Disciplines, addressed the overwhelming amount of information that stands at our disposal via the technology age in which we exist. People tend to voice two common responses to this reality that comes at us from what is now referred to as the WEB. Some view it as a drain on our mind, time, and relationships, and tend to designate the information age as downright evil. One is reminded of the reactions of the Luddites to the industrial age. Others view it as a scientific marvel (which it is) that will bring peace and prosperity to all and save us from ourselves (which it will not). Those in the former camp want to step into a time machine and go back to the good ol’ days, whatever that mean; while those in the latter camp view science as mankind’s savior. Personally, I do not want to sound the war drum of either camp. As I stated in last month’s article, I’m thankful for my computer, the Internet, and would not want to face life without modern technology for the most part.
Anxiety, as a part of human living, has most likely increased, however, due to the Information Age. Daily we are faced with the onslaught of more information than we can handle. We are given the task to process and transform that information into practical knowledge, that in turn, can be transformed into personal wisdom, if we wish to accomplish such a task. Yet how we accomplish such a task depends on how we take our stance towards the age in which we stand. As in any human endeavor, we are faced with our finitude and limitations when we realize that massive amounts of information do not help us know it all. We hit the wall of our limitation by the sheer amount of information that it lies at our fingertips. Not only can we not know it all, but also, we can’t even encounter it all. Constantly we hear people voice opinions on what they read on the WEB. Is the information reliable? Did they check their facts via several sources? Did they cherry pick the information they want to back up something they already believe? On and on these questions can haunt us – not only about other people’s use of the WEB, but also our own.
Personally, I believe taking on the Information Age, rather than calling for an end to information and technology and our retreating back in time, instead calls on us more than ever to seek wisdom in how we go about living. Mountains of information do not put an end to the need of our living wisely; it calls on us to be that much wiser in terms of how we even confront the information available to us. One of the spiritual disciplines I touched upon in last month’s blog involves the discipline of study. It is not the only discipline that can help us become wise, but it’s an important one. What does the discipline of study entail?
A Contemplative Approach to Life
Slow down you movin’ too fast/you gotta make the morning last . . . begins Paul Simon’s 59th Street Bridge Song, most likely known by most as, Feelin’ Groovy. One of the most onerous mistakes about the contemplative life is the notion that such a life entails simply sitting around contemplating, but never acting. Nothing could be further from the truth. An individual who takes a contemplative approach to life, reflects in order to act, but to act wisely as possible. I, for one, am thankful for the Information Age and all it provides us for which to make decisions. Yet there comes a point where we have to know the limit on all the information we can garner, process, and use for fruitful living. More than ever, the Information Age calls on us to embrace a more contemplative approach to life. The stream of information available to us is increasing everyday with no indication that its flood is slowing down; but human beings can move and process only so fast. As useful and beneficial as it is in doing things for us, the one thing that technology can do to us is separate us from our heart and soul of what it is to be human so we can say to ourselves enough is enough. There comes a time to slow down, stop, reflect, and then decide what course of action to take. There is never enough information; we can always believe and feel we need more. But for certain, there can be too much information that keeps us in a quicksand of data out of which we can’t wade to get onto the solid ground of living.
Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline, discusses what through the centuries contemplatives called the spiritual disciplines. One such discipline he discusses is the discipline of study. Obviously, when we think of studying, we think of books and written information. And this form of information is one the main objects of study. According to Foster, however, there are several objects of study. We can also study nature via simple observation. Paul Simon’s simple little tune speaks of watching the flowers grow. We can find that time in our daily lives – or carve it out if need be – to slow down and simply encounter what is. We can study ourselves, becoming aware of what our feelings and mood swings mean. What controls us and our moods? What do our actions tend to claim we value? Are we aware of our values? We can study institutions and cultures, ponder the current happenings of our day, compare our personal values to what appear to be cultural values that perhaps we have inculcated. We can study human relationships, become attentive to various kinds of relationships that make up our lives, and reflect on what we value about relationships. There are a myriad of things, in addition to books, that provide information for us to contemplate and with which to come to terms.
No doubt, in the Information Age, our primary focus becomes information from books, or these days, the WEB. And we definitely need a disciplined approach to such vast amounts of information calling for our attention. Foster delineates four steps in the discipline of study: repetition, concentration, comprehension, and reflection. These four steps make up the how of the discipline of study. Even more, I appreciate Foster’s explanation of the what of study when he describes the discipline as careful attention to reality. And the why of study falls in line with the overall purpose of the spiritual disciplines, which Foster claims is the total transformation of the person. In this day of information overload, we need to take a stand that we, in being human, must maintain who we are and define how technology fits into who we are, rather than letting technology define who and what we are.
Repetition, as one part of the discipline of study, is about ingraining habits. Personally, I know that because I love to read, I can fall into the bad habit of reading for merely amassing information, believing that the mere reading of anything is the my ultimate goal, rather than reflecting on what I have read. Likewise, reading something repetitively slows one down so that the information begins to sink in, and the habit of reading in a disciplined manner begins to take shape. The act of repetition focuses the mind on what is being read again and again. In terms of a spiritual discipline, such an act is seen throughout the centuries in monasteries, temples, and other venues of retreat where individuals tend to take time to study and reflect on anything. Monks and others who sought a contemplative life utilized repetitive reading through what they called Lectio Divina, or divine reading. Christian writer, James Sire, has written a work that addresses this form of reading, entitled How to Read Slowly. The spiritual exercise of Lectio Divina involves reading a passage of a sacred text over and over until one’s mind formed around it in a way that the reading became part of one’s soul. Hence, the information being read was viewed as something that had to become part of one’s soul, spirit, – life. It also involved slow reading. I realize such an activity is not one we can choose to do in all occasions and circumstances because of the demands of work, different goals, and other deadlines in this modern age. I do believe, however, it is an activity that needs to be worked back into our daily routines to help us slow down, contemplate, and reflect before making major decisions and taking action.
Building on repetition, concentration as a step in the discipline of study, centers the mind, focusing one’s attention on what one is studying. Science has shown us what people within spiritual enclaves have experientially known for centuries: the mind possesses an incredible power to concentrate. Yet we have to train our minds to develop such an ability. Concentration offers one what Foster calls singleness of purpose, a centering of the mind, or what we tend to call focus. As I stated above, many times I find myself reading to be reading, to get done with the task of reading, but without focusing on what I’m reading. Repetition and concentration can help us accomplish a fuller use of our reading ability, enriching what we read and study. I agree with Foster that we live in our culture that does not value concentration. That fact combined with the waves of information that we face everyday turns our personal worlds into a mental chaos. I love to read, but sometimes I find myself lost, staring at my bookcase, wondering what I should read, lacking any sense of order as to what I’m trying to accomplish in my own living. True concentration may have become a lost art in our culture. The very contexts in which we live wages a war with our need to live contemplatively.
Comprehension is simply understanding what we are studying. We arrive at comprehension through focusing our mind repeatedly, centering our mind and attention on our study, and eventually, in coming to understand what we are studying, we arrive at a new level of comprehension. How many times might we have read something, even studied it to some extent, but feel we have not reached a new level of understanding? With repetition and concentration, we can read something over and over, and then experience that quantum leap of suddenly getting at what something means. Some people call such an aha experience an epiphany that places one on a new level of personal growth and freedom. Such a level of understanding is what we tend to call insight or discernment that provides us with a truer perception of reality.
One might think that comprehension is the final step in the discipline of study. As Foster states, however, one further step is necessary in rounding out this discipline: reflection. This step allows us to see the significance of what we are studying. Reflection allows us to ruminate on what we have read and studied. It rounds out our understanding, not only of what we’ve studied, but ourselves as well. Anything worth our study says something about us – why it is useful to us – why it is important to us – why it is meaningful to us. This final step gets at the impact of what the spiritual discipline of study does for us. As Foster states, the purpose of the spiritual disciplines is personal transformation. The discipline of study leads to our becoming wiser about the world, others, and ourselves. The accumulation of massive amounts of information does not equate with knowledge; nor does the spouting of what one knows regarding information equate to wisdom. The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, believed that we need to become more enamored with what we don’t know that with what we think we know. He basically embraced the notion that our ignorance is infinitely greater than our knowledge of things. Foster, likewise, states that the discipline of study requires humility. We come before something to study it, not because we are knowledgeable or wise, but because we seek knowledge and wisdom. If we are to take the time to carry on an in-depth study of anything, should we forsake this final step in the discipline of study to ascertain the significance of what it is we study?
What I have explored on this monthly blog relates to counseling in many ways. I will let readers search that out for themselves. Importantly, I think what I’ve discussed here relates to much of living, and how we go about living. I want to add one caveat, however. If we’re going to reflect on the need to slow down, I do believe there are times to simply read for the purpose of enjoyment, enrichment, and the experience of another person’s talent in writing. I think of reading poetry, a short story, or a novel. In this information age there’s a time to kick back. Everything we read is simply not about study. But I also believe that the habits we form can help us even make those times a more enriched experience.
In closing, I return to the experience that opened this blog article. The experience took me back to simpler times, growing up at a time when my family possessed no TV or AC, and of course it was before the time of personal computers. I remember going outside to sit under a shade tree to get cool in the summers when I was out of school, and it actually worked. I also remember reading books under those shade trees, books with stories I remember to this day. As I’ve stated several times, I’m not a Luddite. I don’t own nor want to own a time machine. I value all that technology has brought our way. And technology is but one of the myriad of ways we can become lost to our being human and recognizing what is important in this life. Sometimes we just need to slow down, take a step back, focus, center, concentrate, and reflect – on all that is significant in our lives.
[Last month and this month’s blog article drew from the Christian author, Richard J. Foster. (Source: Foster, R. J. (1978). Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. HarpCollins Publishers, San Francisco.)]
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14, 2015