As the new calendar year begins, I find myself reflecting on the things I allow into my mind—through images and reading, as well as the thoughts that tempt and assault me.
My musings on this subject are a direct result of a month-long “digital fast” that my husband Rob and I began in mid-December. The idea had been bubbling in the back of my mind since last summer’s Ancient Faith Writing & Podcasting Conference, when Deacon Nicholas Kotar recommended the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.* Among other wise recommendations, Newport advises smart-phone users to delete all apps that are not necessary for work in order to break the modern habit of scrolling during every spare moment.
Rob and I had become increasingly concerned that we fritter away too much of our time. For us, the minutes drain away not in large chunks (e.g., binge-watching Netflix) but like the grains of sand flowing through an hourglass—five minutes perusing news apps here, sixteen minutes on Facebook there, etc.
Believe me, those minutes add up. Rob had long ago abandoned the toxic wasteland of social media, but he found himself spending too much time on Reddit. My wasted minutes, which easily turn into hours, tended to be centered on news services and the endless rabbit trails of related articles.
This is the aim of the enemy of the human race, the devil: to continually sift us like wheat, forcing us to constantly spin in the whirlwind of entertainments and diversions, not allowing us to collect ourselves and contemplate our inner state, our soul. —Archbishop Averky (Taushev), The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, p.96
So we downloaded the Digital Minimalism audiobook, listened to it in the car during various errands, and began the process of reducing screen time by eliminating most digital sources and restricting others. (For example, I allowed myself to peruse the news once in the morning and once in the evening.)
You can guess the results. First, on the spiritual level, came the awareness that we had become uncomfortable with silence and passages of time that were not filled with the ingathering of random information. While filling the car’s gas tank, why can’t I just sit quietly and repeat the Jesus Prayer, observing the scenery? Why do I feel the need to check my phone, as if I must squeeze tidbits of useless data into every spare moment? (I quickly discovered that new, “updated” news stories are a repeat of the old, with a new sentence or two of speculation added.)
With digital disconnection came greater peace, less angst over the latest societal outrage du jour, and intentionality. We now take time to pursue hobbies in the evenings—more reading and knitting for me, along with deepening my understanding of classical music while I engage in these quiet, non-screen activities. Rob is spending more time on his photography, including online courses on photo composition and editing.
This digital break has led to a reclaiming of time but also to some musings on my part about what I allow into my mind in all forms, beyond digital content.
I Treat My Mind Like Switzerland
Remove yourself in every way possible from all circumstances in which you are inescapably forced to see and hear a lot of bad things. There is company in which bad conversations are a usual or even a favorite way to pass the time. There are amusements in which the tendency to sensual pleasure finds the most plentiful nourishment. Those fond of frequenting such settings can easily throw their hearts into confusion and become entangled in the web of seduction. — Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov) of St. Petersburg, How to Live a Holy Life, p.64
Reading the above quote on a surface level, I can feel quite smug. Hey, I’m not putting bad things in my mind. I avoid gossip (most of the time) and my jokes are (mostly) in good taste. I avoid ultra-violent and sexually graphic TV shows. Therefore, I tell myself, I’m doing well.
Left to my own self-justifications, I set the bar pretty low. My unspoken belief is that as long as I’m not consuming pornography, excessive profanity, or racist hate speech, I can remain complacent.
I treat my mind like an intellectual Switzerland. It is a safe, neutral zone. I repel the ungodliest invading armies then congratulate myself on allowing harmless strangers through the gates. These apparently unarmed visitors hawk mediocre products and trivial pursuits, and I let them in. The problem is, they overstay their visas and remain parked in my thoughts.
Too late, I realize that neutral content is not bad, but it’s not good either. And all this stuff that is neither bad nor good has taken up a sizable portion of real estate in my mental territory.
The mindless information piles up slowly over time, like the contents of a garbage can in an abandoned lot. But this digital fast has made me more aware lately of the limitations of my time and mental space. As I watch and read, I don’t ask myself often enough, Is this true? Is this beautiful? Is this good? Is this worthy of my limited time?
We should zealously cultivate watchfulness, my brethren; and when, our mind purified in Christ Jesus, we are exalted by the vision it confers, we should review our sins and our former life, so that shattered and humbled at the thought of them we may never lose the help of Jesus Christ our God in the invisible battle. — St. Hesychius the Presbyter
My Personal Switzerland Is Stuffed with Fluff
When my children were small, I noticed that the best thing I could say about so many books, cartoons, and movies created for children and families was that it was “clean”: inoffensive, but often mindless. The stories lacked immoral content, but they also lacked faith, heroism, sacrifice, or examples of virtue. Instead they were, as Winnie the Pooh would say, “stuffed with fluff.” (Although I love the leisurely pacing and kindness in the Pooh stories.)
The mind feeds the soul, and whatever good or bad thing it sees or hears it passes on to the heart, which is the center of the spiritual and physical powers of man. — Elder Joseph the Hesychast
Mindless fluff takes up space in my heart and soul. It’s not poisonous, but it does not encourage my growth in Christ either.
I’m not saying that interesting magazine articles, videos of rescued puppies, and fascinating historical novels are harmful. God’s creation is amazing, and humans created in His image produce many wonderful things worth contemplating and enjoying. He has given us gifts and talents, and our hobbies and interests can enrich our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a football game or relaxing with a magazine full of home decorating ideas.
But I have come to realize that in my own habits, the fluffy “neutral” stuff crowds out the good and eternal.
We have to be aware that what is being pounded in upon us is all of one piece; it has a certain rhythm, a certain message to give us, this message of self-worship, of relaxing, of letting go, of enjoying yourself, of giving up any thought of the other world… It is actually an education in atheism. We have to fight back by knowing just what the world is trying to do to us. —Fr. Seraphim Rose
The Church Fathers speak often of “watchfulness,” from the Greek word nepsis, which in turn comes from nepho: to guard, inspect, examine, watch over, and keep under surveillance.
In an excellent 2012 article from St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend, Indiana, Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos writes,
Being watchful means you have the necessary self-discipline to guard your inner sanctuary from being violated or invaded by thought stimulated by your senses and passions that lead you to sinful actions such as anger, hate, vindictiveness, immorality, vanity, fornication, adultery, slander, stealing, lying, etc. etc. It is an ability to intervene in the process of choosing how to act based on any kind of stimulus that leads to a thought. It is a capacity to intervene in real time in your thought process.
Even in an empty room, my mind is capable of all kinds of mischief. I can produce out-of-control thoughts all by myself, without outside help. But the question for me during this season of life is, What kind of material am I giving my mind to work with? Are my innocuous, clean, inoffensive, harmless entertainments actually leading me to anger, judgment, and self-righteousness? (Have you found that almost any political news story can trigger such responses? Yeah, me too.)
Are my favorite “harmless” TV shows, filled with beautiful people solving murders and fighting for justice, actually filling my mind with distorted ideals of the human body and unrealistic interpersonal relationships? (If only my conversations were as witty as the dialogue created by a team of professional scriptwriters…)
Saint Paul gave us the prescription for the content that should be filling our minds:
Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
I want to disconnect from digital interference, but not from all of society. I live in the world and likely will never withdraw to the desert. I am curtailing my obsessive consumption of news, but I also think awareness of current events is important to be an informed citizen. Still, I have noticed that a lot of what passes for “news” is—here comes that word again—mindless. I can do nothing about most of the disasters, political and climatological, that I read about. The “news” brings me anger, agitation, fear, and a sense of helplessness, but neither wisdom nor virtue.
We grow cold within when our heart is distracted, when it cleaves to something other than God, worrying about different things, getting angry and blaming someone, when we are discontented and pander to the flesh, wallowing in luxury and wandering thoughts. Guard against these things, and the coldness will diminish. – St. Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer, p.259
I’ve raised a lot of questions here, but I don’t have easy answers to them. While I wrestle with these issues, I see the need to reinforce the gates of my mind, to plug the leaks in the roof over my thoughts, to guard the windows from the strangers who gain entry, move all the nutritious food to the back of the fridge, and feed me potato chips and candy bars. They don’t hurt me, but they don’t help me, either.
One way I can “seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness” is to make sure that I feed my mind a steady diet of spiritual meat from the scriptures, the saints, and a regular prayer rule. (Our spiritual fathers can help guide us in these areas.) These tend to be the first things that I let slip on a busy day.
If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian, who reads worldly writings, not to read divinely-inspired ones. — Righteous John, Wonderworker of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p.388
The digital fast, while freeing up time and mental energy, has increased my awareness of the ways in which I use my time, especially the amount of hours I spend watching British mystery shows at the end of a long day. (But they aren’t bad! *sigh* Well, okay, they’re generally neutral in value.) I still enjoy them (I’m currently on Season 3 of Midsomer Murders), but I’ve been setting time limits, turning to a profitable book after watching an episode. (Right now I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings and also reading The Watchful Mind, written in 1851 by an anonymous monk of Mt. Athos.)
Every day you should try to plant in your soul something spiritual which will eject something worldly and sinful. Gradually, the old self will be disclaimed, and you will be able to move freely in the spiritual realm. Replace the sinful images in your mind with holy ones. Replace songs with hymns, worldly magazines with spiritual books. — St. Paisios of Mount Athos, Spiritual Counsels, Vol. II: Spiritual Awakening, p.104
Many of you are way ahead of me in this work of watchfulness. I’m still enjoying a bit of fluff in my life, but I’m trying to put St. Paisios’s advice into practice by making sure that the intellectual/spiritual equivalent of dessert does not become the main course of my free time. With God’s help, I’m trying to ensure that my mental diet is centered on good, whole, unprocessed spiritual food.
Pray for me.
(Deacon Nicholas’s helpful talk, “Culture Creation for a Post-Christian America,” is available here on Ancient Faith Radio.)