The Spiritual Discipline of Unplugging from Social Media

By Joe LaGuardia

My wife and I have “unplugged” from Facebook just short of two months ago.  It was part spiritual discipline, part ethical choice.  It brought with it some ground rules–like checking Facebook a few times a month for professional reasons, building a professional profile to administrate the church Facebook page, and continuing to communicate with friends and family on Messenger and several private group pages.

It also brought some difficulties, like missing out on a few things, such as a friend’s near-death experience with electricity that hospitalized him for a time.  We caught the post on FB and prayed; we just happened to “tune in” that day.

The first few weeks of being unplugged was torturous. I would wake up and instinctively(!) grab my cell phone only to remember: “Oh, yeah, no more Facebook like this.”  When I put the phone down, I tried to remember what I did before I had a cell phone and social media.  I’ve been praying a lot more as a result!

Another re-occurring hardship was not being able to post ideas, articles, and accomplishments that I wanted others to enjoy.  At times, I thought, “This would make a great FB post!”, only to remember that my goal in unplugging was to escape the need for affirmation all of the time.  Why do we feel the need to publish everything?

I also learned recently that getting published, receiving “Likes”, and reading comments do indeed release chemicals that make us feel great, so the “high” appended to this type of attention is very real.  Even negative comments or discussions release chemicals that we start desiring on a daily basis.  It helps us feel relevant and perhaps even remembered–we do not want to be forgotten or set aside, meaningless, useless, or vacuous.  This creates an addiction that sociologists and scientists have begun to catalogue.  It won’t be long before the CDC coins social media usage a public health risk.

Wanting recognition is nothing new, but it was not always so accessible.  Before the internet, recognition came by way of picky publishers, agents, and local newsletters.  You earned your place in the sun.  Now everyone is published, but not everyone knows the downfall of recognition–it is a problem as old as sin, the one we once called pride.

Some years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary.  Nouwen, a famous author and priest, entered the Genesee monastery for a sabbatical.  There, he struggled with the daily routine of silence, work, and disconnection from the outside world.  He missed publishing articles, and he wrestled quite openly about his desire to be read and to interact with fans and students (he taught for many years).  The book was published in 1976, well before the internet!  In this memoir, he wrote:

The monastic life is indeed very unsensational.  I keep catching myself with the desire to do something special, to make a contribution, to add something new, and have to remind myself constantly that the less I am noticed, the less special attention I require, the less I am different, the more I am living the monastic life.  Maybe–when you have become fully aware that you have nothing to say that has not already been said–maybe then a monk might be interested in listening to you.  The mystery of God’s love is that in this sameness we discover our uniqueness” (Nouwen, p. 66-67).

I resonate with Nouwen’s struggles, and every time I want to give up on this spiritual discipline, I go through my mental map: Why do I feel the need to publish my thoughts?  What is the benefit?  What are the costs?  How much time away from my family and ministry will this take?  And so it goes.

Several weeks ago, I went through my FB feed to check in.  As I mentioned above, I do this about every two weeks to help manage notifications and the like.  We are not Amish, you know.  In about 15 minutes of checking, I realized that I only saw one thing that was pertinent–I think it was an article that came out of the Southern Baptist Convention general assembly (see, the fact that I can’t even remember is telling!).  That’s one thing.  In 15 minutes.  The rest was business as usual, not necessarily without value, just not beneficial in the larger scheme of things.  It was a reminder that our social media was made for man, not man for social media.  It helps to put things in perspective and not be enslaved to the gods of technology, threatening to minimize the size of our world to a 3″ x 5″ screen that is, now, as powerful as nicotine and as pervasive as sugary cereal.

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Spiritual highs, bypass just as dangerous as other addictions

 

Walking on water at sunset

By Joe LaGuardia

I am a firm believer that we are all creatures of habit and, therefore, susceptible to addictions that come in many guises.  A habit turns into an addiction when that which intends to assist us along the journey of life becomes the end goal of life.

The objects of our addictions are what become dangerous: substances and drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive behaviors, to name a few. Innocuous addictions that people can pass for “normal” behaviors also exist and are just as threatening.

One such addiction is spiritual addiction: No, not addiction that is spiritual in nature, but actual addictions to spiritual experiences related to religion, a search for transcendence, or personal spiritual disciplines, such as worship attendance or yoga.

A recent blurb in the Baptist Herald (March-April 2016, p. 7) explores how spirituality and religion can become dangerously addictive for adherents to a particular faith:

“Christians continually striving for the feeling they experienced at a key spiritual moment, or who church-hop in search of the more inspiring preacher and worship, likely have fallen into” addiction.

In other words, believers who are addicted to spiritual experience need a constant spiritual high, one “mountain-top experience” after another.  The valleys of life and the lows of faith are to be avoided at all costs.

The mundane routines that mark life’s passage and often provide insights for deeper trust in the Divine are not adequate for those who feed on what Nietzsche called the “opium of the masses.”

The technical term for this oft-neglected, but dangerous addiction is spiritual bypassing.  According to Ingrid Mathieu, writing for Psychology Today, spiritual bypassing happens when a person engages in a type of spirituality or spiritual discipline not as a healthy form of self-care that aids coping and holistic healing, but as an escape that avoids deeper issues.

The spiritual or religious experiences do not help the situation but exacerbate the situation by becoming a person’s primary focus.

“The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.”

How do you know if you’re experiencing or suffering from spiritual bypass?  Just consider how you respond to stress.

In many stressful situations, people turn to prayer or meditation to quiet the mind or gain a sense of perspective.  This typically empowers a person to tackle that which creates conflict, or at least maximizes the use of resources that can help get a person past a conflict.

Spiritual bypass, however, is not a resource for the journey of life, but the end and goal of it.  It does not empower, but leads to avoidance and ever-increasing “doses” of spiritual or transcendent encounters.

It does not prepare a person for coping with a situation, but avoiding responsibility in a situation.

“A spiritual bypass occurs when people use their spiritual practice as a way to avoid dealing with and taking responsibility for their feelings. Anything that is used to avoid feelings and taking responsibility for feelings becomes an addiction,” according to Margaret Paul writing for The Huffington Post.

Like any other addiction, spiritual bypass and addiction to religion requires intervention.  The first step is admitting there is a problem–people around you can usually help, especially if they see that you are talking too much about your spiritual experience or a church more than resolving issues that overwhelm you.

The second step is to get help from a professional.  If spiritual bypass is just as destructive as other addictions in the long run, its worth seeking advice and gaining the tools needed to break this stronghold.

When Jesus began his ministry, his first sermon dictated the mission of his ministry.  In Luke 4, he stated that he came to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18).  If spirituality is holding you captive, then it is only logical that Jesus needs to set you free too.

 

Facebook, Social Networking has its downsides

Online social networks such as Facebook are fantastic tools in building community. Just last week, I befriended an old chum from elementary school whom I have not seen since, well, elementary school. Before this technology existed, I would not even consider finding such long-lost pals. Now I can do it at the stroke of a button.

This is a real asset for me because I am not good at keeping in touch with people. I forget to call family. Sometimes I even forget birthdays. Social networking Web sites have been a Godsend in my life.

The Internet has created a sense of community in profound ways, but there are pitfalls as well.

For one, there is a strong temptation for us to parade our lives on the Internet and flirt with virtual exhibitionism. I’m not so sure I want to know your every move, nor do I need to see your relationships evolve, fracture and get torn asunder before my very eyes. The pictures you took during your trip to Acapulco? Not so family-friendly.

In order to fight the urge to splurge on public domains, I recommend a family Internet policy that protects you and your family from nosey voyeurs, be it friend or foe alike.

Some of my personal rules include posting pictures that are modest and appropriate. That’s not to say that I have inappropriate pictures. I just don’t want people to peruse snapshots of my family’s trip to the pool or beach.

Also, I do not befriend coworkers, bosses or acquaintances unless I spend time with them outside of work. My status updates communicate my musings, but not my innermost emotional roller coasters. What you don’t know won’t kill you, trust me.

Another pitfall to social networking is that it is very addictive. Fifteen minutes to check our inbox can turn into three hours. Eventually, to invoke a tactic used by the Borg in Star Trek, our computers end up assimilating us. We spend so much time online chatting with friends that the Internet slowly replaces flesh-and-blood contact. We may be connected, but we are not connecting with a sense of authentic communion.

Consider these statistics from one study I read: only one in every four people has someone in which to confide. Sixty-one percent of people say they have only a few close friends. The Internet is giving us a sense of community, but is not providing the connections that make up sustainable support systems.

The recent film “Up In the Air” explores this theme. In it, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, makes a living by traveling across the nation to lay people off from their respective employers.

A young, inexperienced efficiency manager figures out that if Bingham and his coworkers fired people via Webcams from their home office, then Bingham’s company would save money by cutting travel expenses.

Bingham opposes the Webcams and argues that online interactions with clients not only robs them of the dignity of the “firing,” but removes the personal support required for a sensitive moment of loss.

The movie teaches that we cannot conjure relational depth by simply logging onto each other’s lives. We require intimacy and nuance, awe and enchantment. Without real human contact, we miss out on the beauty of storytelling, the dance of non-verbal communication, awkward silences, moments of divine inspiration and sudden bouts of irrational laughter.

Even though my computer helps me remember birthdays, it does little in helping me find the relational intimacy to which I, and every other person in God’s creation, aspire. I just hope that, in the end, resistance is not futile.