“We go through our days as sleepwalkers – unaware of God’s presence, inattentive to God’s gifts and invitations, and failing to be present to either ourselves or God.”
In our last article, we talked about how crucial awareness is to our spiritual life. (You can find it here, if you missed it.) In this blog, we’ll be talking about what makes it difficult to live in a state of awareness.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we live very distracted lives. In the time since I started writing this article, I have stopped to check my email, then I received a message on WhatsApp that prompted me to post a Facebook update, and then I thought I may as well scroll quickly through Instagram. In the meantime, my hands are freezing, my tea has gone cold and I have barely started on the subject of my original focus, but I am scarcely aware of all that because I am distracted. It’s hard to believe that one of my top strengths on StrengthsFinder is ‘focus.’
Apparently I am not the only one living in this distracted state. Even back in 2014 a British study showed that the average person shifts their attention between their smartphone, tablet and laptop 21 times in an hour. A more recent study by Microsoft Corporation found that on average people’s attention span has reduced from 12 seconds to eight seconds over the last decade1.
Apart from preventing us from getting our jobs done, why is this distracted way a life a problem? The process of our inner formation is compromised. Our busy lives with myriad distractions; our tendency towards self-deception; and our desire to avoid pain in favour of comfort, all mitigate against the spiritual alertness necessary to engage with God in our lives. So our blind spots stay in the dark, our patterns of reaction and numbing remain unexamined, and we are deaf to the ways God is inviting us to encounter Him. Baxter Kruger describes it in this way:
“All our senses have become dulled, as we live life in a state of preoccupation and distraction.”
Way back in 1978, author Richard Foster wrote that noise, hurry and crowds rob us of our ability to pay attention to our lives in the presence of God. Let’s think about that.
Have you ever stopped to reflect on the level of noise in your life? How often during your day is there quiet around you? Maybe you clean your teeth while playing a podcast. You get in the car and turn on the radio. You sit in the dentist’s waiting room and check your phone. You work in an open-plan office with a low-grade buzz around you all day long. You eat a meal with the TV on in the background.
It is hard to tune in to the signals our bodies or emotions are giving us when we’re surrounded by noise. It is harder still to listen to the ways God might be trying to get our attention. Perhaps it is time to turn down the volume of your life just a little? Could you drive the car without an accompanying soundtrack? Or give yourself five minutes to sit peacefully in silence? I wonder what might come to your awareness in that place of quiet.
If I were to ask you, ‘How are you?’ how many of you would respond with something to the effect of ‘I’m busy’? ‘Life is crazy!’ or ‘I’m swamped!’ are phrases we exchange with apparent cheer. In fact, in our Western societies, being overly busy has almost become a measure of success. So many of us set a formidable, if not unsustainable pace for our lives that it has become normal. It is almost as if taking a lunch break, or practising Sabbath, or not responding to out-of-hours work emails has become a sign of weakness.
Whether we set that pace for ourselves, or allow others to dictate the pace to us, it is hard to be present to what is going on within us and in our relationships when we are racing from one appointment to the next. Perhaps it is time to take your foot off the gas pedal just a little?
Where in your life might God be inviting you to slow down, to take time to be present to His activity in and around you? What questions, or longings might catch your attention if you gave them half a chance?
The lives of many other people intersect with our own. We are surrounded by other people: their concerns, their needs, their perspectives, their advice, their ways of seeing the world. This can be good, it is part of what it means to belong to families, communities, or tribes. It can also create within us the sense that we are expected to be available to others at all times. Even when we are unaware of it, the voices of many others crowd in on us through media and technology, let alone the messages we replay in our heads.
Whether these crowds are present to us physically or virtually, they can make it difficult for us to identify our own attitudes, needs or wisdom. While we understand that we are made to function in relationships, we also recognise that solitude is important for us to learn to hear our own inner voice, and the voice of God. Many of us avoid being alone because we are subconsciously afraid of facing the truths that might come to the surface in that place. I wonder how God might be waiting to meet with you when you are willing to risk being alone with Him for a while?
David Benner described the effect on us of the noise, hurry and crowds in our lives: We suffer “a sleep of self-preoccupied oblivion and of a mindless robot shuffling through a somnambulistic fog.” Whether or not we can get our tongues around that word, it doesn’t sound good! We need help if we are to live awake to the presence and activity of God.
A Practice to Alleviate Distraction: Silence and Solitude
There are ways we can cultivate a sort of counter-cultural protection against the numbing effects of the noise, hurry and crowds with which we are surrounded. The two main practices available to us are solitude and silence. When we make the often difficult choice to be alone with God, and to be quiet in His presence, we become aware of the ways He is inviting us to encounter Him. Ruth Haley Barton describes the invitation to solitude and silence by saying,
“It is an invitation to enter more deeply into the intimacy of relationship with the One who waits just outside the noise and busyness of our lives. It is an invitation to communication and communion with the One who is always present even when our awareness has been dulled by distraction.”
For most of us, responding to this invitation is far from easy. It takes all our self-control to remain in silence and solitude, free from the consoling effects of distraction, for any length of time. For this reason, it is best to begin practicing for a manageable time period and go from there.
You might choose to start by spending 10 minutes each day alone in silence. If you’re anything like me, you will need to schedule a time in your day to do this.
- Find somewhere where you will be undisturbed. Even the locked bathroom will do.
- Sit in a comfortable position, so that you don’t find yourself squirming after 2 minutes.
- Set an alarm to avoid checking the clock every minute out of the corner of your eye.
- Hold your hands loosely in your lap, or upturned to signify your openness to God.
- Close your eyes, breathe deeply and evenly. Turn your attention to God.
Very likely, you will find many distracting thoughts crowd into your mind as soon as you turn the volume down on your life. Gently acknowledge those thoughts and turn your attention back to God. Try to avoid an outcome-based mentality and simply allow this to be a time of stillness.
10 minutes may seem a long time at first! As your spiritual muscles develop, you will find yourself able to extend your time of silence and solitude. Try practicing for a few weeks before stopping to reflect on the ways this practice is impacting your life.
In the meantime
There are various digital aids to help you practice timed periods of silence. Take a look at Centering Prayer or SoulTime for timed periods of retreat from noise.
Read more on this topic
Ruth Haley Barton (2004) Invitation to Silence and Solitude: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence