This is the first post, of what I hope will be a series over the course of the next year, where I take a hard look at digital technology and its effects on human community, learning, and spirit. This series is an attempt at using blogging as a contemplative practice to explore and reflect on what it might mean to make peace with problematic aspects of my work. By making peace I don’t mean finding a way to ignore or turning a blind eye but figuring out how I can make even a small impact in a better direction.
Here, I’m outlining some of what inspired the idea for this series, the environment from which it springs, and some details about what makes this different from other blogging projects that I have undertaken.
This year’s annual theme for St. Norbert College is Contemplation: Action Begins Within and I am part of a learning community that is meeting to discuss readings and explore contemplative practices – some have been calling the group the Contemplatives and I like it. As I begin my second year with the college I’m intrigued by this theme as a member of the community and as it applies to my work.
In addition, the theme for this year’s Killeen Chair of Theology and Philosophy Lecture Series at the college is Community and Technology. A new addition to the series this year is a fellowship program for four faculty and staff of the college who will attend all of the lectures, interact with the theme, and maybe sit on a panel at the end of the year. I applied for this fellowship and was honored to be selected. The first lecture is this week so much of what I am considering in this post is just the larger concept of the project but I know this experience will influence future posts.
Between this year’s annual theme and the Killeen Chair fellowship my mind will surely be alight. I’ve been grappling with how to best approach what feels like an opportunity but at the same time feels like a freight train of brain activity coming right at me. I’ve built a career and personal life around connections that are only available through digital tools. Yet, I am also keenly aware of the issues with online digital technologies, from distraction and addiction to data collection and surveillance.
How do I reconcile these clear issues with kind of work that I do?
I wondered in considering this project, could I really even think of blogging as a contemplative practice – and if so what would make it different from other kinds of blogging. One of the resources provided in conjunction with the annual theme is the Tree of Contemplative Practices and though there are no digital practices listed, it is clear that there is more there than just sitting by yourself on cushion to raise your awareness. There are many practices listed that have to do with articulation, connecting to others, and making a statement or impact in a broader way which all particularly seem aligned with blogging.
One of the things that came up in recent discussions had to do with other ways, outside of a sitting or walking meditation practice, of finding focus or calming the internal mind chatter. We talked about flow states and how exercise releases endorphins which have an effect on mental clarity. However, we recognized that not all of these other ways are positive. We also discussed how grief can have a powerful centering effect and afterward I remembered that TED talk from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor where she talks about how she had a metaphysical experience and a loss of ego through suffering a stroke. This brought up conversation around if these experiences are the same as contemplation/meditation and even if there are differences how they might be related. Is the flow state that can come from knitting a sock the same as journaling, or the same as running, and is all of that the same as sitting in meditation? If it is not exactly the same are there some similarities?
As someone who does sitting meditation, I do think that there is something about the intentionality and the specificity of deciding to sit that is different from these others. I’m not so sure what that difference is and I’m not brave enough to say that the difference is in the experience itself. It may very well be a better or worse experience but I’ve not had all of those experiences to be able to say. Either way, I want to take the idea of the experience itself and set it off to the side for a moment. The point that I’m drawn to has more to do with the decision (or I suppose “trigger” in the case of those extreme situations where we don’t get to choose: like Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke) that comes before the experience and what effects that decision has on the experience.
It just seems to me that making a choice to sit for a set amount of time, to watch one’s experience, in a quest to understand that experience, is different. It is different from other activities which often have other motivations for deciding to do them or in which one has no agency at all in choosing. No judgement of good or bad or better or worse; that would have to depend on your expectations. I’m just saying it is different and it is different because of the intentionality and specificity in the decision that comes before engaging in the activity.
I could be wrong.
Maybe I just like sitting.
Really, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m thinking there is something to this intentionality and specificity in choice thing that maybe I can use to help shape my idea of contemplative blogging.
I’ve blogged for many other projects and on my own personal blog for several years now. Even when I put out a post that no one reads I find that the act of writing something from the point of view that it will be public puts me in a different place. It seems to me that place lends itself to contemplation. I need to consider multiple audiences and how things may be perceived from a variety of lenses. But I also realize that digital environments, in practice, can erode contemplation. Can blogging as an act of contemplation only consider me as an author? How does the blog inspire contemplation from the reader?
I think that bloggins as an act of contemplation will mean doing things a little bit more slowly and deliberately. Perhaps setting convenience aside. Here are just a few bits of intentionality and specificity that I’m considering:
I often just blog based on my own whims and projects that I want to give attention to, but to blog as an act of contemplation, I think, would benefit from some more structure. I’m not interested in publishing thoughts that are at the forefront of my mind at any given time but rather those that come after careful thought and perhaps some dialog. I’m thinking that this will involve mindfulness practice before the writing and perhaps some creative approaches like free writing. I’d like to post only once or twice a month and, if I am in conversation with others, asking if they would review the post before I publish it.
Though creating dialog is not my main goal I am open to it and I do want to provide space for that. To this end, one may find my decision to turn off commenting a strange one. However, I’m doing this on purpose as part of my approach. As I think about the digital spaces that we create and what constrains or enables different facets of experience, I find that commenting often lends itself to less thoughtful responses and I’m trying to minimize that in myself and in the digital environment that I’m creating. Of course I have seen and contributed some very thoughtful comments in my time and I’m not throwing away comments as a whole in my digital toolkit – just for this project. If my writing inspires someone to write a response I’d love to see that on their own blog. Or, if something I write were to inspire someone to want to dialog with me, well, that is wonderful and I’d love to sit down for coffee, a video chat, or a phone call. In similar fashion I will also not be enabling a “like’ button or other ways to quickly respond.
If you have made it this far you might be thinking that you would like to see where I take this (you could also be thinking that you want to avoid this at all costs and if so that is okay too – you can just stop reading now). As I’m considering who my audience is for this project, I think that it could be quite different from my familiar edtech readers. I’d like to provide a way for those who may be interested in these posts to be notified when I do post something new. In line with doing things a little slower and more deliberately I’m not going to be using an email subscription service. Instead I’ll just be emailing those who are interested. If you would like to get an email from me when I post about my contemplations in making peace around technology use, just drop your email into this form.
I’d like to thank Krissy Lukens, Laura Fredrickson, and Laurie MacDiarmid for sitting with me in conversation about this project while I was thinking it through and for reviewing an early draft of this post.