FEATURED ARTICLE: How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity

Recent studies have documented some of the consequences of our attachment to iPhones and other devices. The Atlantic has some scary articles about the dangers of iPhones for post-Millennials and the ability of smartphones to reduce your brain power even when they are turned off.

But wait, there’s more . . . especially for writers and artists. Part of the problem with the devices and screens on which we’ve come to rely is information overload . . . and this can damage creativity. An article in Open Culture proclaims:

[I]nformation overload keeps us mired in noise…. This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but creativity as well.

Drawing on recent studies and experiments, the article continues:

Our brains have limited resources. When constrained and overwhelmed with thoughts, they pursue well-trod paths of least resistance, trying to efficiently bring order to chaos.

When it comes to information and knowledge, sometimes less is more. What we need to do is unload:

When our minds are “unloaded” . . .  such as can occur during a hike or a long, relaxing shower, we can shed fixed patterns of thinking, and explore creative insights that might otherwise get buried or discarded . . . Getting to that state in a climate of perpetual, unsleeping distraction, opinion, and alarm, requires another kind of discipline: the discipline to unplug, wander off, and clear your mind.

It seems that the internet and smartphone age will need to birth a new spiritual and creative discipline . . . that of (literally) unplugging.

Read more.

Reflection: How do you practice the discipline of unplugging and wandering off?

 

FEATURED ARTICLE: Every Christian is a Mystic

This article in Seedbed is a couple years old, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing on Christian mysticism. Why? Because it takes some of the mystery out of mysticism. We often think that a mystical experience must be ecstatic, perhaps involving tears and visions. Or that it’s the preserve of a very saintly kind of person.

Donald Richmond, a clergyman and a Benedictine oblate, explains that this is not the case. Mysticism is not only practical but also essential to a vibrant, everyday faith   it “is central to the revealed religion of the Bible.” Every Christian who longs to encounter God, who wants her faith to be real and lived, is a mystic. Richmond writes:

When we read our Bibles . . . mystical experiences were frequently referenced. Enoch walked with God. Moses had his burning bush. Abraham entertained “angels.” Gideon spoke with “God.” Samson experienced supernatural strength. Mary spoke with an angel. The disciples saw Jesus transfigured and personally worked wonders. Mysticism is Bible-based religion.

What is mysticism, why does it matter, and how are we practical mystics? The answer to these questions partially resides in formulating a proper definition. After many years of thought, I have arrived at the following: Mysticism is a direct encounter with God by Christ through the Holy Spirit as often (although not always) mediated through Holy Scripture, Sacraments, and Christians living as “saints.”

Christian mysticism is direct encounter. That is, mysticism is experiential religion. It is philosophy (the love of wisdom) practiced.

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Practical mysticism matters. We are hardwired for an experiential faith. We want to “know” penetratingly intense intimacy with God. When the Psalmist wrote, “my flesh yearns for [God],” his words highlighted both desert experience and ardent desire.

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Read more.

Reflection: Have you ever thought of yourself as a mystic?

We All Need Time To Dream

One day, my daughter was frustrated because she was trying to write some song lyrics and could not make the words come. I suggested she go do something else for awhile. Later, when she was bopping down the hallway and thinking about other things—things related to but not directly about her song—she found the words she was looking for. When she wasn’t being “productive,” productivity came.

This phenomenon is addressed in an article in Collaborative Fund: The Advantage Of Being A Little Underemployed. I was put off by the title (that’s a story for another time), but I resonated strongly with the author’s main idea: if you’re in a “thought job,” you need unstructured time to wander, think, be curious, and dream. Sitting at a desk for hours on end isn’t always the best road to getting things done.

The article mostly addresses office jobs that have scheduled hours, but I think it also applies to my own non-office, writerly kind of work. If I force myself to churn out articles, blog posts, or book chapters, I often get stuck. If I give myself time to step back and wander off, I can see my way through. In fact, the the best part of my day or week is when I don’t make progress on a particular writing project but spend some time dreaming about the big questions I’m trying to answer or about new projects I want to tackle. Is it the same with you?

The Collaborative Fund article begins with some history of the current 40-hour work week and concludes:

Since the constraints of physically exhausting jobs are visible, we took decisive action when things weren’t working, like the Adamson Act. But the limits of mentally exhausting jobs are nuanced and less visible, so we get trapped in a spot where most of us work a schedule that doesn’t maximize our productivity, yet we do nothing about it.

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Then we hear the research and theory behind time-away-from-work or less structured work days:

Not all jobs require creativity or critical thinking. But those that do function better with time devoted to wandering and being curious, in ways that are removed from scheduled work but actually help tackle some of your biggest work problems.

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The “larger questions” often can’t be tackled at work, because creativity and critical thinking require uninterrupted focus – like going for a walk or sitting quietly on a couch by yourself. Or a bike ride. Or talking to someone outside your field.

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Since the butt-in-chair kind of productivity is so ingrained in our culture, we have to be intentional about building unstructured time into our day.

How do you work when you’re not actually working?

Read the article here.

The Practice of Memorizing Poetry

I love thinking about the ways that writing and spirituality intersect in my life. Recently I’ve been reading about a unique practice that ties the two together — the memorization of poetry. I suppose that this practice isn’t exactly unique, but it seems so given the way memorization has fallen out of favor today.

First, let’s look at the writing angle. In a recent post, writing coach Ann Kroeker says that “poetry, if we let it, can seep into us and change us with its funny, surprising, and serious ways of processing life and ideas.” It might help us with our writing by introducing us to surprising imagery and new ways of thinking. Kroeker writes:

In poetry, you’ll find freedom from some of the mechanics expected in prose, such as proper comma placement. In poetry, you’ll find fresh phrasings that throw your brain off its expected track and into novel ways of thinking and imagining. This can happen when you read a poem, but it works best when you take it to heart.

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Is this something you’ve ever tried? I believe poetry memorization can serve as a playful, creative activity that will add energy, ideas, and allusions to the rest of our writing.

That might be something I’m willing to try. Poetry may have additional benefits, too. According to some, memorizing and reciting poetry is akin to a spiritual practice. In an article in iNews, Allie Esiri, a noted poetry promoter, writes:

We talk a lot about ‘mindfulness’ these days. Well, reading a poem, and giving yourself over to the movements of rhythm and meter, is an excellent way to bring about peace of mind. But better still is reciting a poem. Forming each phrase for yourself, and focusing on the lines that follow, there is little room for unbidden thoughts, and you truly lose yourself in the words.

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A study by University of Cambridge into memorising poetry found that most participants described the learning of a poem by heart as an ‘enriching, life-enhancing experience’. In times of need, the poems we learn are always ours to fall back on.

Poems help us feel less alone — teenagers discover in great verse that they are not the only ones who have felt hardship or pain. And there is evidence, too, that learning poetry keeps our minds sharp. Alzheimer’s patients often respond well to poems and pieces of music they learnt when young. They’re with us for life.

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Both these articles have helpful suggestions for choosing a poem and tips for memorization. So how about it? Do you think, for the sake of your spiritual and creative life, that you’re up for the challenge of memorizing a poem?

 

FEATURED ARTICLE: RECLAIMING THE RHYTHM OF WORK AND REST

Have you noticed how many people talk or even boast about being busy? Work and productivity, it seems, are our new status symbols. If you’re not constantly working, you’re lazy or, worse, failing in life. We no longer know how to slow down and rest. I’d go further and say that we’ve lost the meaningful rhythm of work and rest that defines a healthy spiritual life.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley strategist, suggests that it’s time to rethink rest. He comes at rest from a productivity angle, but what he says applies to creatives and people of faith, too. As summarized in a recent article, Pang says that rest can, paradoxically, help us get more done. It is not simply the negation of work:

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[O]ur cultural view of rest influences our relationship to rest, creating an aversion—the mistaken belief that rest is for the weak. Because we mistake rest as the opposite of work, we avoid it. This view, however, is flawed.

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The critical thing to recognize is that when we are letting our minds wander, when our minds don’t have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active. When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising—that is what pops into your head as an aha! moment. The people I looked at are able to construct daily schedules that allow them to draw on that process in little increments.

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Our society’s cult of busyness means that we must fight for rest, Pang says:

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Rest is not something given to you to fill in the cracks between work . . . You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.

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Pang even suggests that a (gasp) shorter work day would help us to be more productive.

I’ve always thought that from a faith perspective, rest is not just a productivity issue but also a trust issue. Adele Calhoun, who defines rest as a spiritual discipline, writes, “Rest can be a spiritual act—a truly human act of submission to and dependence on God who watches over all things as we rest.”

Have you made rest an intentional part of your spiritual and creative life?

Read more.

FEATURED ARTICLE: THE LOST LIFE OF LISTENING

A couple weeks ago, we explored a needed Christian virtue: humility. This week’s featured article takes a look at a common vice: pride, or what the Latin fathers called Superbia. Author Paul J. Pastor believes pride to be the defining vice of our age. In an article in ChristianWeek, he defines pride not (only) as a nose-in-the-air type of attitude, but also as self-obsession. Many of us are tempted to think about ourselves so much (whether good thoughts or bad) that we miss what’s going on in the lives of those around us.

We might expect the antidote to pride to be a dose of humility. Perhaps it is. But Pastor believes another important corrective can be found in the practice of listening — of being truly attentive to another person.

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As I look around our world, and indeed within my own often-dark heart, I am convinced that listening is the needed thing. Nothing can replace it, nothing can give a short cut to it.

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Pride makes true attentiveness impossible. And in the reverse, true attentiveness sends pride fleeing like shadows before a floodlight.

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To listen requires us to set aside our view of ourselves as the unrecognized expert or the one of right opinion. To listen requires a measure of personal security that few of us have. To listen, in short, requires love, and love must be learned from the Great Lover.

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In fact, listening to others begins with listening to God:

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Listening was, you remember, the one command given to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration:

A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:35 (NIV)

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[A]s deeply as I believe anything, I believe this: if we cannot listen to God, we cannot know him. Know about him? Sure! But know him? Never without presence, never without quieting out hearts and turning to him in humility. It is in listening to God that we learn the skill that can be salt and light to our world.

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In short: listening can help us be superb while letting go of Superbia.

Read more.

FEATURED ARTICLE: IN PRAISE OF SOLITUDE

Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles praising solitude. As the mother of two young children, I was drawn to these essays like a magnet; solitude can be hard to come by in my house! I’m not alone (no pun intended) in this reaction. Many people believe that our society’s over-emphasis on social interaction is wreaking havoc on our well-being.

If you’re part of The Contemplative Writer community, you probably know the benefits of solitude when praying (corporate prayer aside) and doing creative work. It turns out that scientific achievement requires solitude, too. Even business executives are being told to protect their alone time. New studies affirm that solitude changes our brainsin a good way. Being alone in nature, for example, decreases our propensity to self-criticize and increases our attention spans and our sense of contentment.

In an article in  The Walrus, author Michael Harris explores solitude, including some fascinating history on wilderness treks and urbanization. The article largely concerns the importance of going out into nature; the underlying assumption is that this will be or can be an activity taken in glorious solitude.

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[A]t Stanford University, study participants had their brains scanned before and after walking in grassy meadows and then beside heavy car traffic. Participants walking in urban environments had markedly higher instances of “rumination”—a brooding and self-criticism the researchers correlated with the onset of depression. And, just as parts of the brain associated with rumination lit up on urban walks, they calmed down during nature walks.

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Outside the maelstrom of mainstream chatter, we at last meet not just the bigger world but also ourselves . . . This is the gift of even a short, solitary walk in a city park. To find, in glimpsing a sign of the elements, that one does belong to something more elemental than an urban crowd. That there is a universe of experience beyond human networks and social grooming—and that this universe is our true home.

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To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.

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Virginia Woolf noted that even the stuff and furniture of our homes may “enforce the memories of our own experience” and cause a narrowing, a suffocating effect. Outside of our ordered homes, though, we escape heavy memories about the way things have always been and become open to new attitudes.

 

But there does seem to be an art to walks; we must work at making use of those interstitial moments. Going on a hike, or even just taking the scenic route to the grocery store, is a chance to dip into our solitude—but we must seize it. If we’re compelled by our more curious selves to walk out into the world—sans phone, sans tablet, sans Internet of Everything—then we still must decide to taste the richness of things.

Read this article in The Walrus.

FEATURED ARTICLE: RECOVERING THE VIRTUE OF HUMILITY

When we as Christians need to be reminded that humility is a virtue, we might be in a spot of trouble. Such is the point made in a recent New York Times op-ed. The author, Peter Wehner, laments the dearth of humility today and seeks to recall Christians to this quiet virtue. He’d like to see more of it not just in our churches but also in civic life and especially in the political sphere. I certainly second that motion.

I was especially interested in the way Wehner defines two kinds of humility: moral and epistemological:

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I have become convinced that Christians should be characterized by moral humility. This doesn’t mean followers of Jesus should be indifferent to a moral order grounded in eternal truths or unable to judge some things right and others wrong. But they ought to be alert first and foremost to their own shortcomings — to the awareness of how wayward our own hearts are, how even good acts are often tainted by selfish motives, how we all struggle with brokenness in our lives.

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Epistemological humility should also characterize Christians . . . This doesn’t mean one ought to live in a state of perpetual doubt and uncertainty. If we did, we could never speak up for justice and moral truth. It does mean, however, that we’re aware that what we know is at best incomplete. “We see through a glass darkly” is how St. Paul put it in one of his letters to the Corinthians: We know only in part.

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Perhaps we could usefully think of humility as a spiritual practice, one that grounds us and helps us relate to God and our community. Might we also be called to humility as writers? Surely so. As we put words to screens and paper, we come up against all that we do not know and cannot express. We rely on one another and on God to try to come up with a fuller picture.

Read this op-ed in the New York Times.

FEATURED ARTICLE: LESS FACEBOOK, MORE FACE TO FACE

We all know that social media has changed the way we interact with other people. In many cases, these changes are positive: for one thing, we don’t even have to get dressed before saying hello to our friends and acquaintances in the morning! On a more serious note, social media helps us meet people all over the globe and make new social and business connections. I’ve benefited a lot from this kind of networking.

Yet social media problems like internet addiction and low self-esteem are on the rise. A new study summarized in the Harvard Business Review appears to confirm that Facebook use (the study remains focused on this particular social media outlet) leads to a decline in personal well-being. Social media can’t substitute for face to face interactions in the real world. I’ll remember that as I go schedule this post on Twitter and Facebook . . .

Here are some findings from the study:

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Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.

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Overall our results suggests that well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use. If this is the case, our results contrast with previous research arguing that the quantity of social media interaction is irrelevant, and that only the quality of those interactions matter.

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While screen time in general can be problematic, the tricky thing about social media is that while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction. Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real world interaction we need for a healthy life.

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Besides all this, we should remember that more social media time leads to less writing time . . . right?

Read more.

FEATURED ARTICLE: IMAGINING YOUR FUTURE SELF

We’re often told, these days, to try to live in the present. We know we shouldn’t dwell on the past or fret about the future. In fact, so much of contemplative prayer is about being present in the moment, in the now.

But as people of faith, there is a way in which we should also be future-minded. We’re aware that our best self lies ahead, in the person God is creating us to be. To look to the future is to keep hope alive.

This applies to other areas of our life, too. Leadership coach Peter Bregman says that for the sake of the work and the projects we really care about, we need to practice being our future selves. We should move toward what we’re becoming, even if it doesn’t feel very productive right now.

So . . . what is it that you see in your future? Do you want to write? Keep writing, even if you don’t think you’re very good. Don’t put if off! Walk toward your future writerly self.

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If you want to be productive, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be? Another question is: Where do I want to go? Chances are that the answers to these questions represent growth in some direction. And while you can’t spend all your time pursuing those objectives, you definitely won’t get there if you don’t spend any of your time pursuing them.

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Here’s the key: You need to spend time on the future even when there are more important things to do in the present and even when there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words — and this is the hard part — if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.

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Sometimes you need to be irresponsible with your current challenges in order to make real progress on your future self. You have to let the present just sit there, untended. It’s not going away and will never end.

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Read more.