Have you ever wandered into a wood, or deep forest, found yourself surrounded by trees and the color green everywhere, and as you had been moving at a good pace to get wherever you are, you find yourself stopping for a moment, slowing down, and as you slow down you begin to notice things around you which maybe you saw before at a glance or in periphery, but suddenly everything seems magnified and you just kind of stay there and then you notice more things like the birds and the colors on their feathers, the rabbit that begins to scurry away as soon as you notice it’s presence, the detail of some of the bark on some of the trees and perhaps wildflowers and the types of leaves and their patterns?
One thing you rarely come across in these moments are larger wild animals and if you do stumble upon a deer, what is interesting is although they perceive a potential threat and have a heightened awareness to their surroundings for their own survival, they are either fleeing at an incredible pace until you no longer see them or they are perfectly still, like a statue. I find it interesting that so many creatures in nature rather than busy themselves with lots of activities (like squirrels and some birds which do their own thing) practice being completely still when they sense the presence of something that could be a threat.
Stillness as a defense mechanism against something that could be dangerous or in fact, is dangerous. That is what I’d like to talk about in this post.
We live in a world and culture where stillness is frowned upon. Everything in our world and culture is telling us constantly to “hurry up,” to keep busy, to keep moving, to “be productive with your time,” to hustle, to work hard (which is rewarded promoting the behavior and encouraging even greater effort), to work long. Even our down time is time that is filled with things we are doing.
You remember the 90s when people had real down time and moments throughout their days when nothing was happening? Nobody was looking down at their phone. Nobody was streaming Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime (the culturally acceptable trifecta of noise filling our homes) or countless other streaming services. People stood in line at places and just waited, maybe even talked to other people they didn’t know who all they had in common was waiting in the same line for whatever good/service. People sitting around a dinner table (not a tv) weren’t looking at phones every few seconds, but engaged in eye contact and unpacked one another’s days or talked about issues. All of that is still there and possible, but often the distraction of a phone or tv or something fills the space and time that once existed for the possibility of connection. People to some extent have substituted technology and entertainment for relational intimacy and connection, and the result – people have actually become more lonely, perpetually exhausted, depressed, sad, suicidal.
We have become so accustomed to being distracted and entertained with every moment of every day in our modern, tech-dependent culture that we struggled like a drug addict going through withdrawals when we in a moment or space when we are forced to be still, quiet, and actually do less. People aren’t talking about this known problem as much because it is culturally acceptable like caffeine dependency, etc, but with greater consequences.
Some scholars have argued that the solution to our problems of sadness, depression, loneliness, and exhaustion are to just do more. If we would work harder to fill our time and be more productive, then we would feel better. The trouble is people just burnout when they attempt this. There is a reason that young professionals often will get into jobs straight out of college and work two work weeks in one or more for only a few years before they transition to something different altogether or a job that doesn’t demand so much – it’s unsustainable. We can’t survive being on all the time. We have to have time off when we can rest.
I was thinking on a hike this morning near where I live, what if the answer to some of the greatest challenges and problems we face isn’t more busyness and culturally defined productivity, but actually stillness?
When we consider how many pastors and authors have addressed spiritual struggles, they often have recommended praying more, reading the Bible more, going to church activities more, getting involved with communities during the week, making time each day to read the Bible and pray. All of which I am an advocate of by the way in a big way, but I believe we can get in trouble when we do all these things, we listen to music or podcasts in the car, we have our headphones in, we are doing, doing, doing, drinking a little more coffee, and then doing some more, and then finding ourselves either numb by having done so much and become exhausted, and or completely distracted and not present to those near us, let alone actually present to God in the midst of all the things we do, ironically, to connect with God.
When trouble comes in our spiritual lives, we feel we need to do more to combat the trouble, but sometimes we end up doing more and more and more only to find ourselves face to face with the same trouble. You know, they say you can’t outrun a grizzly bear? While scholars hypothesize there being no limit to how fast a human can run and theorize the possibility of humans running as fast as a car on the highway although no human has ever remotely run that fast, the fastest recorded human speed is 27.5mph and was only for a brief moment (Usain Bolt). The average running speed is between 6mph and 8mph for both men and women. A grizzly bear can reach speeds of 35mph, so if you try to outrun a grizzly bear you will be out of luck. The best defense against such imminent danger is to stay perfectly still, to stand your ground. Basically, the whole deer in headlights move that deer are so good at. It’s not moving quickly or doing lots of things that preserves us when we encounter a bear, but rather stillness. Stillness is a survival skill in nature.
Could stillness be a survival skill for our spiritual lives? Could stillness be a survival skill in the midst of living in our modern, tech-dependent, distractible societies?
I believe it could be, but how do we cultivate a still life as we live in this modern world?
We have to realize that stillness is counter to culture and so it is an act of resistance to what everyone else is doing. That means, we will be odd and will not likely find much support from others as we cultivate stillness in our lives but the result could be that we are far more equipped and prepared to face trouble in live in its many forms than others.
While there are many ways to cultivate stillness, I will focus on a few that I’ve been practicing in my life and some that I hope to incorporate into my life in hopes that some of my lived experience could benefit you. I have been trying to limit my use of technology: tv and phone. Rather than just getting home from a workday and sitting down to fill the time with whatever you can find on your streaming device until you are tired and go to bed, what if you used that time for something else? It’s a goal you could work up to, but maybe start with one night a week without tv and do some other activity that doesn’t involve a phone or tv, whether alone or with your family?
I’ve spent a lot of time working at severing my own dependence on my smartphone the past couple years. Scientists have found that the colors on smartphones create a neurobiological link in our brains which help addict us to our phones by making the actual world less appealing than our phones. Something that you can do which might sound extreme is to set your phone display setting to greyscale. Your phone will basically be a dulled black and white, without the bright colors. However, you’ll be surprised how this simple change of setting can make your phone less appealing. I still change my setting back to edit pictures but then I set it back. You can create app limits on your phone to limit the time on your phone in that app under screen time on the iPhone, and you can monitor your phone usage in screen time as well. Sure, you can by-pass the limits but think of the limits like those gutter barriers in a bowling alley when kids bowl. They are guides meant to keep you on a path. You can get around them, but to your detriment. A big help and another that may seem extreme is I removed myself from Facebook altogether, so no Messenger or Facebook apps on my phone to check. I also removed my email app from my phone and check email on my computer, which isn’t with me all the time. The email bit has helped tremendously even if I login and check my email as soon as I get home, I am not doing it constantly all day every day.
Now, here is the big challenge and help for phone addiction and cultivating a spirit of stillness in your life… Don’t go to bed with your phone and don’t wake up immediately to your phone: checking email, checking social media, checking the news, etc. You won’t sleep as well if you go to bed having been on your phone searching or checking whatever, and you will go about your day hurried, anxious, and more susceptible to stress which will make stillness very difficult and reacting in unhealthy ways to trouble more likely.
I try to start each day with 30min-1hr not on my phone at all, and be off my phone 30min-1hr before bed. That means I don’t sleep with my phone next to my bed and that means I purchased an old fashioned alarm clock. Well, it’s new fashioned, technically, it’s a Loftie alarm clock which is pretty expensive but worth it. It comes with sleep sounds and meditations built in and you can sync your alarm schedule to it via an app on your phone (which isn’t charging next to your bed at night at arm’s reach). I get to go to sleep with the sound of soft rain or a redwood forest which through a setting will automatically shutoff after so long so that it doesn’t keep me up at night, but relaxes me into good sleep and wakes me up with a gentle sound of some chiming, not buzzing. It’s great, but what is even greater is not having my phone next to me or not even in my bedroom. Making your own rules for technology can be helpful.
Perhaps you commute to work, maybe instead of that audiobook, podcast, or song you turn the speakers off and just commute for that 20min-1hr in silence. You’ll be surprised how difficult this is initially and how amazing it can be in time. Intentionally leave your phone at home or in the car. Have times when you are without your phone. If something happens, you will find out because you will be on your phone eventually, but you don’t need to be on it all the time. When you don’t have a phone to reach for, you don’t have a phone to be plugged into. Make a rule to not have your phone at the table when you are eating with friends or family, maybe make it a game and whoever looks at their phone at the table while eating out gets the bill or something.
From a spiritual standpoint, taking time in those still and in between moments of the day to focus your attention on God in Christ is key to cultivating a disposition of stillness. A heart posture that is ready for whatever may come, good or bad, in the day and in life. Think of it as unplugging from technology and plugging into a life with God through silence and solitude, meditation, lectio divina or continua, Bible reading, devotional time, prayer in all it’s many types throughout the day, or perhaps a podcast or series of songs that reinforce the same focus. All of these practices are life giving and beneficial, however, they are fruitless if we are distracted by our technologies and constantly plug our minds into something else. We have to disconnect from the technology of the world in order to connect to life with God in this busy, tech-dependent world. That doesn’t mean modern technology is evil. I am using it now, lol, but it doesn’t have to control us and it doesn’t have to smother/dominate our lives to the point that we aren’t present for God and others in our lives because we are so distracted. However, that takes intentionality. It takes resistance. Are you up for the challenge? It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. It could give you a hidden strength when danger comes your way in life. Think about it.