February 14, 2011

Spirituality and Technology: Best Frenemies

Recently I went up to Spirit Rock Retreat Center for a daylong mindfulness workshop called “Wisdom 2.0.”

It was hosted by Soren Gordhamer, founder of the annual conference of the same name, and Will Kabat-Zinn, son of Jon “Wherever You Go, There You Are” Kabat-Zinn. I was excited about this daylong because technology and spirituality are two major interests of mine, and the possibilities for discussion seemed endless.

At places like Spirit Rock and events like mindfulness daylongs, it goes without saying that electronic devices are generally frowned upon. There is ubiquitous pressure to be device-free at “spiritual” events. If you even glance at your iPhone during such a thing, people will judge you as an under-present douchebag. It’s a faux pas punishable by social annihilation to bring a cell phone into a yoga studio. We’ve all hated on that one person who dared to bring her Crackberry into class with her and lay it on her mat while practicing her day’s yoga. She could be a doctor on call for brain surgery for all we know, but in yoga, all that matters is the sanctity of the $20 yoga moment, right? Hmm.

We’ve all heard the reasons why technology is “bad for us.”

It’s distracting; it promotes multitasking; it’s making entire generations suddenly A.D.D.; we’re addicted to it; we don’t know when to stop. In fact, I’m currently reading a book called You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto by Jared Lanier that talks about how the Internet revolution is melting our brains.

In spiritual circles it’s just not cool to be a techie.

But still, I wonder if there is a way that we can embrace the omnipotent electronic world and still be “spiritual.” Why are these things mutually exclusive? Who says?

The truth is, I’m a big fan of technology and think it’s kind of strange how rarely we actually acknowledge and give gratitude for the many, many good things it does for us and the way it’s changed our lives for the better. I feel blessed to live in the time of the Internet and thank my stars I embraced computer technology early on.

One of the refreshing highlights of the Wisdom 2.0 daylong was that we spent time in pairs discussing ways in which the new technology has actually impacted our lives for the better. Not just in the obvious ways (the Internet is hella useful and cell phones have been known to save lives from time to time) but in the subtle, personal ways.

Internet technology has altered my own life in a profoundly beneficial direction. Being a writer, I vastly prefer written methods of communication to the phone (fondly known as the bane of my existence) and have cultivated many long-distance friendships largely due to email and text. In fact, my two creative partners — with whom I recently launched the community forum Recovering Yogi — live hundreds of miles away from me. We stay connected on a daily basis by virtue of the various modes of communication available to us, yet we rarely talk on the phone. And Recovering Yogi is itself a way of connecting people of like mind via the Internet (as is this very publication, Elephant Journal).

But getting back to Wisdom 2.0.

The workshop often veered into the territory of finding ways to stay more mindful while engaged with technology. It’s pretty clear that in this age of constant access to the Internet, iPhone apps, Wii, Hulu, etcetera etcetera ETCETERA that we need to stay boundaried and grounded around our electronics use, lest we turn ourselves into virtual robots. In my own household I have a no-electronics-in-the-bedroom rule that makes for a lot less mindless web surfing late at night. And I do my best to separate my car-driving from my electronics-using (with the possible exception of Google maps).

But what I’d really like to hear about is how technology can actually help to further the pursuit of spirituality, how technology and spirituality can lift each other up. I have a hunch there are a lot of opportunities out there for people to put the new technologies to creative spiritual use. And I’m not talking about daily auto-tweets of Pema Chodron and Dalai Lama quotes. (is Parahamsa Yogananda really following me on Twitter? Dude is dead.) I’m talking about finding a spiritual experience through being engaged with technology — not despite it.

So here’s a start — some web sites I personally use that harness the power of new technology to spread positive messages about spirituality.

  • PBS’s Buddha movie (At one point this entire movie was available online. I think they may have taken it back. But full information about how to watch it is indeed available at this site.)
  • Free, streaming dharma talks available at Dharma Seed
  • Ted.com
  • OhLife – A nifty journaling service that sends you an email every evening prompting you to journal about your day. You hit “reply” to make a daily entry, and eventually you start getting them back. For instance, today you might get back something you wrote a month ago. This is a lovely tool for introspection and self-reflection.
  • Dharma Punx The hub site for Noah Levine’s paradigm-busting, revolutionary mindfulness community, where you can get information about Dharma Punx community sanghas all over the place  and sign up for mailing lists to stay in the loop.
  • The Mindbody app on my iPhone that allows me to find the next nearest yoga class, wherever I am, at the touch of a button.

Who wants to contribute to this list?

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