Spirituality and Technology: Best Frenemies

Via Joslyn Hamilton
on Feb 14, 2011
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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?


About Joslyn Hamilton

Joslyn Hamilton is a freelance writer living in beautiful Marin County, California. She is one of the co-founders of Recovering Yogi and also launched Creative Truth or Dare. Joslyn has an imaginary spice + skincare line called SimpleBasic. She is a functioning craftaholic and counts hiking, cooking, reading and rabid tweeting among her many chaste vices. Reach her directly at [email protected]


15 Responses to “Spirituality and Technology: Best Frenemies”

  1. Blake says:

    I wonder if there were workshops in the past that discussed how to use the new technologies that we don't even think about. "You going to the workshop on Mindfulness and the Printing Press: How Not to Get Sucked Into Books?" I believe it will all work out.

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  3. Padma Kadag says:

    ….And if one is not on a path which requires a Guru…then how does one stay on the path without distraction? When we surf the net we go only to those sites which we want. We do what we want just as we have been doing for countless lifetimes, if you believe in that sort of thing, and where has it gotten us? How will we be shaken out of our ignorance via technology? Is seeking pleasure a spiritual path? We under a strong delusion that somehow we are making spiritual headway if we "feel good". How will technology or the internet understand what it is to shake me out of this cloud of ignorance? I suppose if we equate spiritual experience with accumulating more and more feel good emotion and an "it's all good" attitude then maybe you are right.

  4. Hi Padma, Thanks for your thoughtful response. While I'm certainly not advocating that the Internet or any aspect of technology replace the age-old need for real live teachers, I do think there is a place for technology as a tool or even facilitator of spiritual growth. I'm interested in finding out more about web sites, applications, and other platforms that work to unite the concepts of spirituality and technology.

    For instance, last year I went on a weeklong silent retreat to practice mindfulness meditation. When I returned, I had access to all the dharma talks from those teachings through Dharma Seed. I was able to download those talks to my iPod and can now listen to them again and again, reminding me of the insights I gained on that retreat and bringing me back to my center as a mindfulness meditator in the moments I need a refresher. This, however, will not preclude me from taking another silent retreat again soon.

    As for a guru, I'm not sure if it's appropriate to say that all Westerners are looking for or even need one. I am not of the mind that one needs a guru to develop spirituality. Spirituality in the West turns out to be a whole different animal than traditional Eastern spirituality. Not better or worse — just different. There's room for all different kinds, in my mind.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Yes…I understand the Guru thinking of the West. It appears that you are right about "Western Spirituality" not depending on those who have some experience on "going before". I will say that this term "western" which we use has a basis in science or linear thinking and does not really pertain to the spiritual. If we associate "western" with Christianity then the idea of needing a Guru is supported by Christ's Guru John the Baptist. If we relate "western" to mean this place called North America then the "Trainer" or Guru idea is relevant within all of the North American tribes. Is it possible to attain deep insight without a Guru? of course. But pitfalls and wrong view can overtake deepest realizations without a teacher who has gone before. Thats all.

  6. I don't want to alarm you, but according to the book I'm reading right now (mentioned above), not only will the world be run by robots eventually, but we will all turn INTO robots with our collective hive mentality. I personally look forward to not having to make decisions for myself any more.

  7. matthew says:

    If it does come to pass it will be so subtle and incremental we will scarcely notice it. I know my daughter would love some cyborg knee joints to cure her arthritis.

  8. matthew says:

    Fantastic piece, Recovering. And a great intro to the content of new tech.

    Next up: how is the form changing consciousness itself, and how does this change the purpose and method of yoga?

    For instance: what does it mean to invoke Iron-Age values of single-pointedness in a world literally running on intersubjective dynamism? Can online asana classes offer more rather than less potential for embodiment in a world of increasing social anxiety? How is Facebook a potential tong-len machine?

    That we can follow Swami Dingdong's tweets is about the least interesting part of social media. Especially when the dude's dead. Much more interesting is the question of how tweeting is an extension of the yogic fascination with aphorism.

  9. matthew says:

    There were in fact! Late Vedic lore is filled with admonitions about the perils of writing: that it will destory human memory and breed confusion by separated the speaker from the speech. I agree, Blake — I think we dealt with it, as best we could.

  10. Padma Kadag says:

    Wow…Joslyn…what comment are you reading? If you are using the term "western" maybe you should try and define it. Actually I use science everyday and studied Biology and Botany in college. There is no problem with science and spirituality. No one is ramming a guru down your throat as an elitist….where does that come from? I was careful in my first comment to be commenting from Vajrayana Buddhism. Here one needs a teacher or Guru. All of the great traditions whether from indigenous cultures or buddhism, etc….the person that was a seeker relied on a "trainer" or a Guru. If you want to shop on the internet for a spirituality then by all means go for it….said the elitist.

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