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Monasticism and spiritual formation | W. David Phillips

Monasticism and spiritual formation

A couple of months ago, I was browsing an email I get three times a day from HARO (Help a Reporter Out). HARO is a email list that delivers respected reporters and journalists expert sources that can help them get the next great story. On this particular day, I noticed a request from a Neuro-psychologist whose research focuses on ADD & ADHD and blogs at Psychology Today. This doctor was looking for people who had ADD and ADHD to discuss how this unique brain condition affected their spiritual lives. I have ADD, and so I immediately responded and shared my story.

I was diagnosed with Adult ADD in 2006 by my ministry coach, a former pastor who is now a Christian psychologist. I know that I have been trying to manage it for at least ten years, if not all my life. When I was an elementary and high school student, there was no such thing as ADD. I don’t know that I even heard of it in college. If I had it, I simply managed it, and I did pretty good job with it as I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school class and went on to be accepted into three doctoral programs in separate disciplines, finally getting to start and finish my Doctor of Ministry in 2009.

I explicitly noticed something in my life change sometime around 1999. There came a point that I noticed I could not calm my mind for more than a few seconds at a time. My mind was constantly working.

After I was diagnosed, I began to do some research into adult ADD and discovered that while technology was not an instigator of ADD, it would make it worse. In 1997, I began to work for an internet startup and by 1999 I was working at times 80 hours per week. The more I worked in the field, the more difficult it was to quiet my brain.

As technology has grown, it has now becoming a dominating activity in our life. The rise of social media makes it even worse.

Meditation and prayer, quieting the mind to hear the voice of God is one of the most difficult things I attempt during the day. I find it nearly impossible, in fact.

Spiritual formation, however, is so important in the life of a Christ-follower. It is the process of the Holy Spirit forming us into the image of Christ so that we can hear and obey his voice and his calling. If we cannot meditate, quiet our mind and bring stillness to our heart, hearing God through all the distractions can be a difficult endeavor and potentially slow the formation process.

The headline of a recent article on the website of Newsweek Magazine tells it all: I Can’t Think!

The subtitle of the article give more explanation and demonstrates part of the issue arising culturally not only for children and adults with AD(H)D but with the technologically oriented en masse – which includes most of us and certainly most of our kids. It states: The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence–our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.

A November, 2010 New York Times article entitled “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” notes the following about the student culture:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks – and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

Technology is distracting us and will, over time, wire our brains in a way that impacts our behavior. I explored this in my book Holy Rewired. I have mentioned in previous blog posts, that multi-tasking is not possible in the brain; it is not designed to function that way. Multi-tasking is a myth and it results in a lack of productivity and even short-term memory loss.

My own issues with ADD have helped me realize that to battle this distracted tendency and to manage the distracted-ness of what is coming we are going to have to think about spiritual formation in a much different way. My own journey has convinced me that re-engaging certain monastic practices can empower us to tune out the noise and listen to the still small voice of the Spirit.

In the next few posts, I want to explore the idea that a renewed implementation of monasticism is the pathway to 21st century spiritual formation.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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