Perhaps nothing in contemporary culture is more revelatory of our perpetually distracted state than our attachment to electronic devices such as iPhones, iPods, iPads, cell phones, and laptops. It seems as if we are not able to function without the distraction of technology. Now, technology properly used is a wonderful thing. However, when technology becomes an end in itself to distract us from who we are and our ultimate destiny as well as from human communication with others, it becomes a problem. And distraction is a problem, for Abba Poimen living far from our world of technology in the simple and barren desert went so far as to say, “distraction is the beginning of evils” (PG 65.332). What would he say today?
Technology and its distractions, like idols in ancient times, refashion human beings into something far different from what they were intended to be. The ego, as mentioned in the last blog post, can become so dominant that people under its sway becomes lost in its seeking and desiring forms of entertainment and distraction. We becomes slaves to our own ego, constantly seeking instant gratification and solutions to mundane problems all the while distracted from the source of our existential problem, which is alienation from God. Our higher self becomes enslaved to our lower self and our lower self to the myriad of distractions that technology sets before our eyes. We lose our ability to be still and focus on the “one good part that should not be taken from us.” We multitask to accomplish more, even though psychological studies have shown that in so doing, we ultimately accomplish less. We’ve sold our royal birthright unknowingly. As the illumined Elder Aimilianos wrote before the age of the internet and cell phones, “In the industrial era, people became consumers and slaves to things produced. In post-industrial society, they are also becoming consumers and slaves to images and information, which fill their lives.”
When technology becomes the vehicle through which we disconnect from nature and those around us, we become further alienated from our true selves. Technology usurps the primary role in human life: seeking communion and restoration in God. The problem can become so acute that we begin to view our relationship with God and prayer as a distraction rather than the source of our salvation and healing. At this point, our world has been turned completely upside down. Elder Aimilianos has written presciently about this subject, “The most dreadful enemy created by post-industrial culture, the culture of information technology and the image, is cunning distraction. Swamped by millions of images and a host of different situations on television and in the media in general, people lose their peace of mind, their self-control, their powers of contemplation and reflection and turn outwards, becoming strangers to themselves, in a word mindless, impervious to the dictates of their intelligence. If people, especially children, watch television for 35 hours a week, as they do according to statistics, then are not their minds and hearts threatened by Scylla and Charabdis, are they not between the devil and the deep blue sea? (Homer, Odyssey, XII, 85).”
The antidote is the constant and abiding remembrance of God in our daily lives, but such remembrance is itself only possible through stillness. This is no doubt why Saint Ephraim the Syrian wrote that we must “love stillness in order to be delivered from distraction.” Since we have become so accustomed to our technological attachments, it will take discipline to accomplish this. If we are serious about combating distraction as a spiritual illness, we must be willing to lay aside these sources of distraction during times of prayer and the Services. We must discipline ourselves to turn off those devices, so that we can allow our hearts and mind to function in the way they were ultimately meant to function in keeping with the commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27).