Got the digital holiday blues? Try 'Returning to Reality'

Spirited Thinking | Dec. 10, 2012

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Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. Copyright of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with permission.
Phillip Thompson

Author Phillip Thompson.

For anyone who looks around at the busyness of life and wonders if something's not quite right, Emory's Phillip Thompson says you're not alone. His new book, "Returning to Reality: Thomas Merton's Wisdom for a Technological Age," captures and illuminates some relevant and inspiring thoughts of Merton, Trappist monk and one of the great spiritual thinkers of the 20th century, a perfect gift for minds exhausted by the digital downside of life during the harried holidays.  

Thompson, executive director of the Thomas Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory's Candler School of Theology, has examined the ideas of Catholic intellectuals engaged with science and technology for some time, but found himself returning to Merton.  

"We're all under this pressure, but we don't always realize it because it is ingrained in our society," says Thompson in an interview with Emory's Spirited Thinking blog. The book is his answer to the rampant consumerism all around us, what he calls our "technological mentality" that ends up changing the way we live, even the way we think.  

Thompson is quick to point out that he is not immune to this way of thinking. He jokes about having a button that reads, "Take my advice; I'm not using it." Years ago when practicing law, he went on a silent retreat for a week.

"It was so hard not to schedule every moment," says Thompson. "I had been so used to filling little increments of time (in the form of billable hours), that I couldn’t think of spiritual life as openness to the possibilities. I was trying to force God to appear or something spiritual to happen."

Without being aware of it, he says in the book, "we allow a mentality of efficiency and productivity to become our highest priorities." Merton warned of those who want to "achieve contemplation as the fruit of planned effort and of spiritual ambition."

What they discover is that at the end of all that effort, said Merton, "there is nobody there" but "only an illusory, fictional 'I' which seeks itself, struggles to create itself out of nothing, maintained in being by its own compulsion and the prisoner of his own private illusion."

Given Merton's renown advocacy of interreligious dialogue, it's not surprising that he found a deep connection with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory, says Thompson.

"Merton met the Dalai Lama on his last trip to India in 1968," he says. "They saw eye to eye on some important ideas and saw something beautiful in each other.

"The Dalai Lama has said there is not enough compassion in our technological world," says Thompson. "Merton was getting at the same kind of point. In a world where everything is based on outcomes and efficiency, what happens to compassion and caring for the marginalized and disabled? We need to be there for them."

Perhaps as an admission that most readers are going to want a "To Do" list (you know who you are), Thompson includes in the book's conclusion Merton's guidelines for nurturing a contemplative life.

Some are rooted in Merton's Christian faith: "Penetrate the inner meaning of life in Christ and see the full significance of its demands. . . "

Others are universal: "Find time to experience nature . . . " and "Value in each day some quiet moments."

Merton also posited that people "consider a vow of modest living," an idea that keeps getting traction in various forms, from the slow food movement to work-life balance, from  simple living to sustainable development.

It's not that Merton was against technology. "He knew that technology was an unavoidable aspect of modern life, even in a monastery," says Thompson. But Merton knew "we needed discernment to determine how technology affirmed or demeaned human life."

If you become aware of how technology affects your life, then you're halfway home, says Thompson

So find some time to turn off the TV/computer/notebook/tablet/phone — and just be.