Monkey Mind, Lent, and E-Asceticism Print
By Robert Royal   
Saturday, 25 February 2012

Buddhist monks use a lovely image for the usual condition of our thoughts: they call it monkey mind. Picture a monkey scrambling from one branch to another looking for bananas or nuts, or – to mix animal metaphors – just horsing around with the other monkeys. Naturally, the monks seek to detach from monkey mind and to achieve a deep state of contemplation.

Contrary to immediate appearances, monkey mind has its uses, limited though they may be. Very few of us can be full-time monks. And that’s a good thing in its way. If we didn’t scramble to pay the bills, keep the kids on an even keel, manage all the other things necessary to an ordinary human life, most of us would be making even worse monkeys of ourselves, so to speak, in many practical ways.

The trick – and it’s a difficult one – is to find some way, everyday, that we can keep the practicalities from eating us alive and get in touch with the deep down permanent things. Lent is a good season, of course, to reflect on the kinds of obstacles that each of us especially finds most hampers us from that life-giving contact.

Like everyone else, during Lent I need the usual disciplines: fasting, increased prayer. Those in particular are two practices that, we have dominical assurance, are the only way to cast out certain evils.

In recent years, though, I’ve found that another problem looms larger and larger. It may not be appropriate for the editor of an online publication to say, but I find that the Internet itself is the worst distraction of all. If many of us don’t get that version of monkey mind under control, the rest of the spiritual effort may simply get lost.

The Internet has many good uses. Even just casually surfing around can be fine – if you’ve thought out in advance how much time you should spend and what kind of surfing you’re going to do. But there’s a tendency, something like drinking that third glass of wine, to reach a kind of point where all bets are off.

So I’ve started to develop for myself some rules of what I like to think of as e-asceticism. The first thing I do when I’m sitting at my desk is close the email program and the browser, unless work really demands that I stay connected. And I only reopen them at designated times of day and for predetermined stretches unless there’s some really pressing reason. The same goes for the smartphone.

We’ve gotten used to the idea, young people worst of all, that we should be instantly connected with one another, and somehow with people farther away than the people with whom we’re physically present. There’s nothing more absurd in the modern world than to see two teenagers walking down the street together each talking on the cell phone – to someone else.


If you try the simple rules above for a few days, you’ll find what a strong hold unfocused monkeying around on the Internet now has on your attention. The neuroscientists are starting to look into the ways that this sort of interaction with electronic devices is altering our brain chemistry – and the results are not pretty.

Wandering attention is a common theme in manuals of spirituality. But the classic writers didn’t have to deal with the digitized onslaught we do. In one way, it may seem a distraction from traditional wisdom even to bother with this subject. But in another, it may be precisely this form of temptation that most calls for fresh thought – and e-asceticism.

I recently heard a homily by a wise priest who warned about unusual new forms of covetousness: he’d noticed in confession that some people have developed a kind of lust for collecting MP3 music files. And even before you get all the way over to the truly frightening online pornography deluge, there are numerous new digital variations on the old seven deadly sins.

But like almost everything else, our new e-situation can also be turned to great benefit. I’ve got the liturgy of the hours on my smart phone and, so, now have no excuse for not saying morning and evening prayer wherever I am. Some days get the better of me from the moment I get out of bed, but on the whole I’m doing better than ever at that particular practice.

And if you can keep yourself from spiritual gluttony, you can dip into the Bible, almost all of Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton, and many more spiritual masters online and just a couple of clicks away. (And there’s always also The Catholic Thing, which, of course, you should read daily.)

For certain writers, you need a physical book in hand – one that you can mark up and easily flip back and forth. But in either format, you want to read slow and dive deep. One of the worst mistakes in both the intellectual and spiritual life is to mistake quantity for quality. It’s easy to click onto something else. Hard to sit still and meditate on what demands time and personal engagement.

So have a good Lent. And good luck with your e-asceticism.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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