on fasting, attention and desire

A week into Lent and I’m finding an interesting link between fasting, attention and desire.

A Christian fast is mainly abstinence from food but in true postmodern 21st century style, we now apparently need social media fasts.

I’m on one this Lent; limiting my time on social media to one short pre-supper slot, with nothing again for 24 hrs. Those of you who’ve ever noticed the very short time lapse between consecutive tweets that some people can only manage (e.g. 45 mins) will know a social media fast is a true fast.

It’s surprising what fasting can do for your ability to pay attention the rest of the time.

I had always thought my ability to pay attention was about average, but the advent of instant, constant communicative electronic media has played havoc with any kind of single minded attentiveness I might have had before.

Multitasking is held up to be the ultimate skill these days. You hear it of mothers and women priests: oh, they’re good at multitasking. Men, apparently, are not so good. Lucky them.

Personally, I think multi tasking is over rated and my fantasy these days is to go into a room, shut the door, switch off mentally from everything else, and do one thing well. Like make the perfect cup of tea. Or read one chapter of a book without getting up from the chair to go and do something else terribly important that’s just popped into my head.

And how many times have you been out with a group of people, and someone asks a question, and instead of everyone saying ‘we don’t know’, someone has to look it up on Google, because they have to know the answer, to something entirely trivial, right then. And the conversation is shot.

Any type of fasting creates space for something else that was crowded out before. In my case, attentiveness. Lent feels tricky for extroverts, because giving up things feels like a loss. That’s the point though. There has to be a felt loss, in order to make space for awareness. And in that growing awareness, God is never far behind.

Extroverts fear being bored. But often our fear of boredom attracts false desires. Before eBay I suppose there were catalogues and people would sit reading them for relaxation and start to imagine the things they ‘needed’, which up till that point they didn’t even know existed.

I look at Country Living and suddenly I need a new rug for the sofa arm. I read a supermarket freebie and suddenly I urgently require another scented candle. I waste 50 minutes researching the most beautiful scented candles on the internet and cannot rest till one is ordered. But before I read that page, I wasn’t even thinking of scented candles.

Now with eBay, even when I’m not searching for something I need, I find myself searching for things to need. A subtle shift, and a spiritual problem. I’m distracted and I think I need more stuff when actually I need less. I have desires that need to be trained, or disciplined, because they’re not legitimate, and they’re a distraction.

Appetites have to be trained and, like St Paul (Romans 7) I know I’m helpless to train mine without divine help. There’s a bored hole that cries out like a petulant child to be filled, even when no appetite really exists.

Fasting creates space. Space to notice how I try to appease non existent appetites, how I distract myself and can’t pay attention, and how I am drawn to endless physical comfort where spiritual comfort would more effective and less self centred.

Well. I’m discovering that the Christian practice of Lent is not for the faint hearted.

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