THE FIRST SUPPER

Connect to disconnect, the spiritual paradox of the 21st century

Chronicle by Britt Elvira Ruitenberg
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For too long, conversations about spirituality have been framed in a religious context. About orienting life towards the Holy Spirit. As much as there is spirituality inside most religious traditions, there is also spirituality without religion.

Already in the 20th century, spirituality started to associate itself with philosophical, social, and political movements. Liberalism, feminism, and green politics resulted from this connection, and many more were to come over the next decades. Today, even the Wikipedia page lists over 100 new spiritual practices that have emerged in the last century. From ethnic expressions and devotion of new deities to updated interpretations of the spiritual and self-care routines.  

These versions of spirituality exist to continue to satisfy the deeper human thirst for meaning, mystery, peace, and truth. Each one unfolds differently and understands the spiritual quest in a different way, but they do have one thing in common: they live and thrive through technology into the digital space.

Online self-care

In 1998, communication scholar Stephen O’Leary envisioned that a spiritual renaissance would take place in the online world. “Computer-based rituals, rich in iconography, image, music, and sound, would unite people in worship, transcending boundaries of time and space.” Eventually, his vision became a reality.  

Today, a bewildering array of spiritual choices is available online. Among all examples, mindfulness is the practice that has increased in popularity the most over the last couple of years, surpassing its Buddhist origins. 

Defined as “paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them”, this practice is part of a wellness movement that, combined with other popular practices such as yoga and emotional analysis, has exploded into popular consciousness. Companies such as Google, Apple, and even the U.S. Army are incorporating mindfulness practices into their culture, following the famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program by John Kabat Zinn. But we are not only talking about a different spiritual experience –a “’mode of belief’ by which to navigate the world” as theologist Richard R. Glover argues in his work ‘Paying Attention to God’—. We are talking about a spiritual practice that has reinvented itself with technological and digital means.

Augmented mindfulness, people sharing their stories of success with this practice, influencers encouraging mindfulness lifestyles, and Yahoo listing “7 tips to practice mindfulness in your home”. The Internet has put mindfulness on the map, crossing borders and making it possible to practice it outside a formal setting. We can now satisfy our spiritual longing from our homes.

Beyond mindfulness, however, new generations are also embracing many other trends. For instance, astrology has erased its taboo etiquette and introduced itself in the daily routine of many users through mobile apps.  

Every day astrological app users receive “their day at a glance”. Whether it’s a birth chart or meditations suited to your zodiac sign; astrology is the new spiritual norm. In 2018, the Times announced “astrology’s return as a compelling content business as much as a traditional spiritual practice.” There are more than 200 astrology apps in the App Store, and most popular astrological apps –like Co-Star, Sanctuary, and The Pattern—were downloaded more than a million times during 2019. It succeeds in both business and marketing, as most users like to screenshot and share these apps’ notifications on social media.  

This ancient art has made itself omnipresent: it’s in our phones and, as such, it’s in our lives, offering guidance whenever we want and as fast as possible. 

#spirituality

Many movements have derived from the relationship between the spiritual and the digital; mindfulness and astrological apps are just the tip of the iceberg. Movements at the service of people who identify themselves “as spiritual but not religious”, a label born within the Internet that refers to this group who desires a connection to the divine, without the element of devotion towards an institutionalized religion. 

Some of these movements might not be considered spiritual in the most traditional sense of the word, but they do copy similar values and conditions of some religions. They provide relief and a feeling of peace in times of uncertainty, and they help us face the world around us. 

The 21st century is defined by change and continuous innovation. In order to keep up with the constant flow of things we never lose connection. We are always online because we fear missing out and we fear the mysteries to come. “How does the tomorrow look like?”, “What is written for me in the stars?”, “Who am I in this world?”.

To face the overwhelm and the unpredictability of events, spirituality has taken over the spotlight. It is helping us to disconnect from the constant connectivity and focus all our energy on our soul, on the human spirit, a God, nature… The ironic part, however, is that this time we are using the exact same tools that cause us this anxiety for this purpose: computing devices are helping us to switch off the outside world, disengage digitally, and reconnect with our inner self. In a way, we are relying on the digital and the technological to satisfy these human needs. Doesn’t this make technology an extension of our soul?  Does this make the digital space, the cyberspace, a place with spiritual potential? 

For better or for worse, digital technology is an extension of our lives and we are less and more human because of it. As the reporter Nicole Dean incredibly once said: “Spirituality will likely continue to be present alongside technology for a long time, perhaps because technology makes the need for spirituality even greater.”

Upcoming: Case Study

Tech Cults: City & Faith

Reflecting on digital confessions with Students from Elisava School of Design
Stay tuned!

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