Rules of Disengagement


Among the central tenants of Ignatian Spirituality is the concept of detachment. To live a spiritually healthy life, one must live a balanced life. All things ordered properly, no earthly thing worshiped as a god.

Attachments can be seductive. They seem important, and the mind can justify anything. My own attachments lately have revolved around technology and politics. Both of these forces attract enormous energy, both are growing in their cultural intensity.

So I have tried to construct some personal guidelines for staying grounded. Practice, practice, practice has been my motto. I try not to beat myself up for lapses, because that inclination can destroy progress.

Online Detachment

No simple solution exists for this dilemma. No pure philosophy against technology makes sense in the 21st century. Unless you’re living in a self-sustaining farming community, your life will require interaction with the online world. My goal is to keep the digital life from crowding out emotional, cognitive, or spiritual spaces.

1. Hang up and drive. Staying off the phone while driving is a good rule of thumb for safety sake, but the car is also a perfect opportunity for mindfulness. Concentrating on the road, feeling the weight of the pedals under the feet. Letting the mind go where it goes. A key discipline is to resist the red light boredom fix: checking email or text messages or Instagram or Twitter.

2. Blackout periods. Each day, stay off the grid for at least 30 minutes. Going to the gym? Ditch the phone. Opening a book? Turn the gadgets off. Go for a walk, free from devices. It just feels different to be unavailable, without access to the web. Don’t forget what that feels like.

3. Social media vacation. I’m currently on a hiatus from all social media. It feels different. The urgency fades after a few days. I think it’s helpful to step back and remember what routines feel like without the constant barrage of other people’s business. Another benefit is to guard against “change blindness” which is the tendency to not notice gradual changes over time. Social media platforms change constantly. When Facebook first published “newsfeed” it nearly caused a riot among users concerned with privacy, then after two weeks nobody remembered the old version. Total disconnection, even periodically, will help us notice changes in ourselves and the platforms we use.

Political Detachment

I have to be careful, here, and point out that detachment does not mean apathy. A person may feel inspired into appropriate, even radical, political action. On the other hand, someone recently took a gun and shot up a pizza place after believing a weird online conspiracy theory called “pizzagate.” Much is at stake in the world of politics these days. It can feel like the fate of humanity is hanging in the balance. And it might be. Yet no matter how grim, political reality need not disrupt our personal equilibrium.

1. Check emotions with reality. Partisanship is fueled by emotion. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. The other side is stupid. Any idea from the other side is automatically wrong. We wear these worldview filters, which are charged with intense feelings. In a world of alternative facts, both sides need to check their feelings, look first to reason and evidence, and approach reality with clear eyes.

2. Seek other points of view. Try out an open mind. I’ve been so absorbed in my distaste for the president that I find myself cathartically reading liberal screed. So I’ve started forcing myself to read conservative articles in the National Review. If I disagree or feel angry with a point, I try to notice why. The practice rounds out thinking and allows new perspectives. Holy anger can be called for at times. But without critically examining our own ideas or openly considering different views, we might develop a ‘pizzagate’ mindset without realizing it.

3. Breathe. No matter how important current events seem, the people in our lives are always more important. Even if a war breaks out or chaos erupts in the streets, our lives are shaped by our interactions with the people around us.

For Ignatius, any worldly thing and any life condition held the capacity to draw out goodness– the ultimate goodness being harmony with God. The key was interior awareness.

Maybe we can look at these disruptive times and see the chance to orient life around more eternal things.



Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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