Instagram as Spiritual Practice

Practice of the Week
Instagram as Spiritual Practice

Category: Might Be Your Thing. The practices here are not for everyone -- but one of them may be just the thing for you! Any of these might also be, for you, in the "Occasional" category, but are listed here because they are good candidates for regular, central practices.

from Cynthia Cain, "Instagram as Spiritual Practice," in E. W. Wikstrom, editor, Faithful Practices: Everyday Ways to Feed Your Spirit, abridged and adapted.

Wendell Berry cautions about the overuse of the camera:
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
With his video camera to his eye, making
A moving picture of the moving river . . .
[At the end of his vacation]
With a flick of a switch, there it would be,
But he would not be in it. He would never be in it. (“The Vacation”)
We’re regularly reminded of the hazards of social media. It’ an addiction. It deadens the imagination. I have read that it can even be bad for your career.

Hence, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest a social media app as a spiritual discipline. Instagram is easily and often used in ways that are the opposite of spiritual discipline. The proliferation of selfies and the excessive documentation of people’s travels, material acquisitions, and superior home decorating can become weapons of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement that ultimately wound the poster and the viewer. They can also reduce our public identity to a litany of things, impoverishing our relationship with our world.

Nonetheless, it is possible to use Instagram in a way that is a spiritual discipline.

As I prepared a presentation for the final project in my spiritual direction studies, I wanted to highlight the many ways that my studies had benefited my own life and to do so visually. I used my phone to photograph ordinary things that intimated dimensions of Jungian dream work: shadows, light, clouds, water, and dream-like scenes that called to me. I stopped my car to stalk birds, stare at trees, fences, fields, and doors – whatever underscored something I’d learned in my two years’ study. The world around me offered concrete images of God’s inscrutability, boundaries, walls that we build, family systems, and archaic and ancient symbols of what Jung called the collective unconscious connecting humanity.

Instagram practice involves looking carefully at everything I pass, seeing within it the light of the holy, noticing beauty even in the broken, old, and careworn, and stopping my day to celebrate as I decide upon an angle from which to snap a photo. These aspects of my day have become equivalent to stopping and praying or to pausing and breathing.

Certainly, I’m aware that the incessant snapping of pictures on our smartphones can be an annoyance. A spiritual practice would be undermining itself if it weren’t practiced with consideration for others, so I try to keep my Instagram practice to the times when I’m alone (and as an itinerant, oft-traveled, semi-active minister, there is a lot of alone time).

I would also recommend supporting an Instagramming practice with other spiritual disciplines, especially those that span many faith traditions and are timeless and proven successful: gratitude, stopping/pausing, and deep love.

Gratitude practice. Many have found gratitude practice to be of inestimable value. People in Twelve Step programs, for instance, will tell you without hesitation that only by daily thanking God-as-they-understand-God for all that is good do they stay sober. It is absolutely clear to them that focusing on the negative will lead them back to drinking or drugs. Another place to find gratitude is in the traditional Black church. Prayers there often begin with a litany of thanks to God for the simplest gifts, starting with “I woke up today, God. Thank you.”

Stopping/pausing. Doing this throughout the day to pray or reflect evokes Muslim and Buddhist traditions. When in Turkey several years ago, I thrilled to the sound of the muezzin calling folks to prayer throughout the day. Likewise, while on Buddhist retreat, the sound of the gong reminds us of our call to stop, breathe, and move slowly to the meditation hall, or zendo. These interludes that bring us back to our connection with being itself, with creation, are the ways we carry our spiritual lives with us rather than leave them on the cushion, the church pew, or the yoga mat.

Deep love. The kind of love that the Greeks called agape goes beyond human affection or even filial adoration and includes the holy. It is an attitude of mystery, wonder, awe, and curiosity. It takes a stance of joy and delight at the vast array of textures, colors, patterns, life forms, and mutations that we encounter daily. This beauty is not only observable in nature or in the country, but in the city as well, and in human faces, smiles, bodies, art, architecture, and even in food. Celebrating magnificence and splendor or just symmetry and simplicity provides a cushion of joy that helps me to absorb and balance the lashes of pain and despair that too often come from the world, and sometimes from my immediate surroundings, from people and things I can’t control.

Practices of gratitude, stopping/pausing, and deep love influence my approach to Instagramming. Because of them, the scanning, the observing, and the framing of that perfect shot continues even when I don’t stop to take a photo.

My spiritual practices also include yoga, Buddhist meditation, meeting with a spiritual director, and attending retreats. Additionally, I tend to my spirit through cooking and listening to music. But my Instagram practice is one I can take with me when I travel or practice at home.

I share my visual insights and reverence on Instagram without regard for who will see them, but with awareness that they are meant for others. Art is created for the other, and ultimately for the world and for God. Knowing that my photos become available to the world brings a level of sanctity to what I do. My pictures are more than a hobby; they, like sermons, are a creation and an offering, whether for an audience of one or one thousand. In sharing these images, these moments, my wish is that others find a moment of respite, of wonder, and of gratitude in the midst of a chaotic and sometimes disheartening world.

Instagram postings: first three by Meredith Garmon, next three by Cynthia Cain

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