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Angela Tilby: Apps can teach us to live well

01 June 2018


I HAVE just acquired a watch that tells me when to breathe. Not to save my life in emergencies, but to invite me to a “mindful minute”, in which I breathe in and out as a gentle vibration caresses the back of my wrist and a blue-green lotus-like thing expands and contracts on the watch’s face.

The first time the watch commanded me to breathe was on a weekday, just before choral­thoughts ranged from what setting of the canticles we were about to hear to what might be in the fridge for supper. Slow breathing ensured that my busy brain was moderately calmed, and so I did two more mindful minutes, and found myself in quite a recollected state by the time the choir walked in. Later, my watch congratulated me for having clocked up three whole minutes.

It is easy to mock fitness apps, with their little clicks and whirrs reminding you to stand up once an hour and count your daily steps. Some may feel that they are going too far by prompting wearers to control their breathing to induce a sense of calm. Perhaps, instead of quiet breathing, I should have knelt and prayed before evensong, as people used to do, acknowledging my dependence on God and examining my conscience.

As it happens, I rather like the intimacy of the watch app and the neutrality of the expanding flower. I find that it helps me to be present to God without drawing attention to myself. It reminds me that even a “Christian” self can be a construction of the needy ego.

The Church of England’s newly launched “Alexa skill” can recite prayers and answer questions about the faith (News, 25 May). That has a place, of course, but what intrigues me about my watch is that, as a thoroughly secular invention, it provides a simple introduction to the first steps of spiritual practice.

It is part of a growing convergence between religious and secular thought about what it means to live well. In fact, while the Church often remains preoccupied with itself, secular gurus are confidently preaching that bodily moderation, self-giving, and gratitude are important for our well-being, and that mindful attention can lead to inner peace.

If slowing our breathing and being present can nudge us to a point of self-surrender, whatever our beliefs, we are learning something both about ourselves and about the universe we live in.

It even opens the way to a new kind of Christian apologetic. We should be noting the extent to which the unchurched realise that there is something more to life than shopping and spending, worrying and regretting. There is unmediated presence, grace. And that (as Aquinas didn’t quite say, though perhaps he would today) surely points to what all people know as God.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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