For Shlain, who created the Webby Awards to honor the best of the Internet, the emphasis of her family’s Shabbat, however ironically, is on taking time away from technology.
“We’ve been doing it for a decade now, and it’s just been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “And it feels like the longer we’ve done it, the more crazy society has become with their addiction to the screen, and so the more profound it became as a life practice.”
Shlain calls this practice a “Technology Shabbat.”
It’s something she’s spoken and made short films about over the past decade. She started the film studio Let It Ripple and its global initiative Character Day, which this year (Friday and continuing Saturday) is focused on the relationship between character and technology.
“In the same vein that I practice yoga and meditation, but I’m not Hindu or Buddhist, I really hope that people will engage with this idea of a Tech Shabbat as something that can make your life better and bring great meaning and purpose to it,” she said.
Shlain talked to Religion News Service about how she and her family began observing a Tech Shabbat, how it has changed them and why others might consider the practice. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you start to practice Tech Shabbat?
A: I never grew up doing Shabbat, but when I met my husband, he had lived in Israel during graduate school and he would take a full day of Shabbat. I thought that was fantastic. So we did versions of that.
When the iPhone came out, I think everyone can remember how it started to blur every boundary that existed in our lives [between] work and rest. So I was feeling incredibly distracted all the time. And I had these two life events that were quite traumatic that happened within days of each other: My father, who I was really close to, died, and my husband’s and my daughter was born. It really felt like life was grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, “Focus on what’s important.”
Shortly after that, I am part of a Jewish “rethinking rituals” group called Reboot, and we did the first national day of unplugging. It was one ceremonial day to think about the Sabbath in terms of turning off our screens. We did it that one day, and we never stopped. We were the only people in that group that just were like, okay, this is the solution. This boundary is very clear. The boundary of a day of rest in our modern society is about screens.
Q: How do you feel like engaging this practice weekly has changed you and changed your family?
A: We’re just so much more with each other on our Tech Shabbat. We always have a big Shabbat meal with family and friends, so there’s that incredible sense of empathy and humor. We’re laughing, we’re cooking, we’re around the table, and there’s not a screen in sight. Everyone’s present in a very different way when there’s no screens anywhere.
And then we sleep more deeply on Friday nights than any night of the week. During the day, my husband and I do a lot of journaling and writing. I will pull out articles I really want to think deeply about. We’ll make art, we’ll go biking, we’ll take naps, we’ll laugh a lot more. It just feels so great every week. We always comment on it. You’d think it would get old by now.
It also feels like it makes time slow down. I think technology is speeding up our sense of time. So I feel like we have this great device to press the pause button and just slow it all down. And what’s the one day you want to feel really long? It’s Saturday.
The other added benefit that happens when we all go back online is you kind of appreciate the marvels of technology all over. It’s like, wow, it’s an amazing tool, and I can contact anyone and look up anything. Every week, I can’t wait to turn it all off and close off the whole world and create a “palace in time,” as the Jewish philosopher Heschel calls it. And then every Saturday night, I’m excited I live in a time where there’s this connectivity.
Q: You draw on the Jewish ritual of a weekly day of rest and write about cultivating empathy and silence and gratitude. How can unplugging be a spiritual experience for people with different faith backgrounds or no faith?
A: I wanted to make it really accessible for everyone — so for my fellow Jews, wherever you fall on the spectrum of denomination or even secular, this is this amazing practice from our ancestors, and it is so needed right now and today.
And then also every different religion has different forms of days of rest — [Christians have] Sabbath, and Muslims have different days, have different forms of it — but I think in most cultures and religions it has really evaporated with our 24/7 society unless you’re extremely observant. This is an invitation to really bring this back for everyone.
Q: You also get into the science of Shabbat in your book. What was one of the findings that was most surprising to you about how unplugging is good for people?
A: I loved reading about all the Seventh-day Adventist studies. They take a full Sabbath, and there are multiple studies that point to how they live 10 years longer than most Americans. That’s pretty inspiring.
And then I think the other one was just how when you’re interrupted, it takes 23 minutes to get back into the flow or into whatever you were just doing. With all the buzzes and texts, we’re just constantly pulled out of where we are, and it makes me want to create this protected space.
Q: What do you hope people will take from your book?
A: I’ve had a lot of people write to me that they heard me speak or they saw a talk on the Internet and they started incorporating this practice into their lives, and it’s just made their lives so much better. So I’m excited to do this on a larger scale, both with the book’s publication and then this movement building around it with Character Day.
The book is both a personal story and a big-picture look at a day of rest and why we need to bring this ritual back. I hope people have an emotional journey but also think about how to bring this into your life. And then some bigger picture — look at our society and what a day of rest has meant before, what it can mean now and how to bring it back in the 21st century with this new way that we’re all living.
Instead of looking at it as a day without your phone, look at it as: What are all the things that you have more time to do? And fill your day with that.
McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for Religion News Service based in Chicago.