Don’t leave me alone in here! ~ a Buddhist’s thoughts on Smartphone addiction

smartphone addiction

smartphone addictionSociety today could do with some meditation!

Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:

“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”

6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.

It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?

The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:

smartphone in carExtract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”

He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.

Give yourself a real break

In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:

“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”

happiness 2Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:

“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”

But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”

So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering jack in the box

Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:

“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”

Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”

As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:

“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song :-)

And that’s not all …

The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us 3d rendering of a water splash with ripple shaped as a heart.of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.

Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).

So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.

Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!

How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind

water bubbles 1

In the last article on Buddha and the Brain, I quoted from Transform Your Life on how our body and mind are different entities. If this is true, it has huge implications on our lives: for one thing it allows for the continuum of past and future lives and karma. It also means that our mind has infinite potential for spiritual development, unlike our meaty body (including brain), which necessarily has a limited shelf life!

In the beautiful Buddhist Mahamudra teachings, we learn to actually meditate on the nature and function of our own mind, the formless continuum of our awareness. I was taught this meditation early on in my meditation life and it is popular amongst both old and new practitioners in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. So I know from experience that even if you are new to meditation it is possible to get a feeling for the clarity of your own mind, which in turn will give you an experiential insight into what the mind is and how your thoughts and feelings arise.

This is useful because happiness and suffering both depend upon the mind, and so if we want to avoid suffering and find enduring happiness it makes sense to understand how the mind works and use that understanding to bring our mind under control. In this way we will improve the quality of our life, both now and in the future.

This meditation actually has infinite benefits – from calming our mind and helping us to dissolve away distractions, worry and delusions; to improving our concentration and mindfulness; to preparing us for a realization of the ultimate nature of things, their emptiness of existing from their own side; to increasing our bliss and the ability to realize directly our own very subtle mind; and, finally, to attaining actual enlightenment. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.”

I thought I would introduce this meditation practically and simply in the way that I have often done it with the hope that you’ll come to love it too, if you don’t already.

First a little background…

In Mahamudra Tantra Geshe Kelsang explains the location, nature and function of the mind so that we can meditate on these.

Our mind is principally located in the region of our heart channel wheel, or heart chakra. Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects…The function of the mind is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or impute objects.

The mind has the power to perceive objects. Geshe Kelsang has used “perceive” and “appear” interchangeably in many teachings, so the mind has the power to “appear” objects, or we can say to “project” them.

Nothing exists outside of our experience — to exist means to be known by mind. Mind’s function is to cognize. It knows, cognizes or apprehends the things it “appears”. (Our ignorance believes these objects are actually out there, like believing a movie is “out there” coming at our mind rather than the other way around). Everything is imputed by mind, even the mind itself.

In our meditation on the mind we stop the projector, so to speak, and let all these perceptions or appearances dissolve into the clarity of the mind. Its nature is still to appear or project/impute, but we’re looking at the mind itself now rather than the objects projected – this is also rather like looking in the mirror/reflector rather than at the reflections in the mirror.

The mind also has the power to create. Mind is the “creator of all” according to Buddha. This becomes clearer the more we understand how the world and its inhabitants are merely imputed by mind, and you can read more in Geshe Kelsang’s brilliant explanation in Mahamudra Tantra.

We meditate on our mind in the location of the heart chakra because that is where our root mind or very subtle mind is said to be “located”. This is because the inner energy winds that support or are associated with our very subtle mind are located here.

You can bear any of this in mind as you do the meditation, but do keep the meditation simple as in the guidelines below, especially if you are just starting out. In the meditation, we’ll dissolve all our thoughts away and meditate on the nature and function of the mind located at the heart.

There are lots of other ways to do this meditation too that you can find out from New Kadampa Tradition meditation teachers, including in Mahamudra Tantra pages 100ff. (Before you start, you might find it helpful to remind yourself of the instructions on seeking, finding, holding and remaining, including the advice on how to stay concentrated on your meditation object, outlined in How to soar in the space of meditation.)

You’ll need 15-30 minutes. I’ve left spaces where you can pause to follow the guidelines.

The meditation

Sit comfortably with a straight back, gently close your eyes, generate a loving motivation, and settle your mind with a few minutes breathing meditation. (There is a simple breathing meditation explained here.)

Once you have overcome strong distractions and your mind is relatively peaceful and stable, turn your attention from your breath to the continuous stream of feelings, thoughts, and images arising in your mind. Simply observe these, without trying to control or follow them.

Watch your thoughts arising and falling away. Watch your feelings and sensations arising and falling away. Whatever comes up in the present moment and then disappears, watch this without reacting or intruding, clinging or pushing away.

Now ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and where they go to. What is the space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?

You’ll notice that your thoughts, images, sensations and so on all arise from a deep formless clarity, like empty space, and that they also subside back into it.

Notice the clarity out of which thoughts arise and to which they return, like focusing on a mirror rather than on what is reflected in the mirror.

Drop your awareness from your head to your heart chakra so that you are experiencing this clarity or bare awareness at the level of your heart in the center of your chest. Meditate on your mind’s nature and function as described in Mahamudra Tantra:

“Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects. Its function is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or to impute objects.”

The mind also creates our reality through imputation by conceptual thought.

Simply put, meditate on the clarity of your mind free from all physical properties. Within that space you can recognize that it is awareness with the power to appear objects and know them, and that it is the creator of reality.

You can imagine that your mind is like a boundless clear ocean without shape, color or form. Gradually sink your awareness into this infinite ocean-like root mind at your heart chakra, and merge with it entirely. Think that it is peaceful and blissful.

Abide in this blissful space-like clarity for as long as possible. Any thoughts that still arise are just like bubbles arising in an ocean — pay them no heed, and they will naturally dissolve back into the ocean from whence they came. They are just mind themselves and have nowhere else to go.

Thoughts disappear if you don’t think them.

(When a thought arises you can also ask yourself “What is the mind? Where is the mind?” and you’ll find yourself meditating on the clarity of the mind. Geshe Kelsang taught this method a few years ago. You can even start your whole meditation like this.)

Know that you can return to this space whenever you want to. Know that you can dissolve any thought away, however troublesome. It only has the energy you give to it.

Before you arise from meditation, think: “I’ll bring this peace, serenity and clarity back with me into my daily life.”

You can finish by dedicating the vast good karma you have just created to the happiness of all.

For more on this meditation, Mahamudra Tantra has it all. If you want to find out more about the mind and its functions as explained in Buddha’s teachings, Understanding the Mind is a great book for that.

If you have been doing this meditation for a while and have some extra tips and tricks, please do share them here with us.

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