Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

A guest article by Karen Childers  pinkjoystories.com

Two weeks ago, I sent the below message to 11 people. A way of holding myself accountable, taking personal responsibility, or looking to commiserate with my friends; my declaration wasn’t the first time I acknowledged that digital media was overtaking my life.

I’m writing this because I realize I have a digital addiction. I’ve had it for years and years, so it now seems like decades. I wrestle with the knowledge that I’m damaging my brain every time I multitask by picking up my phone to ‘see what’s happening.’

I’ve excused my overuse by rationalizing to myself that I do social media for work. I need to address emails and text messages ASAP to be ahead professionally. I’m just reading headlines and not commenting on OPPs (other people’s posts). I’m using social media to benefit others by engaging in the Buddhist prayer request group or sharing beautiful pictures or inspiring stories or expressing my support for a particular view or organization. I compare myself to others. If that teacher, person, or pet, can use social media responsibly, so can I. I have many ways I rationalize my overuse. But, finally, I know that my overuse is because I have an itch that needs scratching. I have some deep dissatisfaction in my mind. I have some pain that I’m trying to avoid. I need to be ‘liked,’ and at that moment, social media is the best place to fill that need. Wrong. 

My brain finds it difficult to focus on one thing at a time for very long. It takes me longer to complete tasks that should be quick. I find myself becoming distracted during conversations and have to remind myself to listen to the other person. I can barely read a short blog post all the way through without distraction. I fall asleep watching TV, or streaming, I should say, because we don’t own a TV; but, I wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep. My meditation practice is mostly distracted to non-existent.

My goal isn’t to quit using my devices completely. That’s not realistic in this day, where we depend on technology. It sounds like a faraway place. No Technology Land. A place I want to visit sometimes. A place I need to create for myself more often. Honestly, technology has improved my life in so many ways I can’t count. But, deleting and staying away from Facebook is a long term goal. I’ve tried a few times. I have hacks to get around the app not being on my phone. I’ve made declarations to myself when I first started waking up to the idea that digital addiction is real and that it is having profound effects on me and the people I love.

My goal is to use all forms of digital media intentionally. So, it’s not time wasted, but time rewarded.

Things I will STOP doing:

  • picking up my phone out of boredom
  • scrolling mindlessly into a void
  • making judgments because of what I see on my device
  • getting angry because of what I see on my device
  • reading comments that cause confusion and anger
  • picking up my device when I feel uncomfortable in a situation
  • feeling naked when I don’t have my device
  • picking up my device when I’m watching a movie or reading a book
  • making others feel less important because they don’t have my full attention
  • expecting to get a response to my post, text, email, tweet
  • feeling like a prisoner

Things I will START or continue doing:

  • being intentional about my use of my device
  • checking email for work during work hours
  • turn off notifications
  • no phone in the bedroom at night
  • no phone while eating a meal
  • no phone in the room when meditating
  • NO other tasks when having a conversation with someone
  • NO phone when driving in the car
  • when I think of a friend, I’ll call or email them; instead of quick exchanges, I’ll make a plan for a longer conversation
  • I’ll foster and nurture creativity
  • I’ll go outside every day
  • I’ll watch movies and read books and listen to albums, and pay attention
  • I’ll dance and move my body intentionally with yoga and pilates
  • I’ll experience the natural world and be captivated by IT
  • I’ll keep having conversations about the effects of digital addiction
  • I’ll keep sharing knowledge
What will I do in the meantime?

Will I stop taking pictures because my camera is on my phone? Will I excuse myself from group texts or delete my Facebook account? Will I stop using Twitter and Instagram? No. Quitting relationships or staying less informed isn’t the answer. My dad is on Facebook now, and we video chat, and he has a friend he talks to, and he sees my posts and photos. I know he enjoys this. I know it makes a huge difference in his life right now. My mother’s death, his sister’s death, COVID–he’s had a tough year. I’ve heard from friends that they love the photos of our adventures that I post. I maintain and nurture familial relationships and friendships, and friend groups through our text chats. These connections are essential to me.

So, I will monitor my usage. I will be more intentional. I will pay attention.

I knew digital addiction existed, and probably for me after I listened to the audiobook Irresistible.

I had some interest in How to Break Up with Your Phone but never carried it through. We are still in an abusive relationship.

I watched The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma and became terrified of the more significant implications of manipulation through social media.

I recently read Why the modern world is bad for your brain and connected the dots between my physical symptoms of brain fog, insomnia, and tension in my body– the results of decades-long screen captivation. Thank you to Lucy James for posting this on her Facebook profile today. It captivated me and inspired me to come out with this post.

There are many other films, books, and articles on this topic–I Googled it, of course.

I’ll also Google treatments and see where that takes me.

I wish anyone who reads this the best. Keep looking up!

If you would like to have a more extended conversation, I’m so ready.

Two weeks later …

After I hit send on that email message, I received a reply requesting a guest post on this blog. Here I am. I also received a text message praising the email and admitting they too could relate. Another friend exclaimed that it had gotten worse since COVID. Still, yet another agreed that it was a problem, but not ready to “come out.” 

One friend carefully crafted a longer response. She admitted that it had become a problem for her too. She has taken steps to curtail her overuse, implementing some strategies that speak volumes about who she is and our relationship. She mentioned that she does not pick up her phone in the morning before she talks to herself and God. This bit of advice would turn out to be the best. It translates for me as I go for Refuge, generate Bodhichitta, and self-generate. Making my intention for the day to benefit others and transform everything into the path. 

I started paying attention to my itches–the ones that begged to be scratched. The ones that propelled me to pick up my phone. I discovered some things that are helping me get over this compulsive behavior. 

Recognize, reduce, and abandon 

First, I must admit that making declarations like I’m not ever doing certain things again, and expecting that to stick, was a completely flawed approach. I realized that soon after I hit send on that email message. I checked emails and texts immediately after! Am I a failure? No. I’m flawed. I have delusions. I decided to adjust and take this on like any other bad habit. I need to recognize the problem first. Think deeply about where this bad habit is taking me, what are the benefits of letting it go, and make a plan to reduce and eventually abandon the action of habitually and mindlessly picking up my phone for a nice scroll through the newsfeed. 

When taking the ‘pick up my phone syndrome’ as far as I can, I see myself, on my deathbed, clenching my phone, scrolling into oblivion—wasting my chance—wasting my spiritual life. I think about the years of damage to my eyes and my brain. I think about my short attention span and how it will only get worse. I see how my monkey mind is scattered and can’t recall details without a device’s aid. Eventually, will I be able to produce thoughts on my own, without the device prompting me? I don’t want to find out. I use this line of thinking to increase my wish to reduce and abandon my overuse problem. Will I allow a bad habit that I can do something about to keep me trapped in a cycle of suffering? NO. 

Recognizing also includes the fact that a phone, Facebook, email, or any other form of digital media is not inherently bad. The problem lies in mindless overuse that is rife with delusion spurring obstacles. The problem is allowing myself to continue without making an explicit intention to use my phone, social media, or any other screen to benefit others. May everyone be happy. 

Side question, I ask myself:  

Facebook is not inherently bad, but do you want to use something created by a university computer geek named Mark Zuckerberg to rate girls, Hot or Not? 

Not. 

Now that my intentions are clear, I’ve made my declaration, and I’ve decided to tackle this as my project, I start paying attention. I received a notification on my phone that my screen time was down by 85%. This is encouraging. I feel motivated in my quest for a technology-free life. 

I see a tweet by Chrissy Teigen expressing how she is trying to find a screen life balance, too. I feel connected to Chrissy. And, like many other times, #DeleteFacebook is trending. I am not alone. I think most of the population is suffering from some form of screen captivation. 

I begin to understand the need for boundaries. Time limits and rules or guidelines are necessary when adopting a new behavior or letting go of an old one. I am constantly being interrupted because ads and irrelevant content lure my attention. That’s not ok with me anymore. My attention is precious.

I decided that I only need 5-10 minutes to visit with my device. How many times a day? That seems to be where the challenge is for me. I’m working through how I use my phone. I’m looking at what I think are the necessary applications. I’m not keeping distracting apps like games or social media around. While tracking apps and usage monitoring on my phone are useful now, I do not want to depend on software or another app to curb my enthusiasm for picking up my phone. 

Ask questions

I started considering questions like do you need another picture to add to the over 34,000 digital images your phone says you currently have?

Why do you want to post this picture? 

Are you expecting to see another email besides the one from Costco that you saw the past 100 times you looked? 

Do you need to confirm or seek out the answer to every random query that enters your mind? [insert Google or IMDB search]

Do you expect to read different headlines? Ones that are joyful and uplifting instead of depressing and anxiety-inducing?

What are you seeking?

I also pay attention to the kind of mind or situation that prompts me to pick up my phone. I notice that a super uncomfortable situation causes me to run to my phone so I can try to disappear into it in an attempt to hide from this painful discomfort. 

I decided to make a plan for my usage. I deleted more apps and turned off notifications. With lower expectations, I use my phone on my own time. I use it for limited activities. I will make a plan with family and friends for emergencies if I am unreachable. I will make an intention to be intentional about my usage. 

I started using a notebook again. I write down ideas or things I need to look up or add to a list — I use this notebook instead of my phone. I have considered buying a camera to replace the need to have my phone on picture-taking adventures. I do not want to buy another thing, though. My minimalist lifestyle is spilling over into my digital life. I am Marie Kondo-ing, my digital life. If it does not spark JOY, then it must go. Thank you for your service, bye-bye.

My most significant insight revealed itself. This device that professes productivity and relief from boredom kills my productivity and creates a lethargy that dulls my senses, like brain fog. I see myself in a thick fog, clutching my phone. 

Another rule or guideline I observe is: out of sight (or hand), out of mind. I do not hold my phone when I am not using it. I leave it across the room when I am working. It is not in the bedroom at night. I have text messages on my laptop, so I turn those off when I need to concentrate, which is always. 

What am I filling my time with now that I have increased productivity and I am not allowing myself to scroll and click into an internet hole? Things that nourish me and fill me up. I spend time watching the sunrise and set every day. I am studying Universal Compassion and enjoying my meditation practice again. I am getting through my reading list. The joy of cooking has inspired me. I brew kombucha. I exercise and enjoy nature. I listen to music–whole albums, the vinyl kind– instead of one song at a time or an internet playlist. I watch documentaries and select movies. I enjoy close relationships that I nurture. I observe the world around me instead of clicking my way into a digital hole of data points. Someone waved at me from the street for the first time the other day. I use these things to spark joy. 

Relationship questions arise

Relationships: How do I relate to them on social media? Do I use social media to communicate solely with anyone? Am I using social media to cultivate and nurture relationships? I think about Dunbar’s number and the idea that we can only be capable of a certain number of close relationships. Are my close relationships suffering from my overuse problem? 

I will continue to have video chats with Dad, family, and friends. I will examine my “friends list” and consider my personal Dunbar’s number. Which relationships am I going to focus on and nurture? I’ll start with the most important, my spiritual guide, my partner, my close sangha jewels, and my close friends. I’ve heard that you can love all living beings without exception, but you don’t have to have lunch with them. That eases the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be everything to everyone. 

Going forward 

I consider that when I die, the only thing that will be left is a set of data points and a box or apartment full of items that will disperse to friends, family, and the needy. What am I leaving behind? 

I’m going to continue Marie Kondo-ing my digital life. If it does not serve me or spark joy, I will release it from my grip. 

I will continue to extoll the benefits of cleaning up our digital lives. I know that Facebook isn’t a real representation of friendship. The people I want to talk to and be with right now aren’t here anymore. Not on Facebook or this Earth. I experience grief every day. 

I’m not alone. This problem isn’t going to be as difficult for me because I have support. I think about people who are alone and have a digital addiction. They use social media for their connection to the outside world. My advice for these people and anyone who knows people like this, please call each other. Have video chats, meet up (at a safe distance and wearing a mask as necessary), but make one on one, interpersonal connections. Have deep, meaningful conversations. Ask each other, “How are you doing?“. We all need more of this.

Kids these days need role models. They are fighting an unfair battle. Again. Tik-Toking their way through climate change, the kids have a challenging future ahead of them-like all generations, but these particular ones will need some extra-special attention. I want to model good digital behavior and responsibility regarding climate change, which is essential to me.

Information or what we learn in this life can increase our love, compassion, wisdom, and wish to help others.  Information can also be resigned to a collection of irrelevant data points.

Mindfulness

I set my intention for the day. How will I use my talents, how will I use my devices, and how will I use my time? 

I will generate joy and benefit others.

Our capacity for consuming and processing information is great, but our capacity for love is even greater.

How am I processing the information I receive daily via my digital devices? 

Am I nervous, anxious, depressed, and afraid? Am I angry or confused? Am I overwhelmed and feel like I can’t get my digital life organized? Too many emails to read? Too many pictures to catalog? Too many files to file, in folders, on desktops and home screens. 

I work in digital media. Now, I feel a bit like a tech-bro who doesn’t allow their kids to use social media or own an iPad. The insights I’ve been able to glean over the years have helped nonprofits, Buddhist centers, filmmakers, and friends. I hope to continue to help them inform, entertain, and love others.

In the immediate future, January is retreat month, a good time to disconnect, set boundaries, go inward, and experience the peace of a technology-free life. A life lived intentionally. 

Keep looking up!

Please leave your comments for our guest writer below to keep this important conversation going.

Unplugged

6.5 mins read.

kids in Khayelitsha
Going home after meditation

My visit to South Africa made me grateful to my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang, to the resident teachers and warm-hearted community in the 3 South African Kadampa centres – ground-breaking hard-working pioneers, and to the tireless always-travelling Gen-las who have visited several times. It is inspiring to watch how things might unfurl here due to this patient networking, planting roots that in time will be popping up like grass all over and in unexpected places.

Carrying on from this article.

For sure, material poverty is no obstacle to gaining realizations of inner peace, compassion, and so on, to which Buddha Shakyamuni himself bore witness by wandering from place to place teaching everyone from kings to beggars. As Sangkyong put it, renunciation is also not so difficult here. Give it some time, sow some seeds, and who knows.

kids in kids in Khayelitsha

Go to where the people are, as Geshe Kelsang once told me; don’t wait for them to come to you. And, as he also said, we don’t need any agenda of making people into Buddhists or even using Dharma terminology — just give them “advice for a happy life”.

In the townships, a lot of the teenage girls at COSAT High School, younger kids I met, and social workers seemed to have a naturally easier engagement and focus than a lot of people I’ve met back home. Addictive technology has done a number on us. I wouldn’t wish the hardship and dearth of opportunity on anyone, and pray for a steady improvement in South African society (maybe by swapping over black and white babies at birth?! Hehe. You know I’m kidding, right?! But you have to admit, it could speed equality up considerably … ) However, I don’t think people are missing too much by not having access/addiction to a screen and headphones 24/7. COSAT girls

My own African tech karma was such that the moment I set out for Heathrow my iPhone 5S started to overheat, become erratic, and increasingly cut out, and then once in Cape Town I dropped it on the floor so chunks of the screen fell off. As I stuck on the sellotape some days later in Durban, I said with zero sarcasm: “Hey, look, that’s much better!” to have my new friend Kelsang Jampel compliment me that I was becoming a real African now. It was surprisingly not annoying but refreshing to be cut loose from a smartphone in a place I had assumed I really needed one. (Postscript: My first-world karma re-ripened just before I left for London, with the unexpected offer of a barely used iPhone 7 from brand new friends. Thanks, G and S!)

Talking of freedom from pervasive technology – I was impressed by how much spontaneous enjoyment thousands of people were having on the Golden Mile, where no one I saw had their head stuck into a phone. I feel like I haven’t seen that kind of unplugged party since I was young, before the technology took over our lives – people were laughing in the streets and jumping over the waves for hours without getting bored. Just saying.

I am not suggesting that life in laid-back (apparently to a fault) Durban is perfect, obviously — the hugely overcrowded underfunded government hospitals looming grimly over parts of that same Durban beach are, according to a doctor I met, a nightmarish death trap for a start. But this friendly gathering of the healthy seemed like an improvement over the isolation and ever-diminishing eye contact of so many lives in thrall to the internet.  (I even got to swim in the ocean with this crowd, one of many highlights on this trip — like that party scene in the Matrix, oh, never mind …)

Maybe people were having more fun than usual because South Africa had just won the Rugby world cup; but from what I hear this is just how it is at weekends. Even on Mango Airlines between Durban and Jozi, my fellow passengers seemed far better at making the most of being on a plane, singing across the aisles. No one seems as addicted to their technology.

(By the way, to be fair, I was on Parliament Hill yesterday back in London, and for some reason found an unplugged happy pile of strangers up there as well, albeit wrapped up against the cold. One common denominator to having fun = put the phones down and pay attention to the people around us?!) Parliament Hill London

Buddhism 101 tells us that happiness depends on the mind. If we are in a good mood, it is all fun. If we are in a bad mood, it is no fun at all. As those sayings go, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you go, there you are … especially once the novelty has worn off.

How to get into a better mood

Meditation is about getting more peaceful inside and therefore, frankly, having more fun:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

As I like to say, thoughts are free. We can learn to choose them. While it is clearly impossible to avoid all difficult situations and conditions, it turns out that through training the mind in Buddhist meditation we can upend those troubling situations and use them to our advantage. This practice of “transforming adverse conditions into the path” enables us to integrate everything we come across into our spiritual training. If we can learn to live more skillfully like this, our whole life becomes meaningful, creative, and, yes, fun.

Durban beach 3The first step to thinking differently is the patience which accepts that our negative disturbed thoughts are there without panicking. Otherwise, how are we supposed to be able to let them go?

Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not an option — that just makes them more intrusive, like a jack popping out from the box, and we have to work even harder to keep them at bay. However, we can bear in mind that our mind is like the wide spacious sky and our unpeaceful thoughts are just weather passing through. Our thoughts are really nowhere near as scary as they try to make out.

(By the way, a few people recently have asked me the difference between thoughts (as in discriminations) and feelings because they have the impression that they can train their thoughts but not their feelings. Not quite true. Discriminations and feelings are both so-called “all-accompanying mental factors”, which means they form part of every moment of mind and always share the same object. Change one, change the other. Maybe more on that another day — it is one of hundreds of unfinished articles. Meantime, pick up How to Understand the Mind Mango airlinesfor a perfect explanation.

Inner peace and space solve problems and make us happier. This is our sanity. So this is where we need to start. We can stop fighting our own thoughts because our mind is actually on our side – stop giving energy to our delusions and our mind naturally wants to settle into peace and sanity.

As I talk about here, right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace — but the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Peace is destroyed when we feel an excessive need to do this because our mind is more and more shaken up with distorted thinking or so-called “inappropriate attention” – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating. Whether it’s our relationships, our politicians, our health, our work, our travel, our accommodations, our technology, we’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Cape Town water

Even when we know this, we are in the bad habit of trying to solve our delusion problems with more delusions. And ironically the harder we try to do this the less and less in control we feel, because our mind IS less and less in control. It’s far more effective to unplug and sort out our outer problems from the sanity of inner peace, as suggested by this Kadampa motto by Geshe Chekhawa:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

More on this subject coming up soon. Meantime, I’d love your comments.

 

 

Addicted to social media?!

A term for Buddhist is “inner being” because, theoretically at least, we have decided to seek happiness from within rather than from without.

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resWe are making a shift from trying to solve problems in our body and mind outside our body and mind to solving the problems of our body, and especially our mind (because all our problems come from there), inside the mind. And that basic shift in emphasis, or change of direction, is what I would say makes someone a Buddhist, or inner being.

Changing direction

An inner being can have a job, take showers, bring up families, help society, and all the rest of it. But their interest is in developing their minds, increasing their capacity for freedom and happiness from within. Realizing their inner potential or Buddha nature, inner beings are interested in getting rid of all the delusions, limitations, and sufferings from their mind, and helping others do the same.

For this we need renunciation, understanding the faults and pitfalls of samsara. For without renunciation, despite any amount of intellectual understanding of Dharma, we have an overwhelming need to grab our happiness and solve our problems “out there.” This is even when part of us knows — full well really — that it is not working. “Let me just send one more text! Let me try once more to change their view of me! Let me just tell this person what I think of them, they need to know …”

The eight worldly concerns

8 worldly concernsWorldly beings have what are called the “eight worldly concerns“, where we are overly interested in garnering praise while avoiding criticism, trying to make people like and admire us rather than dismissing us, getting hold of material stuff while avoiding loss, seeking one pleasure after another while avoiding the slightest unhappiness. We’re all at it!

But an inner being knows that this is a bit like drinking saltwater to quench our thirst – the most we can ever get is a little short-lived relief. One of Gen Losang‘s sayings used to be (maybe still is): “Leave the object alone.” Point being, we don’t need to keep chewing on the objects of our desires or our problems, trying or wishing to make them change or cooperate. If we know how to change our thoughts through Dharma, these problems automatically disappear and our desires for happiness are automatically satiated, all without the object having to do anything from its own side.

It is such a relief to know this. It puts us back in control of our own moods, rather than being like a puppet on the strings of someone else’s behavior or random inpenetrable thoughts. An object of unrequited attachment can become an object of renunciation or compassion, for example. An object of jealousy can become an object of rejoicing or of wisdom. With Dharma, we get to choose. We can go through the day happy rather than sad. We are free. maxresdefault

Renunciation for mistaken appearances

Dharma, as you may have noticed, goes deep. Bottom line is that we need renunciation for self-grasping ignorance AND for all mistaken appearances, that is, things appearing to exist dualistically, outside our mind. As we request in this prayer in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

I request you … liberate me from dualistic appearance. ~ page 72.

This renunciation may take a while because we have the habitual tug of attachment to the things outside our mind that we like and aversion to the things outside our mind that we feel are in some way doing us wrong; and we are kind of attached to these delusions themselves, as well as the ignorance that underpins them. We are used to employing them to sort out our problems and get what we want. Plus we don’t necessarily want things to be mere appearances to our minds, as explained in this article.

Shadow-Projection-Night-LightBut we come to see over time, by applying this Dharma wisdom to our own experiences, that any mental movement outwards toward a “real” world — a world outside our mind and indeed pretty much outside our control — is subtly painful, and sometimes of course incredibly painful.

Plus, it is grasping at these appearances has kept us trapped in samsara since beginningless time. We have been fighting so hard and so long on behalf of this insubstantial I against all others, with the endless mental push and the pull toward the appearances that seem to harm or help it; and this internal struggle has caused us nothing but bad karma and pain.

The pain we feel as we wander around does not inhere in the object, as it appears to, but in the way we are holding the object. Even allowing our thoughts and their objects to settle via simple breathing meditation helps this dualistic appearance dissolve so we find ourselves experiencing a natural inner peace. And if we take it further — to switch attachment out for love, say — the pain we were so convinced came from the object goes away and stays away. Both the mind and its object have changed simultaneously, co-dependently. This is because, as Geshe Kelsang explains in the Mahamudra teachings, objects are not outside the mind. Subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the ocean of the root mind, like waves. 

The pitfalls of social media

Maybe because retreat season is coming up for Kadampa Centers everywhere, which means that a lot of people might be switching off their Smartphones for awhile, I was thinking today of Facebook and other social media as a classic example of fleeting insubstantial mistaken appearances that have sucked us all (me) in, engendering the eight worldly concerns.

And then this article appeared, with Facebook itself acknowledging that social media use can be bad for users’ mental health, a sign the company is feeling pressure from a growing chorus of critics raising alarms about the platform’s effect on society.

before-facebookSo many of us these days are hopelessly addicted to the push and pull of social media, feverishly logging in to see what we have missed and whether other people (especially those we currently have a thing for) liked our posts. We can get into Facebook surveillance, aka stalking too, which this study discovers is (not surprisingly) a major impediment to moving on with our lives.

Social media can seem so innocent, partly as everyone is doing it, and partly as it does have a good quality of conveniently connecting us to others when it is working well. Or, rather, when we are working well, such as when we’re not consumed with insecurity, attachment, FOMO, and when we genuinely want to bring some happiness to those we interact with.

Social media has its uses, for sure. Social media has allowed me to write this blog and reach people, for example, all over the world. Simple and easy communication even across the globe is also a result of good karma, as opposed to this environmental effect that comes from the action of divisive speech:

Since divisive speech makes smooth and harmonious relationships between people difficult and painful, we have to inhabit a hard and inhospitable environment where communications are difficult to establish. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune, p 250

Electronic communication also creates a more level playing field for all parties to get involved regardless of their gender, age, race, social standing, and education.

But attachment to it is painful and frustrating, just like any attachment, and it can b0bf5c9a73b9d34a1919e55e1d9e5091dominate our waking hours if we’re not careful. It’s hard to get much done if we are constantly scratching the itch — “I’ll just check my Facebook feed before I start this …” — and then we feel cheated and bad about our unproductive days.

Can I control my mind, switch off, go deep each day? Can I drop all thoughts? Our motivation may be to help others, but we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own, as Atisha put it. That entails the ability to concentrate. And concentration is about staying on one object, as stable as Mount Meru. Surfing the internet is about perpetual motion. Can we reconcile the two?

I have fallen prey to the lure of social media from time to time. I find that although I really appreciate the ease of communication we can have these days with people all over the world, I don’t like having a dependency. So I try to resist the urge to passively read everything, and limit the amount of time I spend online. I am currently watching my mind to see how often I have the urge to scratch that itch of wanting to check my feed/texts/gmail/etc, even when I am in the middle of a perfectly nice moment. It is challenging at first, but if we stop scratching itches, they go away. How long is that going to take?! I will let you know. You can let me know too, if you try something similar 😁

Going cold turkey can also be a very good idea and useful way to see where we’re at, especially during retreat season. Just sayin’.tweeting

As it says in this article:

The Social Network is an amazing phenomenon, an amazing opportunity to see the truth of interdependence, that none of our lives occur in an isolated vacuum. Social networking is also, possibly, the most widespread addiction on our planet right now, sucking billions of hours we’ll never get back again.

Studies I have read indicate, amongst other signs of our collective addiction to screens: kids under the age of eight apparently use screens for 2 hours a day; preteens and teens for an average of 7.5 hours; and adults for an average of 8.5 hours a day. We tend to check our phones 150 times a day. 150 times!!! In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in 4 people check their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” Some of those services we use on our phones have become more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, and make us feel worse about ourselves, even when we use them. Not to mention, when we use them at night, the light from our screens can ruin our sleep.Funny facebook addiction image pics

 

A poem

Here is a poem written by HT, a London musician and Kadampa Buddhist, that sums up some of this pain of attachment:

When you’re scrolling on your phone and you’re all alone
What are you looking for?
When you’re browsing online and you’re clicking one more time
What are you searching for?
There’s a hole in your heart from which you’re never apart
Which reminds you that you’re in need
There’s a crack in your smile that’s been buried for a while
In the place where no one else can see

When you’re opening the fridge choosing something rich
What are you looking for?
When you pour another drink before you’re over the brink
What are you searching for?
There’s a pull from a place that has never seen grace
And lures you into desolate land
There’s a voice in your head that keeps you up in bed
And mocks that nothing is going to plan

When you’re staying up late and your desire escalates
What are you waiting for?
When your body’s in a mess and you struggle to get dressed
What are you living for?
There’s a hole in your life full of struggle and strife
Which makes you question every step of the way
There’s a void in your mind which lingers behind
Every action and each word that you say

When you’re out in the street seeking someone to meet
What are you looking for?
When you’re trying to catch the eye of the people passing by
What are you searching for?
There’s a perpetual wish that can never be fixed
For an end to the bittersweet quest
There’s a dream of a world and a forever girl
Who can finally let you rest

But what you don’t see is that you have everything you need
Right now, in this moment, in your heart
If you recognise this truth then you will have no use
Of seeking that from which you must part
The river flows on, and yet it never was:
You can’t step in the same river twice
So surrender to the peace that will only increase
And that never comes to you at a price

What are you seeking, what are you wanting,
What are you searching for?
You have it all within you, waiting to be realised
So, come on in: you can close the door.

Another friend, CB, who is, incidentally, a highly successful public speaker and all-around lovely guy, posted this poem on Facebook (ironically!), with a photo and explanation:

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“How I feel late at night after just a few minutes on Facebook comparing myself to others. Judging my insides by other people’s outsides. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” (the Desiderata)

My dear brother HT has articulated the absurdity and danger of social media beautifully in this poem. What happens when we forget how to be happy without the approval of others?”

As modern Buddhists, inner beings, we want to learn to transform everything into the spiritual path. We are living at a time when everything could distract us and addict us, or we could learn somehow to transform it to our advantage. My question is, given that this technology is not going away, how can we get on board while understanding it is a tool, not a refuge? The answer to this seems crucial if we are to find inner peace and liberation.

Over to you. Comments, insights, all help welcome 😄

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