In a series of posts I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist teachings, how we can free ourselves from addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.
One thing I should point out is that the Buddha’s advice is to work through these tools in order. If redirecting the mind to what’s positive doesn’t work for us, then we try seeing the drawbacks of addiction. And if that doesn’t work, we try the next tool, which is where we simply “ignore and forget” whatever it is we’re obsessed by. That’s the tool we’re exploring today.
The Buddha’s Advice
The discourse is very brief where it comes to this tool. It just says that if, in the mind of a practitioner:
bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up they should ignore and forget about them.
You might well be thinking, “easier said than done”!
The illustration of this principle isn’t very helpful either!
Suppose there was a person with good eyesight, and some undesirable sights came into their range of vision. They’d just close their eyes or look away.
That probably sounds almost simplistic. As we look into it, however, I think you’ll see that it’s actually very practical and useful advice.
Two Directions for Practice
We’re going to look at this in two areas. First we’ll look at the sphere of external activity. We’ll look at how we can literally ignore and look away from social media by changing our habits.
Next, when we’ll look at the sphere of internal activity — how we relate to our experience. And in this second sphere I think there are some deep implications for how we habitually use our attention.
A very simple shift in the way we notice our experience can have a powerfully transforming effect on our level of wellbeing.
The First Principle of “Ignoring”: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
So first, here’s some very practical advice for managing your attention.
Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to lose weight, but had a problem with eating potato chips. If you have a big bag of them in the house, you’re much more likely to end up pigging out. So it’s helpful if you can’t physically see the foods that you crave. To some extent it’s literally true that “out of sight is out of mind” — something this example illustrates. And when you’re in the supermarket, don’t walk down the chip aisle. Turn away when you walk by it.
Now the same principle applies to our online addictions. Our main route into these nowadays is through those magic glass rectangles that we use to watch TV shows, to get travel directions, to play games, do our banking, look for a mate, do work, text-message our friends and family — and, of course, browse social media.
These devices are so useful that we carry them with us everywhere. This means that we’re always in the presence of temptation.
So it’s useful to have your phone out of sight and out of mind, at least some of the time.
Create Space Between You and Your Phone
One of the best things you can do for yourself is not to have your phone at your bedside at night. If that’s where you charge your phone then your addiction is going to be the first thing you feed when you wake up. Your phone is going to be there first thing in the morning, or even if you wake up in the middle of the night. So try charging your phone at the other end of the house.
You might be saying, “But I need my phone beside me at night so that I know what time it is!”
If that’s the case, let me remind you of an ancient technology called the “alarm clock.” As with a phone, you can program an alarm clock to wake you up. But you can’t read Facebook on an alarm clock.
When you charge your phone in another room, you’ll wake up and not have instant access to the internet. That gives you an opportunity to start your day free from addiction. And the way we start the day often conditions how we live during the rest of the day.
One further step regarding phones is to turn them off when we charge them overnight. We’re naturally lazy! The fact that your phone takes a minute or so to boot up takes advantage of that laziness. It creates a bit of a barrier between you and the internet. And that barrier makes it easier for you to avoid addiction. Out of sight, out of mind.
Learning to Read Again
I find that when I charge my phone in the living room, I’m more likely to meditate or to read a Dharma book first thing in the morning, rather than reading the news or seeing what’s going on on Twitter. This is a great way to start the day.
I find that reading a book first thing in the morning is much healthier than going online. I think most of us have had the experience of finding it harder to read books because we’ve spent so much time reading short posts and articles online. Reading books helps train the mind to become absorbed and develop concentration. And books — physical ones, anyway — don’t have hyperlinks. I prefer to read paper books for that reason. Additionally Dharma books (or any kind of personal development book) nourish the mind in ways that rarely happens online.
Create Rituals of Internet-Free Time
You can create other opportunities to have phone — and internet — free time. When you’re having a meal with family or friends you can mute your phone or put it somewhere out of sight. I’ve heard of people putting their phones in a pile on the table in a restaurant, and if anyone touches their phone during the meal they have to pay for everyone’s food. I think that’s a great idea.
Meditation retreats are also an excellent opportunity to relearn that we don’t need to be online to be happy — and in fact that we’re happier when we’re offline, and present with our direct experience. On some retreats you have to hand in your phone for the duration. But if that doesn’t happen you can leave your phone in your car, or switched off and at the bottom of your suitcase. You could even put your phone in a sealed envelope, which creates an extra barrier in case you get tempted to switch it on. And you could write some kind of encouraging message on the outside of the envelope, like “simplicity and presence.“
So these are all very simple and practical ways we can, in the words of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, “look away” from our phones or “have our eyes closed” to them.
So this is all to do with the outside world.
But I said that there is something we can do internally that helps us to avoid getting caught up in and driven by thoughts about our addictions — that sudden desire to pick up our phone and go online. This is a deeper level of practice, and what I’m going to tell you might even change the way you meditate.
The Inner Work of “Ignoring” Social Media
What I’d like to explain is that there are two ways that we can pay attention with the eyes. The first is where we’re aware of and concentrated on the focal point of our visual field. This is our normal way of seeing, and you’re probably doing that right now. You’re probably mainly aware of the screen in front of you, or of me, or my face, or even just part of my face. Often when we’re listening to someone we focus on the triangle made by the eyes and the mouth. This way of seeing is like a flashlight. It’s a narrow beam of attention. It focuses on what seems most vital, but it also misses a lot.
The other way of seeing is where we’re aware of the whole of our visual field. We don’t do this by moving the eyes around. We simply let the muscles around the eyes relax, and let the focus in the eyes be soft. Try doing that right now.
Once we’ve done that we find that we can be aware, in a very relaxed way, of everything that’s arising visually, from the very soft focus at the center of our visual field, right up to the corners of our eyes. This way of seeing is like a lamp. It illuminates many things. It’s less directional and more open than a flashlight.
So if you’re doing that right now, you can still be aware of the screen in front of you, letting it be a soft focal point, but you can also be aware of everything around the screen.
This is a way of seeing that encourage you to play with. You probably can’t read while seeing in this way, but try doing it while you’re walking, or having a conversation with someone.
Often when we relax the eyes in this way, we find that the body starts to relax and the mind starts to calm.
Two Ways of Observing Internally
Interestingly, the way we use the eyes affects the way we perceive internally as well.
So in meditation, when the eyes are tight and narrowly focused, then our inner field of attention is also narrow. When the eyes are tight we can only be aware of a small range of internal sensations.
Maybe we notice just one small part of the breathing, for example. And the problem is that we get bored because we’re not giving the mind much to be aware of. And then along comes a thought. Maybe it’s an emotionally loaded one. What happens? The flashlight beam of our attention shifts to the thought, and the story it contains. Now we’re completely lost in a distracted train of thought. And our meditation can go on like this for a long time. We alternate shining the flashlight of our attention on a small range of bodily sensations, and then shift to distracted thoughts. And this switch keeps happening.
But when the eyes are soft, our attention is like a gently glowing lamp. We’re able to be aware of many sensations in the body. We can be aware of the breathing in the whole body, for example. So now there’s a lot for us to be aware of, and the mind is more nourished.
And when a thought arises, it’s now just one small part of a vast, open field of attention. And because of that the thought can simply pass through the mind. We don’t resist it. We’re not drawn into it. We just don’t pay any particular attention to it.
So this brings us back to the topic of ignoring and forgetting about compelling thoughts.
Letting Urges Arise and Pass Away
We can maintain a soft gaze, an open gaze, during ordinary activities. And when a thought or an urge comes up — like “I need to check Facebook RIGHT NOW” — it’s easier just to let that thought arise and pass away without our acting on it. Or if we’re already in the throes of online activity, and we realize it’s not good for us, we can soften the eyes, and it becomes easier to let go of our compulsion to stay engaged online. It becomes easier to step away from the screen or put down our phone.
This is very similar to what some people call “urge surfing.” The idea here is that, like waves, urges build up and pass away. When an urge is building the mind often assumes that it’s going to get stronger and stronger until it overwhelms us, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the assumption that we’ll inevitably capitulate to the urge that causes us to capitulate to the urge. If we simply keep observing the urge building, we’ll find that it peaks and then starts to die down again. So you might be working, and the urge to go onto social media rises, and you just watch until it passes away, and then you get absorbed in your work again. Adopting an open gaze (with the consequent open and expansive field of inner attention) will help us as we do this.
So this idea of ignoring and forgetting about unskillful thoughts and urges might seem simplistic and even a bit lame, but it’s actually very deep.
So what have we learned today? We’ve seen that we can reduce our chances of distracting ourselves with social media if we:
- Make it harder to access our phones,
- Make sure that they’re not right by us when we wake up,
- Switch them off overnight so that there’s more of a barrier to accessing the internet, and
- Evolve rituals where we eat meals or spend time with friends and family undisturbed by our technology.
In short, we can strategically create oases of addiction-free sensory reality.
And we’ve seen that a slight shift in the way we relate to our eyes can create a sense of mental space in which thoughts can arise and pass away without our getting caught up in them. We literally can simply ignore and forget about the thoughts and impulses that keep us hooked on social media. We can surf our urges, knowing that they’re impermanent, and that they arise and pass away on their own. In all these ways we can begin to let go free ourselves from addictive patterns of thought and behavior.