In a series of posts (here’s a link to Part 1) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist teachings, how we can free ourselves from our 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.
“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “the Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m going to call it “the Social Media Sutra.” I do this mainly because it’s a more convenient and catchy monicker than a literal translation is, but also because it reminds us that these teachings can be directly applied in this important aspect of our lives.
By our being “addicted” to social media, I mean that we use them compulsively despite their having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. That’s the classic definition of an addiction. When we’re addicted we repeatedly do something that harms us, but feel out of control and have great difficulty stopping ourselves from giving in to our urges.
Often there are secondary consequences of addictions: for example, we may feel ashamed of our “weakness” and become secretive about our activities. Attempting to cut back on social media use may lead to strong anxiety. And we might, in indulging in social media, also become addicted to anger and outrage. This can, for many people, be the most important and troubling part of social media addiction.
The Social Media Sutra offers us five tools to overcome compelling urges. This first of these is described in the following way:
Take a practitioner who is focusing on some object in meditation that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That practitioner should focus on some other object in meditation connected with the skillful. As they do so, those bad thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — are given up and come to an end.
And then the Buddha offers an illustration: “It’s like a deft carpenter or their apprentice who’d knock out or extract a large peg with a finer peg.”
Although this is talking about meditation it directly relates to our online activities as well.
It’s not that social media and so on are inherently bad, but that our minds often turn to them in an addictive way. And we could include here not just Facebook, Twitter, and so on, but other online activities that can be compelling, from reading news articles to playing games.
What’s being suggested is that we switch from an unhelpful (“unskillful”) urge to some more helpful (“skillful”) way of behaving. This is based on a basic principle of Dharma practice, which is that mindfulness gives us choice. Mindfulness allows us stand back and observe what’s going on within us. It allows us to see that some choices we make will make us happier and others unhappier.
It isn’t always comfortable when we become mindful. We see things going on — like addiction or anger — that make our lives miserable. And we can end up blaming ourselves. But one of the first things we need to do is to stop blaming ourselves in response to our addictions. Blaming ourselves is just us responding to unskillfulness with further unskillfulness.
Having a tendency to be addicted isn’t something to take personally. It’s not weakness. It’s just causes and conditions unfolding in our lives. So we drop the blame.
To apply the teaching of pivoting to the skillful, first, with mindfulness, recognize that you’re doing something that’s making you unhappy. You’re causing yourself to suffer.
Now, become aware of what kind of unhelpful mental habit has arisen. What’s the unskillful activity that you need to switch from?
Three forms of unskillful activity
In my experience the three most common forms are: craving stimulation, craving attention, and becoming angry. Let’s deal with those one at a time.
1. Craving Stimulation
Our addiction might take the form of craving continual input. We just don’t want to stop browsing. We feel anxious if there isn’t a constant flow of information coming at us.
If you’re craving stimulation, take a mindful break. Notice physical sensations in the body, feelings, sensory reality of your surroundings. This is a different kind of stimulation — a more wholesome and grounding kind of input for the mind. And while online stimulation can never truly satisfy us, being mindfully aware of the richness of our experience does leave us feeling more fulfilled.
So here you’re switching your mind from mindless stimulation to mindful appreciation of your direct experience.
You can learn to trust that this moment is enough. You can be content right now.
2. Craving Attention
Another component of addiction is the craving for acknowledgement. We might crave the reassurance we get when people “like” or comment on our posts. If people don’t do those things, we’re hurt or disappointed.
Now, if you’re craving attention, then you probably aren’t feeling good about yourself. There’s probably an underlying sense that you don’t matter, which is why you’re dependent on seeking reassurance from other people. You’re probably not valuing yourself, or giving yourself appreciation. You may even be putting yourself down.
So to switch to a skillful alternative to craving attention, you can give yourself some love, compassion, and appreciation. You can place your hand on your heart and say to yourself, “It’s OK. I’m here for you. You matter, and I care about you. I will take care of you. Let yourself feel this love.”
You can learn to trust that you are enough.
3. Getting Angry
And yet another common form of unskillfulness bound up with social media is “outrage addiction.” We become dependent on the feelings we get from being self-righteously angry.
We might, out of anger, say things calculated to hurt people, or block them so that we don’t have to face up to our own reactions to them.
When you get angry, you probably don’t have enough kindness and empathy toward others. When you’re seeing others acting or speaking in ways that disturb you, you react with ill will. Maybe you speak or write unkindly. Maybe you hurl insults.
Switching to a more skillful way of relating means bringing more empathy and compassion into the present moment. So, first, recognize that if you’re angry or outraged, you’re suffering. So once again, place a hand on your heart and offer yourself some kindness. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.” Breathe.
And then remind yourself that the person you’re angry with is a feeling being, just as you are. They feel happiness, just as you do. They suffer, just as you do. They prefer happiness rather than suffering, just as you do. And then, having connected empathetically in this way, perhaps you’ll find that you naturally relate and communicate in a more empathetic, kinder way.
You can learn to trust the power of connection, empathy, and kindness.
Just a word about the image the Buddha used to illustrate this tool or pivoting to the skillful. He said that switching our focus to a skillful object is like using a small peg to knock out a larger peg. I remember doing this to remove a pedal from my bike, using a hammer and a nail punch to remove the cotter pin holding the pedal onto the crankshaft.
Note that you’re using a small pin to knock out a larger one. Although you might think that the forces of addiction and anger are powerful, and your mindfulness and compassion are weak, it’s good to remember that your mindfulness or compassion, even though they may seem feeble, just need to be used in a directed way.
And remember that when a carpenter uses one pin to remove another, it doesn’t take just one blow of the hammer. It takes repetition. So don’t be discouraged if it takes time to change your habits. Just keep working at it.
So what we’ve learned here is that the first tool for dealing with unhelpful behaviors and mental habits around social media is to switch our attention to an object connected with the skillful — bringing skillfulness into our present moment experience.
When you’re craving stimulation, you can learn to trust the present moment.
When you’re craving attention, you can learn to trust that you are enough. That you matter. That you can support yourself.
When you’re angry, you can learn to trust in the power of connecting empathetically first with yourself, and then with others.
And in this kind of way, you can switch from unhealthy ways of relating to social media, to having a healthier relationship with them.
One last thing. I’ve said a lot about trust. Trusting the present moment. Trusting that you matter. Trusting in the power of empathetic connection.
Trust the Dharma
Another thing you can trust is the Dharma: trust your practice. Sometimes when I catch myself tempted to mindlessly pick up my phone so that I can check Twitter or read some news articles online, I say to myself “Trust the Dharma.”
So I’ll pick up my phone in order to mindlessly go online, I’ll remind myself, “Trust the Dharma,” and then I can gently put the phone back down again.
This phrase is just a reminder to myself of everything I’ve said above about the potential and the power of making mindful choices. “Trust the Dharma” means trust that there is a something better than craving. It means trusting in your ability to let go of painful habits. It means trusting that true contentment is possible, and that we don’t need any special conditions for contentment to arise: just be present with your experience, and everything will sort itself out.