Turn Toward Your Pain (The Social Media Sutra, Part 4)

In a series of six posts (here’s a link to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, 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 urges.

Introduction

“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “The Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m calling it “the Social Media Sutra.”

“Thinking” here means not just our inner verbalization or self-talk, but the emotional urges that accompany those. So the urge to compulsively use social media or to surf the internet is, in this context, a form of thinking.

The first tool is turning our attention to something that’s skillful in our experience. The second is looking at the drawbacks of our unskillful activities. The third is learning how to reduce temptation.

So let’s now look at the fourth tool from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta and see how it can help us deal with social media addiction.

Stopping the Formation of Thoughts

This fourth tool is what’s called “stopping the formation of thoughts.” That sounds great if you can do it. I think we’d all love to be able to find an off-switch for our thinking, or at least to have access to a dial so that we could turn it down a bit.

So what does the discourse actually say about this tool? It tells us that if none of the other methods have quieted our unskillful thoughts and urges, and

…unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up. The practitioner should focus on stopping the formation of thoughts. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in mindful absorption.

So that’s maybe not too helpful.

The Image

But as always there’s an image, and this can give us a better feel for what the Buddha’s talking about:

Suppose there was a person walking quickly. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking so quickly? Why don’t I slow down?’ So they’d slow down. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking slowly? Why don’t I stand still?’ So they’d stand still. They’d think: ‘Why am I standing still? Why don’t I sit down?’ So they’d sit down. They’d think: ‘Why am I sitting? Why don’t I lie down?’ So they’d lie down. And so that person would reject successively coarser postures and adopt more subtle ones.

Understanding What’s Driving Us

The important thing to note here is that we find ourselves bombing along at high speed, and then we realize that there are mechanisms at work causing this to happen: something is propelling us. And by becoming more aware of what’s driving us, we can let go of it and thereby slow down and come to rest.

Similarly, when the mind is giving rise to thoughts and urges that prompt us to get involved — or to stay involved — in compulsive online activity, there is a mechanism that’s driving this. As we begin to look at the causes and conditions that are driving our actions, we can choose to let the mind come back to rest.

So if we’re literally surfing the web rather unmindfully, then we might realize that there’s a sense of anxiety driving us. This feeling feeling might be like a tight prickly ball of unpleasant sensations in the gut. One part of the brain is producing this sensation in the body because it thinks that being bored or missing out is a threat to our well-being. And it’s using this unpleasant sensation as a way of alerting us to this threat.

And other parts of the brain, reacting to the unpleasant feeling, create the impulses that cause us to move from web page to web page, from social media post to social media post. Those impulses might be accompanied by verbal thoughts, such as “Just one more article. OK, maybe two.” Both the urge to surf and the inner speech accompanying that urge are the “thought” that we’re trying to slow down.

Everything Converges on Feelings

Feelings are crucial in Buddhist practice. The Buddha said that “everything converges on feeling,” because of the pivotal role that feelings play in our experience.

It’s the unpleasant feeling that’s central to our experience in the example I’ve just given. It’s what’s driving our behavior.

As we become mindful of the feeling that’s driving us — that the mind has been reacting to — we realize that we don’t have to react to it and be driven by it. Instead, we can simply observe it, and recognize that it represents a part of us that is suffering, and perhaps have compassion for that part of us.

And this attitude of mindful self-compassion toward our feelings creates a kind of gap, or sacred pause, in which we’re able to find a kinder, wiser way way of acting.

In the case of internet addiction, there’s always an unpleasant feeling driving us. So what is that feeling? Well, that’s going to vary. There might be a sense of boredom, or hollowness, or dread, or maybe anxiety.

But whatever the feeling is, we can train ourselves to turn toward our discomfort and to accept it. We can train ourselves to respond to our pain with kindness and compassion. And this helps us to pivot from reactivity to responding in a more creative, mindful, and wise way.

Responding to Feelings With Or Without Mindfulness

Very often when I find myself glued to my computer, obsessed by reading articles online, I’ll use the approach I’ve just described. I’ll realize that I’m suffering and then turn my attention mindfully to the feelings that are present. Usually there’s a sense of something unpleasant in the gut.

When I’m not mindful, I take those unpleasant feelings as a signal that there’s something wrong. I need to fix something. I need to escape some threat, like loneliness or boredom. And the way to do that is to go online to find a fix.

Of course these reactions aren’t thought out or planned. They’re very instinctual.

When I’m being mindful, I recognize that the unpleasant feeling is just a sensation in the body. It’s simply a sensation created by some part of the brain that thinks that my well-being is threatened. And I don’t need to act on it. I can simply observe it. And perhaps I can compassionately recognize that a part of me is suffering and offer it some kindness and compassion. Touching my belly, or wherever the unpleasant feeling is most prominent, I can say: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

In acting out social media or internet addiction, we’re driven by a desire to escape emotional pain. There is no way to free ourselves from this kind of addictive urge until we learn to turn out attention toward our pain and embrace it with mindfulness and compassion.

Cutting the Cord of Attachment

When we crave something, it’s like there’s an invisible cord running between us and it — a cord through which our emotion flows. But when we turn our attention mindfully to the painful feelings that underlie our cravings, it’s as if that cord has been cut.

So when I do this — when I become mindful of my painful feelings — it’s as if my emotional connection with the internet, and with social media, weakens, or is broken. And I can simply put down my phone or close the lid of my laptop, and do something more wholesome than mindlessly scrolling through other people’s social media posts.

So that’s the fourth tool, or at least it’s part or it. This is the approach of focusing on stopping the formation of unskillful urges. We see what feelings are driving our thoughts and urges, and we find a more wholesome way of responding to those feelings, so that we no longer act in a reactive way. And this helps free us from the compulsion to be engaged with social media.

Summary

So what have we learned today?

  • We’ve seen that if we catch ourselves in a moment of addiction, we’ll see that we’re being driven by some underlying painful feeling.
  • Our compulsive activities are an attempt to escape this feeling, but only cause us more pain.
  • We can attend to these painful feelings with mindfulness and compassion.
  • Mindfully and compassionately attending to painful feelings creates a “gap” in which we can choose to let go of compulsive activities.

To read Part 5 of The Social Media Sutra, click here: Staging a Coup Against Social Media Addiction.

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