social media

“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

Also see:

Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

Read More

The Candy Crush Sutta

book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone. Image is generated by an AI.

This is a bonus post, following from yesterday’s, in which I interviewed the artificial intelligence known as ChatGPT about meditation.

This time I gave the AI the prompt, “Write a Buddhist sutta, in the style of the Pali canon, in which the Buddha tells Ananda to stop playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.”

See also

Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.

Once, the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. And at that time, the Venerable Ananda was addicted to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.

The Blessed One approached Ananda and said, “Ananda, what are you doing?”

Ananda replied, “I am playing Candy Crush, Lord.”

The Buddha spoke: “Ananda, this is not the path to liberation. The playing of such games only leads to craving and attachment. To achieve true peace and wisdom, one must let go of such distractions and engage in virtuous and meaningful actions.”

Ananda listened to the Buddha’s words and put down his iPhone, vowing to let go of his attachment to Candy Crush. He turned his attention to the Buddha’s teachings and soon realized the path to enlightenment.

And so it is said:

“Just as a bird is freed from its cage
when the door is opened, so too one is freed
from the bonds of ignorance and craving
by practicing the path taught by the Buddha.”

Appropriately, the image above was generated by another AI (Craiyon: formerly DALL-E Mini), using the prompt, “book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone.”

Coming back down to earth, ChatGPT’s predecessor was prone to using vile racist and misogynistic language, because its database of information was drawn from the web, and the web is full of that sort of stuff. For the latest version of the AI, a program had to be developed that could recognize and screen out the toxic material. In order to do that, Kenyan workers were paid as little as $1.32 an hour (via a subcontractor of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT) to read and categorize the text. Workers were traumatized by reading, for example, graphic descriptions of bestiality and pedophile sex.

The contract between OpenAI and the subcontractor ended after an article was published showing that Facebook had employed the subcontractor to screen content. In this case, Kenyans were required to view images and videos of executions, rape and child abuse for as little as $1.50 per hour. This is traumatizing work.

AI and social media are fun, but there’s a dark and exploitative side to it as well.

Read More

Staging a Coup Against Social Media Addiction (The Social Media Sutra, Part 5)

In a series of six posts (here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) I explain, 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 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.

So now for the fifth and final tool. This one may surprise you.

The last resort tool that the Buddha offers us is sheer willpower.

With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, the practitioner should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end.

That all sounds kind of harsh. And the image is rather violent as well.

It’s like a strong man,” the discourse says, “who grabs a weaker man by the head or throat or shoulder and squeezes, squashes, and tortures them.

Using Willpower

You might be surprised at the Buddha teaching such a forceful method, but sometimes we need to be strict with ourselves.

It’s made very clear, though, that using willpower is a last resort, to be employed only when other methods have failed.

Sometimes I’ve found this useful. I can find myself, late at night, surfing the internet. It’s all good stuff — articles about science and psychology and Dharma — but it’s depriving me of sleep. And I’ll suddenly find myself experiencing a kind of disgust with what I’m doing and almost slam down the lid of my laptop. That sudden surge of a kind of healthy distaste overpowers my craving, which then loses all of its power over me.

But the whole concept of willpower is suspect. When I’m suddenly overcome with disgust and close my laptop, that’s not really something that happens because of willpower. It just happens. I’m surfing away (un)happily, and then suddenly I’m disgusted and the period of compulsive surfing is over.

There are, fortunately, much better ways to overcome your urges.

Sneakier Ways to Use Willpower

You might even call them sneakier ways. The sneaky aspect is that you use your willpower when you’re not actively caught up in craving. That’s when using force, for want of a better mind, is most effective. What we do is to make decisions that limit the ability of our active tendencies to control us.

Delete Social Media Apps

For example, if you delete your social media apps from your phone, that’s pretty forceful. It becomes much harder to access those services. Sure, you could use your phone’s internet browser instead, but that’s a bit clunkier.

Block Social Media Sites

And if you want to go a bit further, then you can use your phone’s parental safety settings to designate Twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media site you’re addicted to as an adult site and block it entirely. That way you can’t access those sites even in a browser.

Or on a computer there are browser plugins you can use that limit the amount of time you can spend on social media.

Delete Social Media Accounts

Going a bit further, you can delete your social media accounts altogether! That’s a very effective use of “force”. It actually does take a lot of willpower to do this. Very few people can do this.

I did this, though, with my Instagram account. Instagram is one of the more benign social media sites, but I found myself feeling disappointed when I shared an image and didn’t get many likes or comments. I craved validation, and wasn’t getting it. I didn’t like being that way, so I just deleted my account.

I also deleted my Facebook account. I have to say I loathed Facebook. Yes, it was a way I could keep up with my far-flung tribe of relatives. But it turned out that some of those relatives weren’t much fun to follow. And even on the Buddhist Facebook groups I followed, the conversations tended to degenerate into arguments. Plus there’s the whole thing about Facebook and privacy, the thing about Facebook being a conduit for political propaganda, and so on.

So I no longer have a personal Facebook account.

Research shows that quitting social media makes us happier. Why don’t more of us do that? It’s because of addiction, and the ways our minds lie to us. Your addiction will find ways to talk you out of deleting your accounts, telling you how essential social media are to your happiness. It’s all lies, of course. These things didn’t even used to exist, and somehow we all got by.

So I had deleted my Facebook and my Instagram accounts, and then the only social media service I had was Twitter.

I spent less time on Twitter than I had on the other services, but it still became a bit of a problem. For one thing, Twitter is a bit of an outrage factory. It’s full of people who like to get attention by showing how outraged they are about various things. And they enjoy getting other people outraged as well.

Now that had a bad effect on my sense of well-being, either because I’d get outraged or because I’d find myself exhausted just witnessing it.

For another thing, Twitter was very time-consuming. Sometimes I’d check Twitter on my phone first thing in the morning, and be sucked in for forty minutes or an hour. You can of course scroll endlessly on Twitter (that’s one of the features designed to keep us addicted) and there were always links to articles and videos, some of them very interesting.

So there is one final “willpower” trick that I’d like to offer you. This is the one that got me off of Twitter, made me happier by keeping me away from sources of outrage, and also freed up enormous amounts of time. I’m pleased to say that as a result of this one trick, I have no problem staying away from Twitter.

Here it is.

Get Locked Out of Your Account

This is a more forceful version of the third tool, “ignoring and forgetting” social media by putting it out of site and out of mind — for example by not having your phone by the side of your bed when you sleep. The third tool is, in effect, reducing temptation.

This is similar, but what you’re doing is creating a barrier that makes it hard for you to get into your account. You’re not deleting your account, which has advantages (for example you still have all your history there, no one can “name squat” by taking your name, and you can access your account in an emergency).

The barrier works like this:

  1. You log into your account
  2. You go to the “change password” setting
  3. You enter an impossible-to-remember password (certain browsers can create one for you, or your password manager, if you use one, can create one for you, or can you can use an online tool). Next comes the really important part.
  4. You don’t let your browser or password manager remember your new password. And you don’t make a note of it.
  5. Finally, you log out.

Now you’re locked out of your social media account. It still exists, so no one can name squat it.

Now, you can, in theory, get back into your account. There’s a “forgot password” link that you can use to send yourself a link to get back in again. But it’s an extra barrier. And for me, at least, that’s enough to have kept me out of my Twitter account for months.

So my current social media status is:

  1. Instagram: account deleted.
  2. Facebook: account deleted.
  3. Twitter: account dormant, because I’m locked out.

My current emotional status is:

  1. Happy not to be in the competitive, argumentative world of social media.
  2. Happy to have more time on my hands.
  3. Happy to feel I’m more in control of my life.

So it’s this final tool that worked for me in quitting my last connection with social media. Locking myself out of my account is like the strong man grabbing the weaker one and restraining him.

Actually, and this is important, it’s more like the weaker man waiting until the strong man has walked into a room, and then locking the door so that he’s trapped inside.

The sneaky part of the sneaky willpower approach is that you’re not confronting your addictive urges when they’re active. When you’re in the throes of addictively using social media or the internet, it’s very hard to do anything about it. Those urges are STRONG. So at some other time you take control. You stage a coup. You delete your apps, you block social media sites on your phone or computer, you lock yourself out.

None of these things is foolproof, but you’re creating strong barriers to acting out on your addictive urges, and those barriers can be enough. They have been for me.

Summary

To summarize this series, what we’ve been doing is exploring the five tools that the Vitakkasanthana Sutta offers us to help us free our minds from obsessive thinking and compulsive urges.

  • We’ve seen how we can replace addictive urges with skillful behavior by trusting that we are enough, that this moment is enough, by trusting in the power of love over anger, and by trusting in the Dharma.
  • We’ve seen how we can overcome social media addiction both by looking at its drawbacks, and also by creating a positive appreciation of the skillful things in our lives — what creates joy, peace, and meaning.
  • We’ve explored how we can look at how addictive thinking and actions arise when we’re not mindful of our feelings, and how we can create a mindful and self-compassionate pause in which wiser and healthier actions can arise.
  • And we’ve explored how, as a last resort, we can use willpower to disengage from addictive activities on the internet, and how we can most effectively use our willpower at times we’re not actively caught up in craving. For example we can make it harder for ourselves to connect to social media sites, or even delete our accounts.

Thank you for joining me in this series on using the Dharma to overcome social media addiction. There’s truly nothing I enjoy more than exploring and sharing the Dharma, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore our practice together. I’m grateful also to Tricycle magazine for asking me to record the videos that led to this series of articles.

May we all continue to make progress in overcoming the obstacles that hold us back from living with mindfulness, compassion, and joy.

Read More

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.

Read More

Just turn away… (The Social Media Sutra, Part 3)

In a series of six posts I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, 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.

(Here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5)

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

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.

What is boils down to is reducing temptation.

Two Directions for Our 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.

You probably keep your social media apps on the main screen of your phone because you use them a lot. but you probably also use them a lot because they’re on the main screen of your phone, and they’re the first thing you see when you pick it up. Try moving those apps to the second or third screen, so that you have to do some actual work to access them.

Those little read badges that show how many comments etc are waiting for you are red for a purpose: red is an emotionally activating color. So it’s helpful to turn those off. It’s helpful to turn off any audible notifications as well. That way you aren’t letting social media apps interrupt you whenever they want your attention. You will instead discover what’s waiting for you on those apps when you choose to visit. This puts some of the power back in your hands. It allows you to focus (remember being able to focus?).

Create Space Between You and Your Phone

It’s useful to have your phone out of sight and out of mind, at least some of the time.

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.

Summary

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.

Click here to read Part 4 of the Social Media Sutra, Turn Toward the Pain.

Read More

“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

Read More

Look at the Drawbacks (The Social Media Sutra, Part 2)

In a series of posts I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from addiction to social media. You can find these teachings in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta. This is an ancient teaching which outlines five strategies for overcoming our compelling urges. (Here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.)

The Image

This week we’re going to look at the second tool, or strategy. This is where we examine the drawbacks of having a mind that is out of control.

I love this particular description because it contains a truly graphic and visceral image.

The discourse says:

They should examine the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘So these thoughts are unskillful, they’re blameworthy, and they result in suffering.’ As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Suppose there was a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments. If the corpse of a snake or a dog or a human were hung around their neck, they’d be horrified, repelled, and disgusted.

Isn’t that a great image? I’ll come back to say more about it later.

The application of this tool to social media is quite obvious. We need to look at the disadvantages of social media, and of our addiction to it.

We need to do this to counteract the way that Facebook, Twitter, and so on, steal our attention.

Now it’s important that we learn to recognize that these technologies are actually designed to be addictive. Social media have been carefully engineered to hook into our brains’ reward circuits. They do this so that we will keep coming back for more stimulation.  They demand that we keep coming back to see if anyone has liked, forwarded, or commented on our posts. They hook us by making their streams endless, by autoplaying videos so that you have to take action to disengage, and by showing us when someone is composing a reply to something we’ve written.

The Drawbacks Effects of Social Media

There’s now lots of evidence of the negative effects of social media. We’re not just talking about a few people who become serious addicts and have their lives completely ruined. There are of course people for whom this does happen.

According to a 2019 study on social media addiction, carried out by researchers at Michigan State University and Monash University in Australia, people who use Facebook heavily have impaired decision-making skills to the point where they perform as poorly in psychological tests as people who are addicted to cocaine or heroin.

We Waste Time

But we are virtually all hooked. According to one study, the average person now spends four hours a day on their phone.

We Become Depressed and Lonely

Social media make us anxious and depressed They make us feel lonely.

They con us into thinking that we’re doing poorly in comparison to others, because other people tend to show a falsely upbeat view of their own lives on social media.

Research shows that the more time we spend on social media, the more our sense of happiness and life satisfaction drop.

We Allow Ourselves to be Manipulated

And of course, bad actors are using social media for social engineering. They’ve become propaganda tools designed to influence our political decision-making. These propaganda tools are so carefully designed that we don’t even realize we’re being manipulated and sometimes will deny it when it’s pointed out to us. In perhaps the ultimate irony, Facebook discovered that a Russian internet agency had set up a page on mindfulness, of all things, as part of an attempt to influence elections in the US.

The main drawback for me, personally, was the sheer amount of time that I used to waste on social media. If I wasn’t careful I could pick up my phone in the morning and easily spend an hour or more reading news stories and browsing Twitter. That’s time that I could use going for a walk, or meditating, or working. Social media has an opportunity cost.

So these are some of the disadvantages of social media. But there are many others: there’s the way we stay up too late, staring at screens. There’s the way we reduce our productivity by constantly interrupting our work to check for new updates. There’s the way we get so absorbed in our devices that we don’t pay attention to our loved ones (I see so many parents ignoring their children!). There’s the way we get into online conflicts and the way we find it hard to stay focused the way we used to. Presumably all this is very familiar to you.

Suffering Masquerading as Happiness

The thing about an addiction is that even though it has a negative influence on our lives it promises to be a source of happiness. This is a phenomenon that the Buddha included in his teachings of the vipallasas (or viparyasas in Sanskrit if you’re more familiar with that language).

Vipallasa is a word that we could translate as “cognitive distortion.” These distorted ways of seeing things classically include assuming that impermanent things will last forever, seeing things that are ethically unattractive as attractive, and seeing things that are not who we are as being intrinsic to our sense of self.

The cognitive distortion here is our assumption that things that cause unhappiness can make us happy. It’s our assumption that  happiness comes from participating in social media, playing online games, reading the news, and so on. It’s our fear that we’ll be deprived and suffer if we don’t do these things.

From FOMO to JOMO

One way people talk about this is in terms of the acronym FOMO. This stands for the Fear of Missing Out. When I first thought about deleting my Facebook account I worried that I might lose contact with distant relatives. I worried that I might not learn about significant events in my friends’ lives. That I might miss breaking news, and so on.

Surely, I thought, giving up my Facebook and Instagram accounts would reduce my sense of well-being. But I found that the opposite was the case. The less I used social media, the more content I was. I was far more productive. I spent more time meditating. I could once more focus on reading a book with full attention, undistractedly. And I enjoyed it. This was a huge blessing!

Cutting my ties with social media, or most of them at least, was joyful and liberating. Instead of experiencing FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, I experienced JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out.

Treating Our Urges With Skepticism

So this second tool from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, examining the drawbacks of our immersion in social media, is a way of undermining our addiction. It helps us to look more clearly at our desire to go onto social media, or to stay hooked on it. It helps us to regard those desires with a bit more skepticism.

We can start to see thoughts of quickly checking our Facebook or Twitter accounts as false promises. These thoughts are saying “This will make you happy. This will give your life meaning. You need this.” And we can see more starkly that in reality, our addictive use of social media makes us unhappy. We can see that it takes us away from things that are truly meaningful.

Recognizing What Is Not Fitting

I’d like to come back to the image that the Buddha uses: It’s like “a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments. If the corpse of a snake or a dog or a human were hung around their neck, they’d be horrified, repelled, and disgusted.”

That’s a powerful image! Imagine you’re all dressed up in your finest clothes ready to go out somewhere, and someone were to drape the stinking corpse of some animal around your neck! How gross! So this image encourages us to recognize the unwholesomeness of our addictions. We can learn to see that social media addiction is this gross thing in our lives, like a rotting corpse.

But let’s not ignore the finery. The images makes no sense unless the person with the dead animal draped around their shoulders is conscious of what’s good and wholesome in their lives. That’s there too. It’s important to recognize that fact.

So we should not just see the presence of the unskillful in our lives, but also recognize the things we do that bring us a sense of peace and joy.

Honoring What’s Skillful In Our Lives

It’s only when we recognize and honor the skillful in our lives that the unskillful looks out of place.

If we were just to reflect on the drawbacks of online addiction, we’d probably just feel bad about ourselves.  Ironically, that might prompt us to spend even more time online, because that’s where we go to escape things we don’t like. So as we reflect on the drawbacks of online addiction, we need also to turn our attention to more wholesome activities. These include things like being more fully present with ourselves and with anything we happen to be doing, meditating, being present for others, focusing on meaningful work, attending to the simple pleasures of life, and so on.

One thing I’ve found as I’ve disengaged from social media is that I’ve rediscovered the joys of immersing myself deeply in a good book — something that at one point I worried that I might no longer be able to do. I’ve also rediscovered the joys of listening to classical music, and of going for walks. I’m rediscovering the delights of simplicity and presence.

Two Things to Do

So I’d suggest that you do two things.

  1. First, spend some time listing what, for you, are the biggest drawbacks of addiction to social media.
  2. Second, also make a list of the simple things in life that you find most nourishing. Make a list of the good things that social media takes you away from.

And then when you find yourself caught up in addictive behaviors online, call those two lists to mind.

Create a sense of — it’s strong word but a good one — “disgust” with addictive behavior, but balance that by creating an attraction to what’s wholesome and nourishing in your life — things that make you truly happy and that bring you a sense of peace and meaning.

Summary

So what have we learned today? We’ve learned that:

  • We can replace the fear of missing out with the joy of missing out.
  • One way we can weaken our addictions is to reflect on their negative influence on our lives.
  • Social media have many such negative effects.
  • We need to consciously reflect on those negative effects. This is because the addictive circuits in our brains rely on cognitive distortions, or vipallasas. These tell us that we need the object of our addiction in order to be happy.
  • We also need to turn to what is positive in life. We need to recognize what brings us joy, and peace, and a sense that we’re living in a meaningful way.

These reflections help us to see our addictive behavior as something gross. They give us a clearer sense of who we are and how we want to live our lives. They help us to see addiction as something that just doesn’t fit with who we are and who we want to be. They help us to recognize and undermine our addictive tendencies, so that we can become freer, and happier, and more in control of our minds.

To read Part 3 of the Social Media Sutra, click here: Just Turn Away.

Read More

Pivot toward the skillful (The Social Media Sutra, Part 1)

Background

In a series of six posts (here are links to the IntroductionPart 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5) I explain, 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 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.

What is Social Media Addiction?

By our being “addicted” to social media, I mean that we use social 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 first tool

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 that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That practitioner should focus on some other object 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.”

The Buddha doesn’t explicitly talk about meditation here. He may have had meditation in mind, but what he says can be applied in any area of life, including our online activities.

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.

Mindfulness gives us choices

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. That’s a choice we can make.

To apply the teaching of pivoting to the skillful, first, with mindfulness, recognize that you’re doing something that’s making you unhappy. Notice that 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?

The Image

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.

Three forms of unskillful activity (and how to overcome them)

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.

Overcoming Cravings for Stimulation: Trust This Moment Is Enough

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.

Overcoming Cravings for Attention: Trust You Are Enough

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.

Overcoming Anger: Trust In the Power of Kindness

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.

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.

Summary

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. It works.

Click here to read Part 2 of The Social Media Sutra: Look at the Drawbacks.

Read More

Mindful tools for overcoming social media addiction (The Social Media Sutra, Introduction)

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Introduction

In late 2019 I recorded a series of talks for “Tricycle” magazine. These discussed how tools from the Buddhist tradition can help us to overcome social media addiction and internet addiction. The talks didn’t appear online until January of the following year but in the meantime I thought I’d turn my notes into a series of articles. There are six in total — this introduction plus one article for each of the five tools.

I’ve expanded a little on what I said in those talks. Because of course as soon as you give a talk you realize all the things you could have said but didn’t!

Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

My name is Bodhipaksa, and I am an addict

I put my hand up as being a social media addict. Or having been one. Because of the way I teach, I spend a lot of time online. And because of that I’ve had to deal with getting sucked into social media. Like most people I carry a device around with me. We call it a “phone” although it’s a device that I hardly ever use for making phone calls on. Instead it’s a kind of glass portal that leads to a world of endless distraction.

So, spending a lot of time online, and carrying around a device that allowed me to do that any time I wanted, I’d often find myself spending way too much time on the internet. My work would suffer, and sometimes I’d stay up too late, reading fascinating articles, usually about science and psychology. What I was reading was good, but I just couldn’t stop, and I’d end up depriving myself of sleep. Even though reading books is something I’ve always loved, I became unable to stay focused on reading a book. Without the deep immersion of reading books, life seemed shallower.

Sometimes there were “bonus” problems—for example when I’d get involved in online disputes. Those would not only give rise to anger, but would sometimes leave me feeling quite anxious, so that my heart would pound when I was logging in to my social media accounts. Or I’d find that I would crave attention. I found myself logging in, anxious about whether my posts had been “liked” or shared. All of these are, of course, forms of suffering.

Using the Buddha’s teachings to overcome addiction

I don’t much like suffering, so the question naturally arose for me, “How can my Buddhist practice help me with addiction to online activities?”

I’m going to share some of the tools I’ve found useful, in case you have similar patterns of getting hooked online.

At the time I wrote these six articles, I had mostly got the better of my addictions, although I struggled sometimes with spending too much time on Twitter, which had a bad effect on my mental states. I’m happy to say that as I continued to practice the techniques you’ll learn about here, I managed to disengage from Twitter as well.

What Is Social Media Addiction?

First, though, what do I mean by social media addiction? I don’t mean simply enjoying using social media. I mean addiction in the sense of the compulsive use of social media despite it having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. Compulsion means that we feel out of control: have great difficulty stopping ourselves. Compulsion means that the thought of quitting may lead to powerfully unpleasant feelings. Usually compulsion leads to shame, and we become dishonest about just how addicted we are.

I’m going to use the term “social media” in a rather broad way. I don’t just mean social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. What I say may well have relevance for those who find themselves hooked on online games, or even who find themselves compulsively checking the news.

About the Social Media Sutra

The Buddha of course didn’t say anything about the internet or social media. But he did have a lot to say about dealing with and overcoming compelling patterns of thought and behavior. There’s one discourse, or sutta, in particular that I think gives a good overview of the richness of the tools that he offered us. It’s the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which I would translate as the “Discourse on Quieting Thinking.”

Vitakka means “thinking” and santhana literally means a resting place, and by extension means “end, stopping, cessation.”

“Thinking” here doesn’t mean just the inner sound of us talking to ourselves, or even imagined imagery. Thinking includes the urges that are entangled with those thoughts. In fact, sometimes you’ll act on an urge without having any verbal thought at all. You just find yourself picking up your phone and opening a social media app. There isn’t necessarily any inner talk accompanying those actions. But the urge that makes you pick up your phone is, in Buddhist terms, a “thought.”

So, fundamentally, this discourse is about letting go of unhelpful urges, or unhelpful habits.

Most people understand the Vitakkasanthana to be talking about quieting unhelpful urges in the context of meditation, but the discourse itself doesn’t mention meditation, and the principles it outlines can be used in any context in our lives, including when we’re on social media. In a way you could think of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta as the Social Media Sutra.

Five Tools

The discourse offers five tools. The sutta itself suggests that you start with the first one. If that doesn’t work you give the next one a try, and so on.

To give you an overview of the five tools:

  1. We switch our attention from unskillful or unhelpful patterns or activity to more skillful or helpful patterns.
  2. We examine the drawbacks of our unhealthy urges, especially as contrasted with healthier ones.
  3. We simply ignore or turning away from our unskillful urges. We don’t make any effort to get rid of them, but also we don’t act on them or allow our attention to be drawn into them. I’ve framed this mostly in terms of keeping the triggers for our addictions out of site and out of mind.
  4. We become aware of the causes and conditions that are bringing our unhelpful urges into being, so that we can prevent them arising in the first place.
  5. We use sheer willpower to overcome our addictive urges. This can actually be much more subtle than it sounds! The best use of willpower is when it doesn’t feel like we’re using willpower.

For each tool there’s an illustration. Some of those are engaging and instructive, although some others aren’t so immediately helpful.

Summary

The five approaches above provide us with an impressive collection of tools for overcoming addictive behaviors, as well as the anger, anxiety, and so on that accompany them. I’ll be going through each in turn, telling you what the Buddha said (including the illustrations he gave), and making the tools practical.

That’s it for today. I hope you’ll enjoy this series of blog posts.

Click here to read about the first tool, Pivoting Toward the Skillful.

Exercise

Notice any addictive patterns of behavior around your social media use. What suffering does it lead to? In what ways does your compulsion manifest?  Is giving up social media something you can experiment with, even for a day or two? If you can’t do that, notice what’s preventing you. What is your experience like if you do give up social media for a short period? Do you experience joy? Relief? Craving? Anxiety?

Read More

The Joy of Missing Out

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

At the moment I’m teaching an online course called Calm In the Storm, which is about finding peace in the midst of our turbulent and contentious times. I often benefit from teaching because it focuses my attention on particular aspects of practice, and as Seneca the Younger noted, “Men learn while they teach.”

This course has forced me to become more conscious of my relationship to the news, to social media, and the technology that delivers those things to me. And it’s this, more than anything I’ve said about mindfulness or equanimity, that’s had the most powerful effect on my sense of wellbeing over the last few weeks. In fact, the result of changing my relationship with technology, the news, and social media has been astonishing. I feel much calmer and more at peace than I did even just two weeks ago. I’m less anxious. I have more of a sense of clarity and purpose. I’m getting more done and consequently I’m feeling more of a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

See also:

Before I discuss what changes I’ve made, I want to say a little about my social media use, which is probably a little unusual. I’ve already been withdrawing a lot. I was a big Google Plus user, but Google is pulling the plug on that soon, and so I’m barely there these days. I’ve already withdrawn from Facebook since I find that there are too many argumentative people there. I recently stopped using Instagram, partly because it’s owned by Facebook (who can’t be trusted with personal information) and partly because I found that it my use of it was caught up with an unhealth desire to be acknowledged by means of “views” and “likes” and whatnot. So Twitter is the only social media service I currently use heavily. But you can probably apply what I’m going to talk about to any social media site.

Social Media Addiction

I had been finding myself spending too much time on Twitter. And it didn’t have a good effect on my emotional life. Much of the content there is fueled by outrage. The short format does not exactly encourage deep thought, and tends to promote sloganizing, blaming, shaming, and arguing.

My mind kept turning to Twitter over and over again during the day. I spent a lot of time reading discussions, and following links  to articles that people had shared. I experienced FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out. If I’d been away from Twitter for any length of time, I’d feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Even while I was on the app or the website, I’d see those notifications of new tweets, and feel the need to what they were about. Click. Twitter is designed to be compulsive: you “like” and “share” counts on popular posts tick upwards as you watch, and notifications keep appearing to announce the arrival of new tweets. There are always new tweets.

News Addiction

My Twitter addiction overlapped with a news addiction. There’s a sense of crisis unfolding around us, both in my native Britain and in my adopted home, the US. It felt important on the one hand to stay informed, but also I was aware that the news can create anxiety, and anxiety can create a compulsion to stay in touch with the news. This is an unhealthy vicious circle.

So here are some steps I’ve taken to find some sanity and calmness in the midst of the current state of crisis.

Step 1: Reducing Access to the News

I get my news online. And again this can be compulsive, so I needed to reduce my access to that form of stimulation. (I don’t have cable or an antenna, so I already don’t watch the news on TV. When I’ve seen the TV news while visiting family, I’ve been shocked by how visceral, urgent, and unpleasant the experience is.) The Chrome browser on my iPhone had been creating a custom list of news articles that appeared every time I opened a new tab. I’d often spend too much time browsing those, so I switched off that feature. My phone came with the Apple News app installed, and headlines from that would appear in the notifications center. So I deleted that app. Both those changes have saved me a lot of time.

I still glance at the news. Often just reading the headlines and a brief description of a news story tells me what I need to know. The rest is needless detail. I do delve into some articles when they really interest me. Usually those are about science or psychology.

Step 2: Limiting Access to My Phone

I no longer sleep with my phone by my bed. It used to function as my bedside clock, and so it would be the first thing I’d touch in the morning. And as soon as I’d picked my phone up I’d be aware of emails, text messages, and app notifications that had come in overnight, so I’d get sucked into work and social media as soon as I woke up.

Now I charge my phone overnight in the living room, and leave my Apple Watch charging by my bedside overnight so that I can tell the time or set an alarm. If I didn’t have that I’d go buy myself a simple alarm clock, which would work just as well.

Step 3: Improving My Following Habits

I’ve often been astonished by the grace with which Chelsea Clinton and Cory Booker in particular deal with critics. They’re invariably kind. If there are more people like that, please let me know. I want to drink in and fill myself with their positivity. I’ve unfollowed or blocked people who I find are simply interested in attacking others, or who post nothing but insults. I deliberately choose to follow some people I disagree with, but not with the purpose of arguing with them; I just like to be exposed to a different way of thinking. I don’t want to exist in a bubble.

Step 4: Deleting the Twitter App

I wanted to cut down on my Twitter use, but it was remarkably hard to do so. I deleted the app from my iPhone, but I could still access it on my computer, or on my phone’s browser (I use Chrome and sometimes Safari). In fact Chrome on my iPhone had conveniently created an icon for accessing Twitter, because it was a site I visited often. Merely deleting the Twitter app didn’t make much difference in my usage. But it was an important thing to do in combination with the following two steps

Step 5: Blocking the Twitter Website On My iPhone

I wanted to make it even harder to access Twitter on my phone and I wondered if it might be possible to block an individual site. I discovered that it was. By going to Settings > Screen Time > Content and Privacy Options, I could toggle on the “Content and Privacy Restrictions” at the top of the screen. I could then, on the same screen, go to Content Restrictions > Web Content and tap on “Limit Adult Websites.” And then under “Never Allow” I could enter the URL for Twitter. Yes, I’m treating Twitter as if it were a porn site!

Now I can’t access Twitter on my phone at all, unless I undo those changes. But I don’t need it to be impossible for me to access Twitter. I just need there to be some friction in the process so that it’s easier to avoid it. If you’re on an Android device, I imagine there are similar settings.

This left my computer as the only way to access Twitter. Of course I’m on my computer a lot, so that had to be dealt with.

Step 6: Limiting Twitter On My Computer

Enter, Stayfocusd. This is a browser plugin for Chrome that allows you to limit the amount of time you spend on certain sites. It will even let you block them altogether. I decided to go with a 20 minute daily limit for Twitter. Once the 20 minutes has expired, I can’t visit the site at all, and just see a screen that says “Shouldn’t you be working?” You can’t extend the time limit once it’s expired. No cheating! (There’s an equivalent for Firefox and no doubt for other browsers too.)

This has led to me being much more selective in what I pay attention to on Twitter. I visit two to three times a day, and knowing that I don’t have much time I focus my attention on what seems particularly meaningful. I find that my mind now skips over snark and outrage, and tends to focus on more substantive contributions. I’ll open a couple of articles in new tabs, and then close Twitter.

Step 7: Reducing Other Notifications

Your brain is a hot commodity. Marketers spend billions of dollars to try to attract your attention, because attention is time, and time, as we know, is money. So in an effort to reclaim my attention, I’ve turned off notifications where possible. Essentially I’m down to silent email notifications (I don’t want to be disrupted while I’m working) and audible alerts for calendar events (since those are things I need to be interrupted by), text messages, and phone calls. When I really want to focus my phone goes on Do Not Disturb mode. Life on my phone is pretty quiet. It’s now 3:00 in the afternoon, and my phone tells me I’ve used it for a total of 16 minutes so far today.

From FOMO to JOMO

There have been some withdrawal symptoms. I’ve sometimes restlessly picked up my phone and stared at it, feeling the emptiness that comes when you expect to see something but find nothing. And for a while I felt drawn to check Twitter, over and over. But that is passing. This morning I found myself looking at my phone and thinking, You can’t bring me happiness. You’re a tool for me to use. My mind is not a tool for you to use.

The benefits have vastly outweighed the discomfort of these minor withdrawal symptoms. The results of these changes, as I’ve said, have been powerful. I’m much calmer, happier, and more focused. I’m getting more work done, which pleases me. I’ve also been reading more. I’m now almost finished a novel that I started about a week ago. That is satisfying. I feel that my mind is my own again. I feel free.

One of the participants in the course wrote, “Anything that stimulates my solar plexus when I read it, I am going to notice, breathe, then make a decision regarding whether this enhances or detracts from my quality of life. It feels good and empowering to be making these decisions.” Simple practice; deep results.

The changes that I’ve described have in fact had more effect on my wellbeing than my daily meditation practice. My daily life has more of the simplicity and joy of a meditation retreat.

Am I missing out? Yes. I’m missing out on stress, anxiety, and overstimulation. “Missing out” is wonderful. I invite you to join me, perhaps in some of the ways I’ve suggested, and perhaps in ways of your own, in moving from the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) to the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO).

  • If you find this article helpful, perhaps you’ll be interested in making a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.
  • And it’s still possible to enroll in my online course, Calm In the Storm. One couple who are participating wrote this morning, “Our mood and productivity is way up, as is emotional resiliency … We both thought that we would experience more withdrawal than we actually are, and are feeling more relief and release from the firehoses of negativity than expected.”
Read More
Menu