social media addiction

“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.

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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.”

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Practice mindfulness: don’t become roadkill on the information superhighway

I just stumbled across a lovely column by author Pico Iyer in the New York Times on “The Joy of Quiet.”

He discusses how overwhelmed we are:

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.

I tend to think of us — well, most of us, anyway — as being a bit like early 20th century rubes from the sticks who have just arrived on Times Square, and are dazzled by the displays to the point where we’re a danger to ourselves and others.

I also think this is a transitory phase, and that the tide, in some ways, is beginning to turn. Perhaps that’s not the best metaphor, because while the tide can only go in one direction at any given time, in some respects I think things in the realm of attention and distraction will go in both directions at the same time; you’ll see more people trying to do more multitasking at the same time as you get more people finding ways to withdraw and find an accommodation with the deluge.

Perhaps it’s going to be like the realm of health and fitness, where you see both an explosion of obesity and a rising interest in gyms.

That means that ardent multitaskers may be the informational equivalent of nacho-gorging couch potatoes, while those with a keener sense of the worth of their attention (and the need to preserve it) are more like healthy-eating exercisers. Because multitasking doesn’t really get stuff done, and it has a bad effect on our minds.

I suspect that at some point obesity rates are going to drop, because one way or another they have to. Policies will be put in place or some pill will be found that helps people to keep the pounds off. I don’t think there’s likely to be a pill that helps us develop mindfulness, but there too I think there will be a cultural push to encourage more reflection and down-time. And for the same reason — we’ll have to. I think we’ll have to because people with fragmented minds are incapable of processing information effectively. I’ve seen this in high school students; words just wash over many of them, and if you ask them to restate something they’ve just read they’ll often just tell you something they already know (whether or not it’s relevant to the reading they’ve done) because no learning has taken place. No civilization can survive, no business can thrive, based on minds that are incapable of learning. So that’s why I think things will change.

Here are some signs that I see of the change happening.

Iyer mentions some in his column:

“…those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in ‘black-hole resorts,’ which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.”

The wealthy are either the first to realize that they need to protect their attention, or at least have found the most ostentatious way of doing so.

“Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.”

And there are less expensive ways to achieve similar ends. Some people, myself included, use full-screen writing software, some of which is free, like the WordPress software I’m writing on now, which has a full-screen mode. Some people are disciplined enough to turn off their email programs and other alerts in order to avoid interruption.

“Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.”

I think businesses are increasingly going to recognize that attention is a resource that needs renewal. Those that don’t will fail.

A recent article, Multitasking loses its cool; Mindfulness is now in, points out that “Mindfulness training can help people focus, see clearly, work with change, form deeper relationships and more.”

Another points out that mindfulness makes you a better leader:

The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.

Google is teaching mindfulness to its employees. So is General Mills. And Plantronics.

And talking of Google, the forthcoming Google Glass project — sci-fi style head-up display glasses — are designed not to get in between you and your experience of the world. It’s hard, initially, to see how they are pulling this off, but that’s what have said it manages to achieve.

Technology can help us avoid overload, but fundamentally it’s we ourselves that will determine whether technology is our tool or whether we are a tool of technology. As Iyer puts it,

All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

And so he sees more of his friends turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi. I suspect that those who don’t are going to end up as roadkill on the information superhighway — too dazzled by the bright lights of the rectangular screens into which they stare all day to be able to achieve much, and hence unable to survive.

Todd Henry argues that we’re losing the capacity to be bored, and therefore the capacity to be creative.

So I’d say “Meditate: your future may depend on it.”

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“It can wait.” A mantra for the 21st century

Buddha meditating lying on one side

You’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, and your phone rings. You stop mid-sentence and suddenly you’re caught up in a phone call. You don’t even think about whether or not to pick up the call. It just happens.

You’re in the car and you hear the ping of a text message arriving. What do you do? Many people succumb to temptation and read the message and — worse — reply to it. (You can recognize those people; they’re the ones in front of you, swerving out of their lane without even realizing it.) Even if you try to ignore the incoming message, you can feel its emotional pull, as if your phone is an emotional black hole, drawing your attention inexorably toward it.

These distractions are hard to resist. How can we reclaim our attention in this world of email alerts, text message alerts, phone calls, IM alerts, and Facebook notifications?

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I’ve found one simple way of regaining control of my attention. It’s a simple phrase: “It can wait.” I didn’t make this phrase up. I borrowed it from a public service advertisement designed to combat distracted driving. I found it simple and powerful.

And I use it in my daily activities. When I feel the urge to look at my phone while I’m driving, even if it’s just to remind myself of the name of the song that’s playing, I say “It can wait.” This simple phrase makes it easy for me to keep my attention where it belongs — on driving safely.

“It can wait” is a reminder of what’s important. The text message, email, or phone call will still be there when I arrive at my destination. I can deal with it then. Right now what’s important is getting to my destination safely. (In theory the song is still there, but in practice I’ll forget to do the detective work necessary to figure out what the track was. Which just goes to show how important it was in the first place to have that information!)

“It can wait” is a tool I also use in my meditation practice.

Sometimes when I’m meditating I find myself getting caught up in some train of thought. Sometimes those thoughts are compulsive. Right now I’ve just moved into a new office and we’re making some changes at work, so I find myself planning how we’re going to use the space, how we can set up better organizational systems etc. It’s all creative stuff. But it’s not what I want to be doing in my meditation practice. So I say, “It can wait.” And again, I find it relatively easy to let go of the train of thought. Sometimes it’ll come back a few times, but I keep saying “It can wait” and the planning part of my mind eventually gets the message.

“It can wait” becomes a powerful statement of affirmation in the importance of the present moment. I find myself planning? “It can wait.” Right now I’m just going to be with my present moment experience. I’ll find happiness by surrendering to the present moment, not by arranging the future in my mind.

So I offer this to you as a practice that I’ve found to be simply and effective. When you need to be focused on the present moment and an emotional black hole appears and tries to steal your attention, just say “It can wait” and embrace the present moment in mindful awareness.

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