thinking obsessively

“Soft eyes, kind eyes”

close-up of a stone buddha head, focusing on its soft, half-open eyes.

The Buddha said that it was possible to dislodge unhelpful thoughts (those that make us suffer unnecessarily) with the use of more helpful thoughts. He compared this to the way a carpenter could dislodge wooden peg out of a hole by hammering a smaller peg against it.

This principle is incredibly useful in meditation, and it can be employed in a large number of ways. One popular application of this is the use of mantras, which can be chanted out loud or repeated in the mind. A mantra such as Om Mani Padme Hum, when repeated in this way, leaves less mental space for thinking. The mantra is a thought that, like a small pin applied skillfully, dislodges the larger pin of thoughts that are unhelpful because they’re expressions of worry, resentment, self-doubt, and so on.

Also see:

While you’re chanting a mantra you might not notice much happening, but afterward you feel calmer and more relaxed because you’ve given your brain and body a break from habitual patterns of thought that chip away at your sense of well-being.

Sometimes the pegs we use as tools are not traditional Sanskrit mantras, but are phrases in English. I find that these are most effective when they point us toward our experience.

A set of phrases I use a lot is “Soft Eyes, Open Field of Attention; Kind Eyes, Meeting Everything With Tenderness.” I’d like to explain why and how I use those four particular phrases.

First, the Why

“Soft Eyes”: If you know anything at all about my teaching from the last ten years or more, you’ll be aware that I almost always start a guided meditation by reminding people to soften the eyes.

“Soft eyes” means letting the muscles around the eyes be at ease, and letting the focus in the eyes be soft. You can try that right now, although you might want to look away from the screen. You’ll probably find that this is almost instantly relaxing, and that your mind becomes calmer very quickly.

Our minds are often on edge, roaming restlessly, looking for some problem that we need to pay attention to. In other words they’re controlled much of the time by the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” reflex. Much of this problem-seeking involves the eyes, which stay narrowly focused and which are in constant motion.

Softening the eyes (soft focus) and letting them be still (the muscles around them being at rest) triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings our system back to calm, rest, and relaxation.

With tight eyes, and the sympathetic nervous system active, we find that even in meditation the mind is still problem-solving. It’s restlessly picking through various aspects of our lives, looking for those things we’re worried about, angry about, depressed about, and so on. There’s lots of distraction.

With soft eyes, and the parasympathetic nervous system activated, the mind feels safer and loses its restlessness. It no longer needs to find problems to solve. And so it does less thinking. There’s less distraction.

So this is why I say, “Soft Eyes.” It’s a reminder for us to let the eyes be soft.


(The video above introduces the practice of “soft eyes.”)

“Open Field of Attention”: The habitual tightness we carry around in the eyes, with its narrows focus, leads to us fixating on a very narrow part of our visual field. When we close the eyes in meditation, we maintain this narrow focus in our inner field of attention.

I’ve often asked meditators to “draw” over the surface of the body what it is they’re observing when they’re doing “mindfulness of the breathing.” Because they have tight eyes and a narrow focus. most indicate a very small area, which doesn’t offer enough sensation for the mind to become fascinated by and absorbed in. And so they find they get distracted a lot.

When the eyes are soft, our inner field of attention is gentler and more open. Our attention is more expansive and receptive. We find that we’re able to sense many sensations of the breathing at once. We may even find that we can be aware of the whole body breathing. This is a very rich experience. it’s fascinating and we find it absorbing. It’s easier for us to keep observing the breathing without getting distracted all the time.

“Soft eyes” triggers an “open field of attention.” One follow naturally from the other. Nevertheless, it’s good to remind ourselves to notice what’s in our open field of attention.

Saying “Open field of attention” is a reminder to let our inner field of attention be expansive and receptive, and for us to notice the incredible richness that’s arising there.

“Kind Eyes”: Saying “kind eyes” is a way of bringing kindness into our present-moment experience. We can recall a time we looked with love — at a child, a lover, a friend, a pet — and let the eyes become kind now, as they were then. After a while we no longer need to access that kind of memory. We can simply remember what it’s like to have kind eyes, and drop back into that experience.

In saying “kind eyes” we’re directing our attention back to the eyes, reminding ourselves to connect with kindness.

“Meeting Everything With Tenderness”: Just as the eyes being soft changes our inner field of attention, causing it to be more open, expansive, and receptive, so letting the eyes become kind changes the way we pay attention internally. In this case it brings warmth, patience, kindness, compassion, and acceptance into our experience. We can find that we meet our distractions, our feelings, and even painful sensations with warmth.

Saying “meeting everything with tenderness” reminds us to bring kindness deeply into our being.


(The video above uses slightly different phrasing. More about that below.)

The How

I use the breathing to pace how quickly or slowly I drop these phrases into the mind, and to help keep my mind on track.

Pacing means balancing saying and listening.

Saying the phrases directs our attention to these various parts of our experience: softening the eyes, noticing the richness that’s arising in our open field of attention, letting kindness arise, and and bringing kindness into our whole being.

But if we’re speaking all the time, we might not be allowing ourselves to actually be with those experiences. We might not really notice them. We might not be allowing ourselves to go deeply into them.

We’re basically just talking to ourselves, and not letting ourselves have a chance to feel.

So generally I’ll say one of the phrases on an out-breath, and then leave two or three cycles of the breathing where I say nothing, and instead simply observe the experience that the phrase is pointing to.

Then I’ll drop in the next phrase, and so exactly the same thing. And I’ll continue like that through all four phrases, and then repeat.

However, if I’m particularly distractible I’ll tighten up the pacing. If I’ve been dropping in a phrase every third breath and keep getting distracted, I’ll start dropping in the phrases every two breaths. If I’m really distractible, then I might say a phrase on every breath. As I said above, this has the drawback that it doesn’t leave much time for being with our actual experience. But it’s better to do that than to get continually distracted.

Conversely, if things are going well then I might drop in the phrases less often. I might get to the point where I don’t even say the phrases; I just do what they’re describing (noticing soft eyes, noticing the body, noticing kindness in the eyes, bringing that kindness to meet every experience).

So there’s scope in this practice for fine-tuning as you go, adapting to changing conditions.

I also sometimes change the phrases. Sometimes instead of “soft eyes, open field of attention” I’ll say “soft eyes, body alive.” It’s basically the same thing, except that in the second case I’m more explicitly directing my attention toward the contents of the open field of attention. And sometimes instead of “meeting everything with tenderness” it’ll be “meeting everything with love” or “meeting everything with love.”

Although people sometimes assume that all thinking in meditation is to be avoided, thinking can be used consciously as a tool. Thoughts can direct our attention toward our immediate sensory experience. Thought can help drive out thoughts and quiet the mind.

You can play around with this tool as well. Make it your own. Find out what works for you.

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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.

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

In a series of six posts (here’s a link to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling urges.

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Stopping the Formation of Thoughts

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

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

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

So that’s maybe not too helpful.

The Image

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

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

Understanding What’s Driving Us

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

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

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

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

Everything Converges on Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to Feelings With Or Without Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting the Cord of Attachment

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

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

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

Summary

So what have we learned today?

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.

This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.

These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual reality drama in which we’re mindlessly immersed. When we’re distracted in this way we’re in an altered state of consciousness, in which we lack self-awareness: we’re not aware we’re distracted, we’re not aware we’re fantasizing, and we’re participating in the drama of our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing our experience.

Especially for those who are relatively new to meditation, there can be a tendency to be disappointed, annoyed, or self-critical when we emerge from these hypnotic bubbles. But with practice we can learn to cultivate patience and kindness as we accept that the mind wanders, appreciation as we value our return to mindfulness, and persistence as we bring the mind gently back to the breathing. People who’ve been meditating for a long time can get pretty good at relating to distractions in that way. They maybe are (sometimes) a little less distracted, but they’re a lot less bothered by the distractions they do have.

But there’s one other thing that I’ve recently been bringing in to my meditation at the point where I realize that I’ve just emerged from a dream-like period of distraction. What I’ve been doing is I note the fact that the train of thought I was immersed in seemed compelling when I was, so to speak, inside it, and yet now that I’m viewing it from the outside it appears undesirable and unsatisfying.

When we’re inside these hypnotic, dream-like states, they entirely capture our attention. They hold us spellbound. They’re irresistibly compelling. And yet, when the bubble eventually bursts, I find them to be rather lame! Noticing this lameness helps me to stay more disengaged from them. Of course other distractions will come up, and I’ll get lost in those too, but noticing the unsatisfactoriness of my distractions immediately after they’re over helps my mindfulness to have more momentum. I feel clearer. Sharper. More empowered. More content.

And just as my distractions appear more unsatisfactory, so the simple richness of my present-moment experience seems even more satisfying by contrast. I realize that this is where I want to stay. The calmness seems calmer. The body feels more alive. Yes, this is home.

Observing the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions also works with the less compelling thoughts that flit through the mind without causing us to lose our mindfulness altogether. We can watch them go by and realize that they have nothing to offer us but disappointment and frustration.

This practice is one of “noting” the characteristic (lakkhana) of dukkha (which can mean unsatisfactoriness, suffering, or even pain.) It seems to fit rather neatly with verse 278 of the Dhammapada: “All fabricated states of mind [sankharas] are unsatisfactory [dukkha]. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering [dukkha].”

The word dukkha is used in two senses here. First, our distractions (sankharas, or “fabricated states of mind”) are seen as unsatisfactory. Second, seeing the unsatisfactoriness of our distracted states of mind — craving, irritation, anxiety, avoidance, doubt — helps us to turn away from the dukkha (suffering) that these kinds of thoughts give rise to. For all of these distractions have the effect of reducing our levels of well-being.

And so, seeing that our distractions are unsatisfying—indeed are incapable of providing real satisfaction—we turn away from the suffering they bring. Noting the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions is, in fact, an insight practice. It takes us closer to awakening.

I’ve suggest trying this practice for yourself. Very simply, just notice, as you emerge from each distraction, how the train of thought appears to you now. Does it seem alluring? Does it seem unpleasant? Is it something in between?

Do note that there may be some part of your mind that is still drawn to the distraction. This isn’t surprising, since moments before you’d been entirely absorbed and seduced. But on the whole you may find yourself turning away from the distraction, seeing it as it really is — unsatisfying. And you may find yourself, unexpectedly, with a fuller appreciation of the present moment.

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Stepping out of obsessive thinking

Man leaping into water, doing a cannonball

I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.

My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.

In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”

Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.

After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”

During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.

While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.

One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.

By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.

The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.

Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.

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Becoming doubtful of doubt

Some recent and ongoing research sheds light on how the experience of depression arises, and also squares with the Buddhist teaching on the hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā).

Buddhist meditation traditions speak of five hindrances to meditation. No, this isn’t things like throbbing knees or the neighbor playing his stereo too loud. The hindrances are five mental states or activities that “hijack” the mind and make it hard, if not impossible, for us to stay focused in meditation. The central one of these hindrances is doubt.

In English we use the word doubt to mean many things. We can talk about doubt in terms of a willingness to question, and a desire to seek the truth without taking ideas on board too quickly. You might be skeptical, for example, that there are in fact five hindrances to meditation, and want to know more about them. You might want to test out in your experience whether this model is valid and useful. And those are very useful responses. That’s part of the meaning of the English word doubt, but in Pali, the word vicikicchā is much more specific. It refers to a lack of confidence and clarity.

Doubt as a hindrance involves, on an emotional level, a collapse in trust. We lack confidence in ourselves, or we lack confidence in the practice we’re doing, or we lack confidence in others and in whether they have anything to offer us. At its mildest doubt can simply be a form of disgruntlement, disengagement, or confusion, but at its most severe it can be a crushing burden of depression.

Doubt has a more cognitive aspect as well. Accompanying the confused, critical, and sometimes depressed emotions are various kinds of disordered thinking. For example, we may be having a hard time with a task we’re working on — whether it’s meditation or something at work — and we generalize this into statements about ourselves (“I can’t do this … I’m not getting anywhere”) or about the task (“Meditation is stupid … this is pointless”) or about the world generally (“This isn’t fair … life sucks”).

Part of the cognitive distortion is that we’re temporarily unable to remember any counter-examples — times that we succeeded and when the task went well, and times when we experienced obstacles and difficulties and overcame them. We think of ourselves as trapped, and stuck, and can’t imagine any creative way out of our situation. The hindrance of doubt hijacks the mind — both our emotions and our thoughts — and leaves us feeling trapped.

The other day I was talking to a meditation student who is writing a novel, and he talked about the difficulty of actually finishing his writing. Being on the verge of completing a project, or being on the verge of a breakthrough, can often trigger doubt. Say the book isn’t popular; how are we going to deal with that? Say it is popular; we’re then faced with the problem of adjusting to a new self-view, and the dread of having other people’s expectations of future success to live up to. Sometimes it seems best just to delay completion.

The research I mentioned earlier, which is described in a New York Times article, illuminates the connection between the emotional aspect of doubt (at its most extreme, depression) and the cognitive.

People were given words, like “rejection” or “loved” and were asked to come up with one specific memory connected with the word. The word specific here meant an event that lasted less than one day.

For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions.

You can see how the second response is a generalization. It’s highly unlikely that the brothers in question were literally “always” talking about going on holiday without the participant who wrote that comment. Sometimes people will take one or two examples that happened on specific occasions, and generalize them into an “always.” Sometimes counter-examples will be ignored: the time the writer was invited to go on vacation with his or her brothers but wasn’t able to go, or chose not to go for some reason. Sometimes the generalization in these cases is built on a misunderstanding: the intent wasn’t to exclude, perhaps, but the joint holiday was based on an activity that the brothers shared (like rock-climbing) and that the writer didn’t. With doubt, all the nuance gets squeezed out of the experience, and we’re left with a tight, hard statement of hopelessness expressing doubt in the brothers (“they don’t care about me”) and oneself (“I’m not likable enough to be invited”) and even the world (“Nobody likes me”).

These over-general memories seem to be connected with the arising of depression and related conditions:

Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, assessed 46 firefighters during their initial training and again four years later, when all had experienced traumatic events like seeing comrades injured or killed. Those who could not recall the past in specific detail during the first assessment were much likelier to have developed the disorder by the later one.

Interestingly, Dr. Mark Williams, who is well-known for his research into how meditation can help with depression, has

induced an overgeneral style in subjects by coaching them to recall types of events (“when I drive to work”) rather than specific occasions (“when I drove to work last Saturday”). He found they were suddenly less able to solve problems, suggesting that overgeneral memory is capable of producing one symptom of depression.

Doubt is treatable. My advice to students when doubt arises in meditation is first to deal with their posture. When we’re feeling depressed the body usually slumps and the head drops, and this posture reinforces the feelings of depression. When we straighten up the body it’s harder to feel depressed. Remembering how the body feels when we’re full of confidence can help us change our posture and empower us by bringing confidence into our present-moment experience.

The next thing I advise is to cultivate a healthy distrust of our own stories. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we recognize the signs of vicikicchā — in the form of over-generalized thoughts and stories that disempower us — we can step back from them and not take them so seriously. Jack Kornfield has suggested giving this inner doubter a name. When you hear the nagging voice of doubt you can say something like “Thanks for your input, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

I also suggest seeking a more balanced perspective by seeking the truth. “My brothers are always planning to go on vacation without me.” Really? How often? Twice? Three times? Is that really “always.” Is it a bad thing if they don’t invite me on a climbing trip given that I don’t climb? Have I ever invited them to go away with me? We need to be doubtful of our doubt.

“Meditation just doesn’t work?” Wait, is that true? Are there counter-examples? Well, I guess there are actually lots of times I’ve been on retreat and felt amazing afterward…

I’d expect that this research on depression and over-generalizing will end up by recognizing that depression is just the extreme end of a spectrum of doubt that starts with a mild lack of confidence, and that patterns of over-general thinking are the mechanism that get us from feeling just a bit “down” to a full-blown depressive attitude.

There’s good news in the article regarding how to circumvent this slide:

Williams has found that specificity can be increased with training in mindfulness, a form of meditation increasingly popular in combating some types of depression. Subjects are taught to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality.

We’re also told that:

Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories.

This is good news for depression sufferers, but it also shows other people how to maintain robust mental health: be specific in your recollections so that you don’t “talk yourself” into a depressed state of mind.

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