-isms and the need to belong

“The desire to…the identity to belong is based on fear, and inclusion and exclusion. The aspiration to awaken is prepared to negotiate all of those boundaries.”

I was particularly struck by Ajahn Thanasanti’s words in this conversation with Gina Sharpe because of my own strong desire to be inclusive, which is then reflected in a corresponding aversion to any sense of exclusion and perhaps paradoxically, if unchecked, results in the same! Sadly, I sense a lot of “clubby” behavior, particularly online.


Unraveling anonymity and identity

Identity itself is an outdated concept. We are not some static and immutable list of descriptors and qualities. We are flexible and under constant change—we’re all in perpetual beta.¹


The (elusive) middle way and social media

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with balance. Though a reasonably good student, I often opted for socializing over studying. I had semesters of really putting the nose to the grind and others where I hung out with friends for hours in a bar playing electronic darts, or in a club dancing to house music (I know, you’re thinking, “really?”). When in intimate relationship, I have struggled greatly with wanting to be with that other person virtually all the time. When alone, I make solitude a fortress. When working, I put myself in it whole-heartedly, but then I end up being burnt out from working 12-hour days too frequently and just quit everything … Then there are the addictive behaviors re technology that result in a sort of “binge-and-purge” approach to life. When I was younger, it was computer games, then pre- social media Live Journal, then Last.fm. Obsessive behavior for a while and then a complete relinquishment. Now it’s reading, aggregating, and sharing Dhamma tidbits I find online, through conversations, and through scouring my own bookshelves. And so much of this, particularly personal blogging, as I’ve discussed before, just enables becoming, “selfing”, creating images of me, myself, mine over and over. See how many images of “me” lie just in this one paragraph alone! The wonderful thing is there’s an awareness that these are just ideas and that that illusion of an identity is dismantling and recreating itself all the time.

"Eliminating Sufferer": Seriously, not surprising if FB knows I'm a, ahem, Buddhist and quite a sense of humor if so...

Like many Western Buddhist-types (I still have trouble claiming the identity of a religious person tied to an institution), I started with pure theory. And often my eyes were bigger than my brain – to borrow from the metaphor about putting more on your plate than you can eat – and there are books that remain unread, but still I buy more. Dhamma talks I download when so many remain unlistened. Technology can enable the same sort of over-consumptive behavior we see in so much of our society – even when the object of such consumption is Dhamma. These days, part of the reason the books aren’t being read is because I’m sitting and practicing instead of just thinking about it, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s also a lot of engaging in social media, and not always all that mindfully. The momentum of a sensual life can be much stronger than that of a contemplative one, and there’s always the danger of talking about the Dhamma but not living it, not realizing it in the sense of the kind of understanding that comes from direct experience alone.

And to be quite honest, this is a big struggle right now.

I’m someone that’s also always been pretty anti-establishment and resisted enforced structure. So, it’s not surprising that far from a Mahasi method of vipassana, I practice a “choiceless awareness” kind of meditation, which encourages inquiry and investigation right from the bat. And Shwe Oo Min was just the right retreat center for me since it provided structure if I chose it, but never enforced it. The Forest Refuge in Barre, MA is similar in that regard but it’s disadvantage is it doesn’t provide the opportunity for talking meditation, and it costs an arm and a leg compared to Burmese standards of dana. (However, I should note, both those drawbacks can be remedied with a work study.) For the same reason, I have no trouble incorporating teachings from Zen and other traditions into my practice as well. Theravada, Mahayana, who cares? The guys below don’t.

The kind of structure I like. No walls.

During the seven months I was on retreat, there were long periods where I followed the prescribed schedule: rise at 3:30 AM, sit / walk, sit / walk, etc. all day and there were times when I totally just did my own thing. Times where I talked with other yogis, times where I totally retreated. Having that freedom was really important to the learning process. And I deeply believe all human beings should be given this balance between structure and independent choice from early in their lives (but that’s another matter all together, perhaps to be explored in future ramblings). At the same time, because life was so simple on retreat, things were really stripped down – there were no opportunities for distraction, for numbness, for completely checking out. That’s why being in a meditation center is so supportive to the practice. You just can’t get away from the mind when there’s nothing else going on.

But then, here we are in daily life and the distractions are there. For me, namely, that’s an Internet connection: more specifically Google Reader, email, Tumblr. I have a focused approach to my Internet usage certainly, and so I don’t waste my time swimming through seas of “irrelevant information”, but it remains something that can entirely take me away from contemplative practice and put all my focus outward if I’m not careful. It’s a constant balancing process. Every time there is an urge to check for new information in one of those buckets (or tabs to be precise), I have to look at the intention. What’s the motivation. Is it just lobha, sense desire, that I’m trying to provide momentary relief to? Is it even possible for it to be entirely pure when it happens so many times during the day? It moves into addiction so quickly, and since currently there is so little structure in my life (liminal, jobless, hermit-like lifestyle) it is far too easy to just avoid looking at what’s at the root of those patterns.

Meanwhile, being back in the West, I immediately fall prey to the illusion of needing to be productive. So the online activity somehow feels like proof of creating something, delivering something. Being a productive member of society! When really, even if there are a few people who are reading what I write or reblog and are being inspired, life feels all too meaningless because of some idea that things are supposed to be some other way. Because of not opening to life as it is in all its isness. Then there’s the comparison, the idea that life was more meaningful when I was practicing more diligently in Myanmar. The idea that somehow, watching my mind in this new context, where concentration is pretty hard to come by, is not a valid form of practice. Is not worthwhile. That somehow I’ve plateaued because there’s not enough mindfulness from moment-to-moment, not enough continuity, not ripe enough conditions for wisdom to emerge. Forgetting that it is the difficult situations, the confronting deeply engrained habits of behavior (in relationship, in addiction), the feelings of uncertainty and lack of meaning, that ultimately are the best teachers.

We’re like a student who skips class, who doesn’t want to study his lessons. We don’t want to see the mind when it’s happy, when it’s suffering. We don’t want to see it change, but what will we ever know? You have to stay with the changing like this. Get acquainted with this: “Oh, the mind is like this. One moment it thinks of that, the next moment it thinks of this, that’s its ordinary nature.” Know it when it thinks. Know when its thoughts are good, when they’re bad, when they’re right and wrong. Know what it’s like. When we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re simply sitting, thinking about this or that, the mind is still in concentration. If we know what it’s up to, we don’t get irritated or distracted.

via Not for Sure: Two Dhamma Talks

Had Ajahn Chah spoken these words in the digital era to a bunch of Western Buddhists, he might have included the verb “blogging” or “engaging in social media” in the sentence that starts “when we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re…”

The challenge for so many of us that are attracted to Buddhism, perhaps initially from an intellectual perspective, and to all of those that embrace social media for sharing the Dhamma, is to make sure that we do it mindfully and that it doesn’t interfere with (and hopefully rather supports) the non-verbal forms of our practice. Because of working in IT and in a professional setting for many years, spending an inordinate time on a computer has been normalized for me, so that even when I don’t have to, I still do. In Burma, I didn’t miss it at all and thought I’d never go back. It’s strange, the all or nothing. It’s been difficult to find the balance.

So now it’s learning to be present in this reality, with these particular conditions, to live in the world but not be of it. To see and understand the patterns and learn from them. To see the desires and the aversions, the confusion and frustration. To inquire into their root.

So simple, but not easy. As all of this is.

There are of course many conversations – and now even an annual conference – dealing with the subject of mindfulness and social media. Here are some resources:

(Ed. 8/31/2010 My Personal Internet Usage Policy)

In Hindsight: To Blog, or Not to Blog

Mindful Blogging

The Plain Truth About Wisdom 2.0 and Addiction

You Are No Longer Following Buddha

How to Skillfully Live with Technology

Did You Get the Message?

Inquiring Mind | Volume 26 | Number 2 | Spring 2010 “Addiction”

Dharma and Technology with Anushka Fernandopulle

Soren Gordhamer Home Page and Columnist Page at Huffington Post

Wisdom 2.0 Conference

Photo Credit: “Walking Talking Meditation”, Jiri Pavlik

The Internet is a perennial source of dukkha

Has any person ever not had the thought, at one point or another, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t said that.”? Or felt remorse after sending an email? I think it’s a pretty common human experience to not always speak or write as wisely as we might like upon reflection. I know I’ve certainly had my fair share of regrets. One thing I’m hopefully learning to do right now is to reduce the opportunity to feel such shame and remorse. By cultivating awareness moment to moment, we can probably avoid saying the wrong thing. By asking ourselves whether what we have to say is 1) necessary and 2) beneficial before we say it, we also will end up speaking less but more meaningfully when we do. I know this is easier said than done, but I can think of few things more important in developing ourselves and our relationship with others.

Unfortunately, at one point I had the realization when reflecting on Right Speech, that I had written something critical about an organization on this blog. Being new to blogging, I wrote something for narrative effect without considering carefully that by putting it up on the Internet it was becoming something that was a permanently searchable archive that anyone with an Internet connection could access. The point at which I had this realization was on a meditation cushion in Burma, several weeks away from having access to a computer and web connection for editing purposes and months after the original post. So, if I had done damage, it was likely already done and a couple more weeks wouldn’t be the end of the world (or so I reasoned so as not to totally torture myself), but the reality is that even after removing the potentially defamatory words, the thought about this unwise action has come back to haunt me several times. I’ve learned a hard lesson and as such, it’s raised the question whether or not the Internet is an appropriate venue for communications of this sort, or for someone that’s trying to cultivate more skillful speech, at least when one feels still so unskillful…

This may therefore be a swan song post, but I will think about it and reconsider if I trust wisdom will prevail.

The Buddha thought speech was so important that he included it among both the moral precepts that every disciple, lay or ordained, follows, and he also included it in the Noble Eightfold Path – the means to end suffering. A lay person that takes an additional three precepts on as a lifetime practice, the ajiva atthamaka sila (not the training precepts or atthanga sila I observe as a yogi – for more info on the distinctions, see here) abides by them in an even stronger way. The elements of Right Speech are to refrain from false speech and to speak only truth; to abstain from engaging in malicious speech (i.e., slander); to abstain from engaging in harsh speech (i.e., profanity, etc.); and to abstain from engaging in frivolous, unnecessary and idle talk (i.e., small talk and gossip). Here at Shwe Oo Min, unlike most meditation centers, we are allowed to talk. We are neither encouraged nor discouraged by the teacher, but are strongly advised to speak only of Dhamma and our practice. Even when we do that though, it is so easy to fall into our personal story lines or to fall into habit patterns of wanting to be witty or funny and lose sight of what really matters.

Especially in the West, we spend our lives constructing a self identity, a charming personality and yet, as Sayadaw U Jotika, who also studied with U Tejaniya’s teacher Shwe Oo Min, says, the “I” is the single greatest burden we carry around in our lives. It is so much to deconstruct! Perhaps nowhere is it more apparent how we cling to a permanent idea of self than in the context of social networking (and blogs too…). The information we choose to share and the images we choose to represent us become so self-identified. The news articles, the interests, the avatars, the humor, the originality of our words we think all make us “me”. We spend so much time culling just the right stuff to formulate our persona on the Internet – something archived and in many ways static and so counter to reality where everything is constantly changing!

One thing I’ve realized through meditation is that most of the thinking we do is conceptual and a function of language. Words are great – they give shared meaning to common experiences and enable us to communicate with one another – but they are also very limiting, taking on individual bias and conditioning, and more important, creating a huge distance between the experiencer and that which is being experienced. We can rarely directly know what is happening because we form stories, based on past experience, of what a thought about an object means. So we end up with thought upon thought upon thought as opposed to experience. And if you think of this beyond the level of individual consciousness to universal consciousness (we are conditioned from the beginning of human existence, maybe even time!) it’s mind-blowing how trapped we really are by concept.

So, is it possible to take words both more seriously and more lightly? Knowing both their limits and their depth? Can we try to be more kind and less angry when we speak? Can we pause and think about what we are going to say first? Can we listen more attentively? Can we be more aware of everything that is happening as it happens, and better understand the complex emotional-mental-physical network that is our body and mind? Try it. See what happens.

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