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.
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.
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.
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)
Photo Credit: “Walking Talking Meditation”, Jiri Pavlik