The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Addiction to Social Networks and Text Messaging
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Dr. Alexander Berzin
We’ve looked at what we’re dealing with in attitude training or mind training, which is our experience of everyday life. We live our lives, and experience each moment ourselves. Even if we broadcast everything that we do on Facebook and Twitter, still, we’re the only ones who are experiencing it.
Nowadays, it seems that so many people are almost addicted to text messaging and posting their feelings and activities on Facebook and Twitter. What’s the difference between reading about this stuff in terms of someone else’s daily life, and our own daily life? There’s obviously some distance between our own experience of life, and what somebody else is experiencing in theirs, especially when it’s put into a very small amount of words.
While we can empathize with others and what’s going on in their lives, it’s still not quite the same as the happiness or unhappiness or neutral feelings that we have in terms of what we’re experiencing ourselves. At the most fundamental level, this is what we have to deal with in daily life; sometimes we feel happy, sometimes unhappy. Sometimes it’s like we’re not feeling very much at all. Despite the fact that we would like to always be happy, our moods go up and down all the time, and it doesn’t seem to necessarily follow with what we are doing. Often, it also seems like we don’t have much control over our moods either. With attitude training, we’re looking at how to make the best of each situation as we go through the moments of our life and experience what’s happening and what we’re doing.
We looked at two main points that are very important in terms of how we deal with life: we exaggerate the importance of what we’re feeling and we exaggerate the importance of ourselves. For instance, we make a big deal out of feeling unhappy, which just makes it worse. When we’re happy, we’re insecure about it, which destroys it. When we feel neutral, we get freaked out because we feel like we need to be entertained all the time. We’re not satisfied with feeling calm and at ease, but we want something going on all the time, whether it’s television or music or whatever. Some sort of stimulation is constantly needed, as it gives some sort of sense of life.
I have an aunt who always sleeps with the television on. Actually she has it on 24 hours a day. She says she likes it because if she wakes up a bit during the night, the television is on. She’s totally frightened of the quiet. It’s not only a bit strange, I find it also quite sad.
The first thing we need to see, in order to improve our attitude about the ups and downs of life, is that it’s nothing special. There’s nothing particularly special or peculiar about the fact that sometimes we don’t feel happy, and that sometimes we feel alright, sometimes calm and quiet. This is totally normal. It’s just like waves on the ocean, sometimes the wave is high, sometimes you’re in the trough between the waves, and sometimes the ocean is completely calm. That’s just the nature of the ocean isn’t it, and it’s not big deal. Sometimes there might even big a big storm with huge, turbulent waves; but when you think of the whole ocean from its depths to the surface, it doesn’t really get disturbed in the depths, does it? It’s just something that appears on the surface as a result of many causes and circumstances like the weather and so on. There’s nothing surprising about it.
Our minds are like this ocean. It’s useful to think like this, to see that on the surface there might be up-and-down waves of happy, unhappy, this emotion, that emotion, but in the depths we’re not really disturbed by that. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to have a calmer and happier state of mind, because that is always preferable to the storm. But when the storm of extreme emotions and feelings does come, we don’t make it into a monster hurricane. We just deal with it in terms of what it actually is.
Many people practice Buddhist methods and over the years really see results, of not getting angry or jealous so much, not being horrible to others and so on. Then after many years they might have an episode of getting really angry or falling in love and experience extreme clinging and emotional turmoil, and they get discouraged. The source of this discouragement is that they forget the whole approach of “nothing special,” because our tendencies and habits are very deeply engrained and it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to overcome them. We can provisionally take care of it, but unless we get down to the root of why we get angry and so forth, it will recur from time to time. So when it does recur, we have to make sure we think, “nothing special.” We are not liberated beings yet, so of course attachment and anger are going to come up again. If we make a big deal out of it, that’s when we get stuck.
The idea is that if we understand and become convinced that there’s nothing special about what we experience or feel, then whatever happens, even if it’s some extraordinary insight, you just deal with it. You bang your toe against the table when it’s dark, and it hurts. Well what do you expect? Of course it’s going to hurt when you bang your toe. We can check if there’s a broken bone, but then you just go on. No big deal. No need to jump up and down and expect mommy to come and kiss it all better. So we try to lead our lives in this easy, relaxed way. It helps us to stay calm no matter what happens or what we feel.
There’s Nothing Special about Me
The second point, again, was also exaggeration. This time, instead of our feelings, we exaggerate the importance of ourselves. This is actually the main topic of the attitude training (mind training) teachings, because our problems and difficulties and so on, come from one thing: self-cherishing. This means that we’re obsessed with and always focusing on just “me,” and we are the only one that we are really concerned about. It has an aspect of egoism and egotism, as well as selfishness and self-preoccupation. There are many ways to describe this attitude and the things that come along with it.
When we make ourselves into something or someone special, this is really the source of our problems. We think, “I’m so important. Therefore it’s really important what I feel.” If we’re so concerned about “me, me, me,” then of course we’re going to get worried about this “me” being happy or unhappy or not feeling anything at all. Why Do We Share Our Feelings on Social Networks?
Buddhism always talks about avoiding two extremes, saying that instead it’s much better to follow a middle way. One extreme is making a big deal out of everything that happens to the “me,” feeling that it has to be broadcast to the whole world because everybody really cares. Actually, nobody cares what I had for breakfast this morning, or that I liked it or didn’t like it. But somehow we still think it’s really important. And then people like our posts. But why do we care how many like what I had for breakfast this morning? What does it prove? This is an interesting thing to think about.
Maybe people have a lack of real life conversations and just want to share with others? Well, yes, there is a sense of loneliness I suppose. But in a way it further isolates you because rather than having real interactions with others, you’re just doing it in what you think is a more protected environment on your computer or cell phone.
What I’m really suggesting that we look at is why do we feel we have to share how we feel? On the one hand, it’s because we think that everybody cares and it’s important for others to know what we ate for breakfast and whether we liked it or not. This is a silly example of course, but still, if not enough people like the post, then we feel down. We make it overly important – “me,” what I’m doing, what I’m feeling – and especially what others think of it. Instead of being self-confident and getting on with life, we seem to want to broadcast it to the whole world, almost thinking that we’re so important that they’ll drop everything to read our message. Isn’t this an exaggeration of our importance? And on top of this we have insecurity, which isn’t a very peaceful state of mine. Then we’re constantly checking others, to make sure we don’t miss out on something.
Anyway, the two extremes we need to avoid are thinking that we’re the most important thing ever or thinking that we’re basically nothing. Either everyone has to know what we feel, whether they care or not, or we totally ignore our feelings.
There are of course situations where it’s important to communicate what we’re feeling, like if we’re in a relationship with somebody and are really unhappy in it. It’s good to tell others and not just keep it inside, when there is a need for someone to know how we’re feeling: “What you said really hurt me,” and so on. But we can do it in a balanced way where we don’t over-exaggerate, but neither do we deny it. Of course if we’re talking about a relationship, then there are two people, and it’s just as important (and also just as much not a big deal either) what the other person is feeling.
When we talk of attitude training, it’s not only my attitude but also the attitude of everyone who is involved in the situation. In other words, my view isn’t the only point of view, right? That’s one of the main principles used in family therapy, where each member will get to relate what he or she is experiencing at home. So if parents fight with each other, they learn from the child how it might be affecting him or her. Otherwise they might not be aware. Their own points of view are not the only things that are happening in this configuration within the family.
Ways to Overcome Self-Cherishing
The main emphasis, then, in traditional attitude training or mind training is on overcoming this self-preoccupation that we usually call “self-cherishing,” and to open ourselves up to thinking about others. We looked before at some ways this can be done, such as imagining ourselves on one side and everybody else on the other, and thinking, “Who is more important? Me as an individual or everyone else together?” and we used the example of traffic, “Am I more important than everyone else stuck in the traffic that I have to get where I’m going and I don’t care about all the others?”
The important thing is, when we open up to thinking about everybody stuck in the traffic, that is actually based on reality. The reality is that everybody is stuck in the traffic. We are not the only ones stuck, right? So when we talk about improving out attitude, we’re doing it on the basis of reality; we see what the reality is, and have our attitude be in accord with that. One of my friends, a Buddhist teacher, said you could sum up the Buddhist approach with one word:“realism.”
Because of the way that Buddhism is sometimes presented, people often think that all it involves it fantastic visualizations and rituals, sort of like a Buddhist Disneyland. But that’s really not the main thrust of Buddhism at all. Those things are there, there’s no denying it, but they are a method for trying to be more in accord with realism. When you use these methods, you understand the difference between reality and fantasy, and the power of imagination.
We’re human beings, so what distinguishes us from animals? There is much we can point to, but the main thing is that we have the power of intelligence and imagination. We can learn to use both of these. An example would be when you have a great deal of sexual desire for someone. This can be quite disturbing. So we can change this, using both our intelligence and our imagination.
Anyone can find anyone else attractive and become infatuated with them and rejoice in their beauty. But as this is common even among dogs and such, O dull-witted one, why are you so attached to yours?
In other words, if a dog or a pig finds it sexual partner so attractive, what makes ours so special? The quality of sexual attractiveness comes totally from the mind of the individual; it’s not something inherent in the object of attraction. Otherwise, a pig would find our partner really beautiful and attractive, and we should find the pig’s partner attractive. Intellectually, this is completely correct. With our imagination, we imagine the said pigs, and that helps it to make sense. So there’s nothing really special about someone we find attractive. I find this person attractive, this person finds that person attractive. It’s like at a restaurant: one person wants this from the menu, one person wants that. So what? Nothing special.
When you can extend this type of thinking, it becomes very interesting. Why should everyone like to do things the way I do? Of course it’s self-cherishing behind this thinking: “The way I do it is correct.” Then we get annoyed when someone else organizes their desk or computer folders in a different way: “That’s so wrong!” Its good to acknowledge that there are many different ways in which things can be done, just as there are many different objects of sexual attraction.
When we read or hear about this attitude training in which the main emphasis is to stop self-cherishing and to start thinking of others, we don’t have to take it to the full extent of thinking that we’re working to benefit every being in the universe. We can do, of course, like we were saying before, “I’m one of 7 billion humans on this planet, along with countless animals and insects. Everybody is feeling either happy, unhappy, or neutral, so there’s nothing special about me.” We think of what we’re feeling in the context of everybody, and our mind is much more open instead of the usual “me, me, me.” It’s like with global warming; you have to consider how it’s going to affect everybody, because it doesn’t just concern one person.
Still, we don’t have to go that far to actually execute a beneficial change, going from self-cherishing to cherishing others. We can do it on a more modest scale too, looking at our own immediate surroundings – “I’m not the only one in this relationship,” or “I’m not the only one in this family.” In this way we slowly become more concerned with the larger group. Maybe we can’t yet include everyone in the universe, but we can start on this kind of scale, not just on a superficial level of Facebook likes, but actual personal encounters with others.
Yes this is limited, because we can reach so many more people on a social network than we could in our daily life. But when a virtual social network replaces actual interpersonal contact and relations, that’s when the problems start. You might be with someone, but not really there, because you’re texting other people. It’s a common phenomenon now, not just among teenagers, but also children who report feeling very neglected, because their parents are constantly texting and not paying attention to them. Different Ways to Practice Mind Training
There are many levels on which we can practice mind training. It needn’t involve any sort of exotic practice; all we need is to use our own intelligence in terms of what we find realistic. What is realistic is that we are not the only person in the universe, and we’re not the most important person in the universe, but of course we’re not nothing either. We are one of many beings in the universe, we are part of this. We can use our imagination in terms of empathy, to try to understand other people’s situations and feelings and they way they experience things.
Our intelligence and imagination are two great tools we can use. We train our intelligence with logic, and we train our imagination with things like visualization, not to become like a computer with our intellect or win a gold medal at visualizing all sorts of fantastic details, but to overcome difficulties and problems in our own life. On a wider scope, we also do this to be able to help others to do the same. It’s good to have this very wide, very broad scope, where we can understand and empathize with everybody in terms of everything that’s happened to them, what’s presently happening to them, and what could potentially happen to them in the future. That involves both great intelligence and imagination!
We can bring this into our daily lives in a variety of ways. The simplest level is to have this feeling of “nothing special,” which is coming to an understanding that whatever happens, good or bad or neutral, it’s nothing particularly special. Throughout history, at least from the ancient Greeks to now, everyone has been saying, “This is the worst of times: the younger generation is totally degenerate and horrible and corrupt.” If you look at literature over time, everyone’s been saying this, but it’s not really true. There’s nothing special about what’s happening, nothing special about me, and nothing special about what I’m feeling. It’s just flowing on and on and on, driven by innumerable causes and conditions interacting with each other. We just need to deal with it in as beneficial way as possible, using our intelligence and imagination to empathize with ourselves and others.
Each of us is just one of more than seven billion humans on this planet, but none of us is that different from anyone else. When we try to overcome our self-cherishing attitude, we automatically become more realistic: we see how we are all in it together, rather than everyone being against us. There’s nothing particularly special about us, a realization which brings vast improvement in the quality of our emotional well-being and interaction with others.