Three Lessons for the Digital Age I Learned From Studying Buddhism
Recently I spent an evening with a friend at the Zen Center in Detroit, Michigan where she is a student. Having done a bit of studying about Buddhism, I was excited to learn from someone who was actually living the Buddhist life. My friend gave me a tour of the center, we sat for an hour long meditation, and then ate dinner together at a Japanese-style low table.
After dinner I was struck with what a pleasant and uncomplicated day it had been. I began to realize that Buddhism holds within itself many antidotes to the conditions which have become endemic of modern society.
We have all become familiar with these ailments, at least to some extent — finding it difficult to focus long enough to do things we used to enjoy such as to read a book or even carrying on an in-depth conversation without checking our phones, feeling a constant sense of urgency and need to search for the next distraction.
Despite being more connected to the outside world, experiencing a feeling of loneliness and of being misunderstood or uncared for. Sitting down in front of a computer only to realize hours later that you have been browsing for so long that you don’t remember why you got on the internet in the first place.
- There is a lot of richness in the present moment. Think about the last time you walked somewhere. My guess is that, even if it was a short walk, you probably had your cellphone in hand. Maybe you tried to call a friend to fill the time. Maybe you checked your Facebook, then posted a picture on Instagram. Or if you are like me, as a last resort, maybe you just kind of flipped through the apps on your phone searching restlessly for something to occupy your time.
As a society, we have become increasingly uncomfortable with the present moment.
We try, rather successfully, to escape it through a constant bombardment of notifications, messages, apps, etc.
The Buddhist principle of mindfulness tells us that we are escaping the most important moments of our lives.
Mindfulness has started to gain some traction in the U.S. recently — there was the recent Time magazine cover story, loads of new books and apps, and even recent promotion by large corporations as a way to foster increased productivity and focus.
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere” -First century Roman philosopher Seneca
In essence, mindfulness means to have a full awareness of the present moment. To practice mindfulness is to take a break from the busyness that has become our modi operandi and to focus only on the present. This can take the form of a sitting meditation or it can just mean eliminating distractions for a few moments to enjoy whatever it is you are doing right now.
In fact, I would say that the most important point of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time, in any situation.
All that has to be done is to give full attention to the task at hand.
Take again the walking example. Perhaps you’re walking to your car after leaving work. Instead of checking your phone, try focusing your attention on “just walking.” Feel your shoes making contact with the ground. Notice how your legs feel as they carry you forward. Feel any breeze or sensation of wind against your skin and clothes. Watch your breath as it naturally changes to the pace of your steps.
It’s deceptively difficult.
At first your brain will probably protest and your thoughts will drift to something more “exciting.” Just gently bring your attention back to the aspects of walking. Once you have practiced this a bit and get used to “just walking” you will see how much richness there is in the details of a walk. You will begin to notice aspects that perhaps you never saw before. It is exciting to see life through new eyes, with the renewed wonder of a child. Being content with the present is a fundamental part of happiness, and one that our addiction to technology can strip from us by creating endless distractions that we perceive as important. Practicing mindfulness is a way of retraining your brain to focus and become more comfortable with the life that surrounds you.
2. We are all connected. The Buddhist teachings say that all things on Earth are interconnected. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk relates this concept in a way that is easily understood:
“…looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower.”
At the Zen Center, when greeting another person it is customary to bow towards them. This is a way of saying “I respect you and see a part of myself in you.” I think the more standard way welook at the world is a dichotomy of “us and them.”
We emotionally distance ourselves from strangers, people we don’t like, and problems that are not directly affecting us.
Inter-being is a twist on the Golden Rule- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It means not just to treat, but to view others as an extension of yourself. It’s the ultimate call for the kindness of humanity, both towards each other and also the environment in which we inhabit. Perhaps when spoken broadly, the message of interconnectedness feels like a platitude. But considered individually, it’s a call for personal change and for deep consideration about the nature of our realities.
3. Use teachings as a guide, not as ultimate truth. The Buddha said to use his teachings as you would a raft. Use them to aid you in getting to the other side of the pond, or in other words, as a means to an end. He didn’t want anything that he said to be taken for dogma that was written in stone and could not be reinterpreted or changed. This is a powerful lesson for the importance of critical thinking in the digital age. It’s so easy to find an “expert” opinion on a subject. Just check YouTube for a video tutorial, Wikipedia for a textual lesson, or Google to instantly see millions of search results from all over the web. There are obvious benefits to this — the wealth of information at our fingertips would have been unfathomable in any era of history. The negative aspect though is that we are losing our ability and desire to think for ourselves, to think critically and deeply, forming our own opinions.
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” -Henry David Thoreau
To me, this teaching of the Buddha is a beautiful contrast to the teachings of many other religions or ideologies. The ability to think and reason for ourselves is the most powerful tool we have to make forward progress both outwardly through technology and scientific advancement and inwardly through moral endeavor.
In studying Buddhist teachings, I am struck by the relevance of what I have read. I am not advocating that all people should become Buddhist. I am, however, promoting deep thought about our social mores and ethical beliefs.
We are often so steeped in our ethos that for positive change to occur, we must learn to be observant of our most basic assumptions.
It is this type of thought and observation that makes Buddhism so important to our society.