There have been many great teachers across the history of mankind. Some are well known to us, such as Mohammed or the Buddha, but many are not. Within the Tibetan Buddhist traditions I study in there are even teachers who are well respected and still revered for their wisdom, such as Jigme Lingpa or Naropa, but few people in the public eye know of them. Even though they had tremendous wisdom to share, their access to the mainstream public was limited. They could teach the people who lived near them, and perhaps some people might hear tell of their great knowledge and travel to see them. But I imagine the scope of people who had access to their wisdom was in the hundreds.
Today, someone can come up with an idea — good or bad — and, with a few clicks on their phone, share it with thousands of people. While they have a larger immediate audience, I am not talking about a politician or celebrity with millions of followers; I’m talking about everyday citizens like you and me who post to social media and have it shared by people who share it with people until its ripple effects are beyond our cognition. Compared with the great masters who came before us, we may or may not be so wise, but our platform is exponentially bigger. By virtue of being on social media, we have all become public figures, for better or worse.
Now that everyone is a public figure I am reminded of what my favorite superhero, Spider-Man, is fond of saying: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Power, in this case, refers to the power to wield influence over others, which is a great part of social media, as witnessed in the 2016 presidential election. Whether you’re sharing fake news stories or a picture of you and your new beau, you’re simultaneously affecting your friends, who might like that content and see it at face value, your ex, who becomes really angered by it, and that person hate-following you, who is secretly judging you for everything you do. That’s a lot of influence that you may not be considering with each post. Given this incredible power we wield with our laptops and iPhones, we need to use it responsibly . . . but how?
The main route to responsible social media usage is the same path I often recommend for new meditators: we contemplate why we’re doing the thing in the first place. When I offer meditation resources to people around starting a meditation practice, the initial thing I encourage them to do is look at their motivation. If we don’t know why we’re doing a thing, often our inspiration falls flat pretty quickly and we won’t do it again. If we know our intention, we’re much more likely to show up for any given act in a more way we feel good about.
Before we open up Facebook we can contemplate our intention: “Why am I opening up this tab? Is it because I’m bored with work and looking to escape the feeling of boredom? Or did I want to check in on my friend, because they have been MIA lately and I want to see if they’ve posted?” The former might lead us to endlessly scrolling, then freaking out when we have wasted a half hour. The latter would take all of two minutes and lead us to more skillful action.
Having grokked our intention, we can move into that skillful activity aspect. The Buddha outlined a number of guidelines for how we communicate. In the Vaca Sutta. He said that any statement is well spoken if it meets these criteria: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
Let’s break that out and map it to something he could likely not have predicted: social media.
In regard to goodwill, we can continue to look at our intention behind posting something. If we have something cool going on, is our motivation to share the good news, as a result of a longing to genuinely connect and get people involved in our life? Or is it so that everyone thinks we have our act together and are doing better than they are? If we are posting with a mind of goodwill, meaning the intention is to connect and benefit all parties, then that’s a sign that we might want to go ahead and do it.
The next factors we can consider when sharing with our networks is whether what we are posting is beneficial and affectionate to others. Beneficial is a very subjective term, but it’s based in the idea that what we are sharing is meant to uplift or educate other people, as opposed to tearing them down. Particularly these days, a platform like Facebook seems to be a venue for people to post a lot of political ideology, not so much with the seeming intent to spark a genuine dialogue but to prove that their closely held views are right, daring people who disagree to argue with them.
When we perceive this sort of rhetoric, it might be a good idea to steer clear. While Millicent Fenwick may have been “of a certain time,” she was right when she wrote in Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, “One of the keys to our present definition of good taste is that it is better to be kind than to be ‘correct.’” When we are engaging with people on social media, this simple notion can guide our hand so that we build bridges with people we may disagree with, as opposed to burning them.
Now we can move to whether what we are posting is truthful. These days, people seem to post a lot of the glorious moments of life without acknowledging the heartache that exists in each of us. These people who post only the seemingly endless good news of their life, with no moments of reflection, are contributing to what some might call “success theater.” It’s the notion that one’s life is beautifully curated moment after moment, with each new high being smacked down by a new goal shattered, the best friends possible, and a life of endless ease and no frustration. For some of us we may see that and feel what we Buddhists call sympathetic joy — a type of joy one experiences when witnessing the joy of others — but often it leads to feelings of jealousy and insufficiency.
When we post, it might be worth thinking about whether we are sharing only the good while ignoring the bad. Someone who shares a picture of herself with her husband with the caption “No bad days” or “Always easy and in love” is clearly not being truthful. Even in the best-paired couples there are bad days. On those days love, while it might be on the emotional landscape, is clouded by lots of much more difficult emotions. Perhaps a more honest caption would be “Despite our hardships and getting on each other’s nerves, our love continues to deepen.” I have a theory that if people posted honestly about their lives, they would not only gain the vaunted high number of “likes” but contribute to further connection, even offline.
The final aspect of the Vaca Sutta I’d like to tease out is the idea of posting at the right time. If we are feeling overwhelmed and looking to connect with other people, we may quickly learn that social media is not the best way to gain intimate connection. In fact, posting “Worst day ever. Can’t believe it” may yield little to no response, only making us feel even more isolated. The “right time” for social media may be when we are feeling like we want to share news with a large audience but are not particularly attached to the idea that we will have meaningful contact with them.
Which brings me to the idea that social media is not a replacement for human connection. The head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Karmapa, once said, “When you are hurt, sometimes you just want someone to hug you. A flat screen cannot hold your hand and share your pain.” No matter how many comments you get on something you post, it will never be the same as someone looking you in the eyes and telling you that you’re loved.
Social media has the ability to connect us with many people, so we do have a responsibility to post things that are true, kind, beneficial, offered with good intention, and shared at the right time. But if we can’t handle that, or are looking to connect in a clear way with others, we have to close the laptop and call a friend. As the Karmapa went on to say, “The internet places our relationships in the cloud, but we need to live our relationships here on the ground.”
Closing Practice Advice
The next time you are moved to open up your social media network of choice, take a breath. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” See if you can set an intention for your time on the network, including a desired amount of time you would want to spend on it. Then enter that activity while, to the best of your ability, maintaining that intention.