Dr. Alexander Berzin: Applying Buddhist Principles in the Age of Social Media
The information age, with the Internet and so on, has evolved now, at the start of 2011, into an age of social media, with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and the ubiquitous use of text messaging with cell phones. This has changed the way that people relate to one another. Add to this the ever-growing use of iPods, listening to music all day long, and the proliferation of video games, so that many people are now connected to music, gaming, texting and social networking wherever they are, all day and night. Each of these developments has brought both benefits and detrimental side effects. In any case, these developments are having a profound effect on people. I should like to explore how Buddhism may be of help to amplify the benefits and lessen the harms that are coming from this social change. So let me point out a few points that are benefits of this social media, and then disadvantages that are there, and what Buddhism has to offer in the face of these developments.
A Sense That What We Think Matters
In the face of the frightening prospects presented by terrorism, climate change, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, global recession, unemployment, and so on, people often feel insignificant, powerless, and alone. Social networks, like Facebook, can help to give them a sense that what they do and what they think actually matters – to a group of friends who can respond to what they post about their daily lives and thoughts by signaling that they like it. It some way, it seems to affirm to them their existence, their importance in this world that they feel so powerless in.
The disadvantage of this feature, of receiving “I like it,” can give a false sense of self-importance, however, and it can foster narcissism. Also the “I likes” can be quite superficial and not really mean anything. In addition, people can feel that the number of friends and the number of “I like it”s that they receive on their Facebook page are more important than the quality and the sincerity of the friends. And if they don’t receive any “I like it”s, they feel devastated. By posting the most banal things that are happening to yourself, such as what you just ate for lunch and that you liked it, it can also greatly increase wasting your own and others’ time with meaningless idle chatter. And idle chatter, of course, is one of the four destructive actions of speech as mentioned in the Buddhist teachings – namely, considering what is meaningless to be meaningful.
So what does Buddhism have to offer with respect to this? One of the Buddhist meditations on compassion emphasizes how we are completely dependent on the kindness of all beings. Everything that we eat and enjoy comes from the work of others. So we are interconnected. That is a fact. And what each person does, including ourselves, counts and contributes to the life of others. The people who grow our food, the people who transport it, people who built the roads along which they are transported, and built the vehicles, and who sell it, and so on – everything is interconnected. We don’t need to have friends saying “I like it” that we enjoyed our lunch in order to make us feel better and to somehow prove or establish our existence. We do exist and we are interconnected.
By pointing out the difference, in Buddhist philosophy, between what we call the conventional “me” and the false “me,” we can feel connected with others as simply being a fact. The conventional “me” is just – here I am; I’m sitting; I’m talking; I’m eating; I’m sleeping; etc. And the false “me” is this inflated “me” that we feel is so important and that everybody really must know what I ate for lunch; this type of self-importance, a big solid ego: “me.” So Buddhism points out that although the conventional “me”… we do exist, of course, but this inflated sense of “me” is an illusion. That’s just a projection. So if we can reaffirm and go away from this big emphasis, this narcissistic emphasis on “Everything that I do is so important and interesting to everybody,” and just reaffirm that “Of course I exist,” then we can feel connected with others as simply being a fact and then know that this fact doesn’t make us into a solidly existent big ego – a solid “me” – as a focus for self-importance and narcissism. The more secure we feel in terms of our conventional “me” that we know exists and doesn’t need affirmation to prove it, we’ll stop looking to others for approval.
Also Buddhism teaches us to be more sincere. Instead of just a superficial meaningless “I like it,” we can write more meaningfully and deeply to others in order to help them in whatever way is needed. I think that’s very important in terms of how we actually communicate. A meaningless “Yeah, yeah, this is great” – you know, just press a button that says “I like it” – doesn’t really connect with anyone else. And to think that this is so important, and to feel better because I have ten of these for my “what I ate for lunch today” – eventually one realizes that this is quite meaningless and shallow.
A Feeling of Connectedness
Another benefit of this social media is for people who live isolated lives – just going to work and coming home, and living alone. Social networks can help them feel part of a community. This gives them a sense of belonging that fosters a feeling of well-being. After all, as human beings we are social animals; and that’s very important, that we feel part of a community. The disadvantage of that is that we might not have any meaningful contact with a group of friends that we feel that we belong to, and that group may be held together by something quite trivial.
Buddhism emphasizes the importance of spiritual friends. And it’s helpful to feel that we’re part of a group. We have this in monasteries of course. We have this in Dharma centers around the world. But it doesn’t really need to be a Buddhist group or a spiritual group that we belong to, but one that’s brought together by positive values and endeavors to help others. In other words: if we’re going to belong to a social network, it’s very much more beneficial if that social network is bonded together by something positive, something constructive that they can share.
Another benefit is that social networks allow families to keep connected with each other and know what everyone in the family is doing, every family member. This is especially helpful in the case of Asian families, in which people’s identities are often based on the entire family rather than on themselves alone as an individual, and in which older members often feel that younger members are almost like extensions of themselves. So with Facebook or whatever, then the family can feel everybody knows what everybody is doing. It’s very helpful. But the disadvantage of that is that we can easily lose all privacy. Although we can communicate with just one person through Facebook or e-mail, sometimes what we write – I mean, this is particularly with Facebook – sometimes what we write, even if we indicate that it should be private, will then be spread publicly by somebody else who receives it, without our consent. For private messages, text messaging and e-mail are better suited, but text messaging can again degenerate into just idle chatter: writing complete nonsense.
Buddhism teaches us to develop discriminating awareness. In this case, to discriminate between what’s public and what’s private. In tantra, for example, we learn to keep certain teachings private or secret, since others may misunderstand or misuse what we say. This discriminating awareness can be extended then to all areas of our life if we don’t want everything about ourselves to be public knowledge. It’s just a matter of self-control. If you’re going to put something up on Facebook, you have to be willing that it’s going to become public knowledge, otherwise text message or e-mail is much better.
Let’s turn to Twitter – you know, where you give very short messages. One benefit is that receiving a Twitter feed each day from people you find inspiring can help people who live isolated lonely lives feel some sort of human contact without actually having to engage with others. The disadvantage is that you can use this feature just to feel good, but without actually having it empower you to follow the model or advice of the person whom you find inspiring. Many people get the Twitter feed from His Holiness the Dalai Lama or from other great figures each day.
In Buddhism we have what’s known as guru-yoga, in which you reinforce the inspiration you gain from your spiritual teacher, with the entire purpose of feeling that your own body and speech and mind and the body, speech, and mind of the Guru have become integrated. And what that means is actually trying to act, speak, and think like your Guru; not just in theory but in practical life. So this strategy can be extended to inspiring persons that you receive in your Twitter feed, beyond the sphere of just spiritual figures. In other words, if you’re receiving these Twitter messages each day to help you feel a little bit connected with something more meaningful, to try to actually integrate it into your life, not just use it to feel good.
Another benefit is that it allows shy people to communicate with others in a much more open way than they could ever do in person, especially when one’s friends are in another country or we’re writing in a language that’s not our main language. People can often express themselves much better in writing than verbally. The disadvantage of that is that it can limit our ability to communicate in person. We can lose the sensitivity to others that is part of a face-to-face encounter; especially, as some people do, if we assume a false identity in chat rooms, and tend to turn off our machines or just not answer when we receive an awkward message or we don’t feel like it. That’s a big problem actually.
Buddhism teaches us, on the other hand, not to pretend that we have qualities we don’t have and not to try to hide shortcomings that we do have. If we gain self-confidence through this social media – but on the basis of being honest about ourselves – then we need to start to extend this to real-life situations. So this actually is quite helpful with this social media: that if it allows us to gain more and more self-confidence in communicating, then go out and really communicate face to face; don’t just leave it with hiding behind your computer screen.
Another benefit is that Twitter and text messaging allow us to express our thoughts quickly and succinctly so that we can communicate them efficiently. We don’t need to spend what will be inevitably a greater deal of time communicating them through a phone or a video Skype conversation. This is especially helpful when traveling or in an emergency situation. We can also receive emergency messages from others. So, very, very helpful. But the disadvantage of just expressing ourselves in a few words, and not even spelling them out fully, is that we can lose the ability to express ourselves fully, or to express ourselves even well, or to sustain even a conversation. Our ability to concentrate and sustain our attention can also be quite shortened by this – where we’re just doing things very, very quickly and just for a few moments.
Buddhism emphasizes that it’s important to be able to communicate meaningfully and well to others in order to help them. So things like Twitter, in which you are limited in the number of characters that you can write in a message – it can train us to weed out extraneous verbiage when trying to get a meaningful point across in actual encounters: just get to the point; not all this other stuff around it. But we have to be careful to – and then also with Twitter – that we can get to the meaningful point, but not to the extent that we really don’t communicate.
So Buddhism is quite rich in methods to help us to become more focused, to see what is the essential point of something and also, of course, many, many meditation methods to help us to develop concentration. This, I think, is going to be a very important thing that Buddhism will hopefully be used for in the future. Even if you look at the news, for instance, you have the news reporter saying something, but then you have a news feed on the bottom saying something else, and sometimes you have two or three things going on at the same time on the screen, and it’s very difficult for people to focus, to concentrate. Their attention is a little bit on this, a little bit on that, and the images and things are changing very, very quickly. So this is very, very detrimental to concentration. But, as I say, if people really want to go further in terms of developing themselves, then Buddhism is going to be particularly useful for developing concentration. Actually it probably will be that people will be faced with a lot more challenges because of the influence of the media shortening their attention span; but I have to work on that.
Always Being Connected
Another point is that with a cell phone that has Internet connection we can communicate anywhere at any time and be reached anywhere at any time. The disadvantage of that is, by their very nature of projecting flashing lights on a screen, these electronic devices attract and absorb your attention and tend to make you addicted. Sort of a little bit fascinating. It’s very hard… It’s very interesting on the metro in Berlin (we call it the U-Bahn), they installed a television screen (two television screens, actually) in each car, which gives news and advertisements and weather, and things like that. And it’s amazing how, even though you don’t want to watch it, it just draws your attention; sort of like we’re an insect or an animal or something – a flashing light, and then it’s very hard not to look at this thing.
So, like that, the cell phones and computer screens are also very, very attractive to us, and we become addicted. And because they’re so addictive, you feel that you must constantly check your messages just so that you don’t miss anything. Plus you’re always feeling a bit insecure and get a false sense of security by holding your cell phone in your hand all day long. It always reminds me of these sadhus walking around with a little lota, a little bucket of Ganga water – the way that people have to have this in their hand all the time. And then checking and responding to text messages and Facebook messages all day long causes you to waste an enormous amount of time, since it’s most often about trivia.
With a false sense of self-importance, we may also feel that we can interrupt anyone at any time with our message or a telephone call. And also we may tend to be quite rude and antisocial; because even when we’re with someone, we could be texting or speaking to somebody else on our cell phone. Very, very common among teenagers.
So Buddhism, again, teaches us to lessen our attachment. What is attachment? Attachment is exaggerating the good qualities of something – the benefits of it – sometimes projecting even more that aren’t there, and totally ignoring the negative qualities. And then you don’t want to let go. This is attachment. And if we can be a little bit more objective about the benefits of this social media – and there definitely are benefits there – but also acknowledge the disadvantages, then that helps us to overcome a little bit our attachment and quite mindless behavior that you have with these gadgets.
Also Buddhism teaches us to be considerate of others and not to interrupt and waste their time with meaningless chatter. When you look at the destructive action of meaningless chatter – idle chatter – why is it destructive? And it’s not just simply that we think that what is meaningless has great meaning, but also we interrupt others. We waste our time and we waste other people’s time. Especially interrupting somebody who’s doing something quite important and beneficial, with our meaningless chatter, is very negative, very harmful. So that can be of great help if we learn that from Buddhism.
Offering a Protected Space Away from the Stressful World
Another benefit, in general, in the face of the overwhelming huge complex problems of the world, social media, iPods, video games, and so on allow people to limit their attention and absorb themselves into a very focused sphere of stimuli and activities. In this way, it provides a shelter from the despair of thinking about the world’s situation and your personal problems. It’s so complicated, the world, and so difficult, and your own personal problems with unemployment or whatever it might be – economic difficulties – are so overwhelming that you want to just absorb yourself in a little protected world on the screen with your friends and playing games. Or whatever it is: listening to music – these sorts of things. So that in a sense you feel a little bit that you’re in a protected area.
Well, what’s the disadvantage of that? The disadvantage is that you don’t really face your problems. That’s escapism. And for this, Buddhism of course offers the four noble truths. This is, after all, the main teaching of Buddha; the central core of the teachings of Buddha is to face our problems, acknowledge our problems, our difficulties; accept the reality of them, that they’re there; and deal with them, not just pretend that they’re not there. And how do we do that? We look at their causes. So you have to actually think about it, investigate, and so on. And go deeply enough to find the deepest cause, not just superficial causes. And not just blame it on one cause, but see that problems arise from a huge interaction of many, many causes and conditions. And then realize that it is possible to actually stop these problems, get rid of them so that they never recur again.
Something which is really quite profound and something that actually, if we’re going to be involved with Buddhist practice, is a big, big point that we need to become convinced of – that it actually is possible to get rid of these problems so that they never recur. That we’re not just doing a very light version of Buddhism – of just trying to minimize our problems, but we think that, well, inevitably they’re going to come back, so I’m just going to try to make the best of the situation. That’s not really the “real thing” of Buddhism. And so we work to try to understand that it is possible to gain a true stopping of these problems so that they never occur again. And then we see what will bring that about. And what will bring that about, it’s usually known as the true path. Path here means a pathway of thinking, acting, of speaking, but primarily a way of understanding that’s going to be the exact opposite of our misunderstanding, our confusion. So that instead of creating more and more problems for ourselves with confusion, we replace that with understanding. If we can have that understanding all the time, then these problems won’t recur.
So rather than looking at just escaping our problems by absorbing ourselves into a video game or a Facebook chat, we try to face it. That doesn’t mean that we can’t temporarily find a little bit of distraction in these things. It’s interesting in the Buddhist teachings: It says that if one goes to other sources of refuge – well, okay, but that is a temporary thing; just a superficial thing. But not to have that as our ultimate source of refuge. Refuge here meaning what direction we’re going in life and what we do to enable us to overcome the difficulties that we face.
Now if we go on to further benefits: Even though, on the one hand, these social media can limit our scope of what we involve ourselves with, Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, can enable us to spread information easily to a wide audience. For example, it can be used for spreading political and spiritual messages. It allows you to publicize links to websites that friends and people in general might find useful. So it can also be used to open our minds, to help other people to open their minds as well. Now the disadvantage is that it could also be used to spread propaganda and to incite hatred. This is a really serious issue here, not just with Twitter and these social networks, but with the Internet in general.
I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges of the Internet – is that there’s so much information available. How do we discriminate? And anybody who has a website and who has done a little bit of research on it knows that there are tricks for being able to get your website up on the top of the list on the first page of Google when somebody googles a word. That’s just a trick that you do, and so that doesn’t mean that what’s on the first page there is the best article for this particular item. And so this is very serious. If you type in “Buddhism” into a search engine, like Google, and, my goodness, how many millions of possible articles and Internet pages are there? So how do we discriminate among all of that, because a lot of it can be garbage? Some are very reliable; some are not.
So first, from the point of view of what you put up and what you send out with Twitter and Facebook and so on, Buddhism of course emphasizes having a proper motivation. What is our motivation? Motivation is an interesting thing in Buddhism because it has two facets to it. One is: What is our aim? Are we aiming – like in classic lam-rim presentation (the graded stages) – are you aiming for one of the better rebirths, are you aiming for liberation, are you aiming for enlightenment? And the second facet of motivation is: Why? What is the emotion behind it that’s driving you to want to achieve that goal? Is it renunciation: that you’re just fed up with suffering and rebirth, so you want liberation? Is it compassion, love, bodhichitta that drives you to wanting enlightenment? Is it fear of lower realms and seeing that there’s a way out that drives you to working for a better rebirth? These sort of things. So there are these two facets. And then also what’s quite interesting (it’s not usually mentioned there) is what are you going to do once you achieve that goal, that aim? That, I think, is also part of the motivation. We are going to benefit or try to benefit others as much as possible if we achieve the aim of bodhichitta. And so, with the aim of enlightenment, bodhichitta brings us there.
And so if we’re going to broadcast things on the Internet, whether it’s Twitter, whether it’s a website, whatever it might be – or just on Facebook to our circle of friends – I think that the motivation is very important. Why do I want to put this there? What’s going to be accomplished by telling everybody what I had for lunch today and that I liked it? Or I saw a television program and it was not good; I didn’t like it? What’s the aim? What are you aiming for in doing this? And why? Why are you putting this up? And by sending out that information, well, how is that going to benefit anybody to know that? So these things I think are important to consider. And if somebody has Buddhist training in these aspects then they can use these social media in a much more beneficial way – in a much more meaningful way – than just in broadcasting what you ate for lunch.
Expressing Your Opinion
Another aspect here or benefit is, in the case of Twitter, for example, people can express their thoughts without having to be concerned with whether others like them or not. Facebook: other people say “I like it” or not. Twitter: nobody responds to what you say. This is helpful, especially when people feel frustrated and angry about issues and just want to let out their pent-up feelings to the world without really wanting to deal with what anybody thinks about what they express. So the disadvantage of that is it could also allow people to pour out abuse and, again, to incite hatred and violence.
So, once more, everything depends on the motivation. Buddhism teaches us always to check our motivation before doing or saying anything. Also, in terms of communication skills, it teaches us to try to know our audience and to use skillful means to address them. That’s what skillful means is all about. Being skillful in methods is really what it means; skillful in methods of communicating, of helping others. And so, again, the audience is very important. And what effect will our words have on others if I just: “Argh, I’m so frustrated with life. It’s so horrible,” and stuff like that? What is the effect of broadcasting that going to be on others? It might make us feel a little bit relieved that we can actually express this frustration and anger, but it certainly is not helpful for others. So with Buddhist training we’re concerned with how others will react, and not just thinking in terms of ourselves and our need to express ourselves – whether anyone is interested or not, and whether anybody will benefit or not.
Instant News Coverage
Another benefit: Twitter allows us to make information instantly known about newsworthy events that you’re witnessing that might not be reported in other media. Through cell phone cameras and Facebook, you can post pictures and videos of events as they’re happening. So this is very helpful, especially in difficult zones where there are wars, protests, things like that. Or just broadcasting things that would never really make the news – usually nice events rather than horrible ones.
The disadvantage is that you can also use this media to broadcast trivia. People broadcast the most silly things, and it can even go in the direction of pornography, and so on, violence. Buddhism teaches us discriminating awareness, and this I think is a very, very important aspect of the Buddhist training. And discriminating awareness is not just on the deepest level to discriminate between reality and fantasy – what actually is the situation of the world, of how we exist – to differentiate, discriminate that from our confused projection, but it also teaches us on a conventional level to discriminate between what’s meaningful and what’s meaningless; what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And this is a very important skill that we need to cultivate.
Calming Down or Energizing with Music
The last benefit that I’d like to mention has to do with iPod; all this music. It’s really quite remarkable when in… at home in Berlin, I ride on the metro subway (they call it U-Bahn) and easily 80% of the people have earphones in and are listening to music. And whenever they’re walking in the street, and so on, they’re listening to music. So listening to music on an iPod a great deal of the day, depending on the type of music one listens to, can help to keep people calm who feel under a great deal of pressure. Or if they’re playing this techno music – really, really strong music – it can help them to feel energized if they feel exhausted. So this is clearly a benefit that’s there. But the major disadvantage is that it prevents thinking, and it can also be quite an obstacle for quieting the mind.
So many people have what we call in German an “ear worm,” which is when you have a tune or a song that you can’t get out of your head that’s just repeating over and over and over again. So constantly listening to music of course really prevents you from thinking. And, again, if people feel that “Well, if I were to think about anything, I would just get depressed. So I don’t want to think at all” – this certainly doesn’t help with any type of spiritual development or growth. And their minds are never quiet. In order to really make some progress in developing ourselves, we need to quiet down the noise in our heads and get something a little bit more meaningful.
So Buddhism teaches us practices for developing self-discipline. How do we develop self-discipline? By, again, thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of our behavior, so that hopefully we’ll listen to music only when it’s necessary and only as an adjunct for calming the mind through meditation. The teachings on developing enthusiastic perseverance – joyful perseverance – say to know when to take a break. If you push yourself too hard, and so on, that it can become quite detrimental. So you know when to take a break, but you don’t abuse that; you don’t treat yourself like a baby and take a break all the time. You apply an opponent – like taking a little bit of a break – but then you know when not to apply that opponent.
So this is very important to apply not only to listening to music, but watching TV, watching DVDs, things like that. This media is very addictive, as I mentioned – the flashing lights, and all these sort of things. So, like an animal, we become mesmerized by it so it’s hard to shut it off. But the strategy that can often be helpful is to set a time limit: I’m going to listen to this or watch TV, or surf on the Internet, whatever for a half hour, or whatever period of time. It doesn’t matter what the period of time is.
It’s quite interesting with the teachings on ethical self-discipline. I remember discussing this with Geshe Wangchen (he’s the tutor of the young Ling Rinpoche) and what he said was that the main thing is to set boundaries. For different people, of course, the boundaries might be slightly different. Because if you look at the discussions of destructive behavior and so on in different texts by different authors, it explains slightly differently; the boundaries of what’s destructive and what’s not destructive are slightly different. For instance, with inappropriate sexual behavior, if you look at the history of that, it’s explained quite differently in different texts. And what he was saying, Geshe Wangchen, is the important thing is to have a boundary, to say that “This much I will do, but more than that I won’t. Beyond that boundary I won’t.”
The point is to develop the discriminating awareness that says certain situations, certain things, are harmful, detrimental. I’m simply not going to do them, because it just brings disadvantages. And if we can make boundaries like that, whatever the boundary might be, and keep it… and, of course, in the beginning set a reasonable boundary that reasonably we can keep, and also set it for a shorter period of time if it’s a particularly difficult issue for us. You know: for a week I’m not going to surf the Internet, or whatever it might be. It doesn’t matter what it is. The point is to develop discipline, to live within certain boundaries that one sets. Not arbitrarily, not that some law or some authority imposes on us, but based on our own discrimination that there are certain things that just are harmful – harmful to myself, harmful to others – and I don’t want to do that: it just causes problems and trouble. And if we can keep certain boundaries, then you can make it tighter, tighter and tighter, whatever it is that we’re dealing with, whatever issue that might be that we need to set boundaries.
And so this is very important when we’re dealing with something which is so potentially addictive as the iPods and the text messaging, and these sort of things, that certainly have their benefits – it’s not that they’re evil or anything like that, but we know their limitations. And if we know their limitations and limit their use, use them when it actually will be helpful, try to use them in a meaningful way… like, for instance, with iPods: listening to spiritual teachings, Dharma lectures, things like that, rather than just listening to the same music over and over and over again and then searching around to find other music, and this sort of thing. Try to use it in a more meaningful way.
So these are my thoughts that I wanted to share with you about what’s happening in the world. Because if we’re involved with Buddhism and involved with trying to make the Buddhist teachings available to others – and useful and relevant to others – then we need to think about what’s happening in the world today. And the world is changing very, very quickly and very significantly with all this social media, and it’s something that we definitely need to address and see how can Buddhism be of help in the face of this social development.