The average adult in Britain now spends more time in front of a screen than asleep. Is it harder than ever to have a healthy mind? Becky Pate on Buddhism in the technological era
A couple of years ago, shortly after coming to the London Buddhist Centre for the first time, I left Facebook. As I started exploring my mind through meditation and understanding the need for good conditions to practise in, I realised just how toxic my relationship with Facebook had become. Each time I opened the app and starting scrolling through, it confirmed one of my worst fears: my life wasn’t good enough. I also became aware that I would only ever post happy things – the highs, never the lows – so it didn’t tell the full story about what was going on and I felt a responsibility for this. So I left – and what a relief! I felt free. It gave me the space I needed to reconnect with myself in a more meaningful way.
I also worked in the world of mobile app development for many years. Whether they’re made for grocery shopping, greetings cards or buying new clothes, one thing is for sure: apps are designed to be addictive, to encourage people to keep coming back and create a ‘sticky’ experience. So while being a consumer in our ever more technological world, I was also contributing to its growth.
87% of us have our smartphones with us all the time – and that includes when we are sleeping. On average we check our phones 150 times per day. They have become an extension of us, our virtual arm. And they are designed to suck us in.
Last year I quit my app development job to start teaching yoga. Coming to the LBC and learning to meditate was the start of a journey out of my head and back into my physical experience. I felt strongly that I needed to share this experience with others so I started to teach yoga.
Now here comes the twist. As a new teacher I needed to communicate my classes to students, advertise events and connect with other teachers. It suddenly dawned on me that the most effective way of doing this was of course via Facebook. So, tentatively at first, I opened a new account.
A technology-run world is a double-edged sword. As with my yoga classes, technology enables the LBC to share information about events, courses and retreats; it also provides ways for people to stay connected outside of the centre, on the Sub35 Facebook group for example. And it’s quite common to speak to people at the centre who simply googled ‘meditation East London’ and stumbled on the LBC website.
Thanks to meditation apps such as Headspace and Insight Timer, as well as platforms such as Yoga Glo, meditation and yoga teachings have gone mainstream and now reach a far wider audience. So it can’t be denied that technology enables so much; without it the LBC might not have so many budding meditators coming through the door, or booked-out retreats. Having this channel of communication is key. But for all the benefits of technology, it also brings great risks, especially in the context of the Buddhist ethics of communication. With four of the ten Buddhist precepts about speech and communication, does the easy, addictive and mindless nature of technology support this?
The constant bombardment we face from emails, Whatsapp pings and messenger notifications can make us feel not just overwhelmed but also quite reactive. It encourages us to respond on a more subconscious emotional level as opposed to giving a more considered, conscious response. A key question for Buddhists arising from this is, does it make us less kind? It broke my heart recently to read about a trend on YouTube where young women upload videos of themselves asking the question, ‘Am I fat, am I ugly?’ As if this wasn’t bad enough, the strings of comments under the videos are even worse. Complete strangers seem not to hesitate to post nasty comments about someone’s weight, looks, self-esteem. Does this not strip away the ability to connect with others on a much deeper, human level?
At such a rapid rate of growth, the impact of technology on our society is not yet fully understood, in particular around the way that we communicate with others. However, in a world where facial recognition is already here, artificial intelligence is just around the corner and the LBC’s email database is growing, what is clear is that technology is here to stay! So the work is learning to use the practice to interact with technology in a productive, healthy and mindful way.
So as I tap on the blue ‘F’ icon on my phone for the twentieth time today, I pause and ask myself: what is it that I am looking for? Surely I don’t need to see any more cat videos, photos of what people have been up to at the weekend or weird targeted advertising for more things I really don’t need to buy?
No, I don’t. The reality is I have been sat at my laptop all morning and I am bored. I am looking for a distraction. I am looking for connection, a buzz, to see if anyone has liked or commented on my latest profile picture. Well that’s fine, a quick check – six more likes, two more comments, zero messages – but ten minutes later I’m bored again.
The problem is, it is only a temporary solution. The buzz doesn’t last. That is why we go back and check it again. It doesn’t solve our problems or serve us on the long run. It activates our reactive, cyclical mind. The stimulations from screens trigger the constant comparing, scheming, fantasizing, worrying and ruminating that only make our sense of ourselves heavier. In many ways this is the exact opposite of what we are doing in meditation practice: coming into a more sensory experience, expanding our awareness of others.
On that note, I am going to shut Facebook, close my eyes and see if I can find the answer elsewhere. ■