March 01, 2012

What's On Your Mind?

Facebook, Suffering, and Letting GoAndrew Titus

Today's guest post is by Andrew Titus, a Canadian Soto Zen Buddhist and an English literature professor at St. Thomas University. In his piece "What's On Your Mind? Facebook, Suffering, and Letting Go," he explores what the use of Facebook means to a Buddhist practitioner. In the end, let us know what you think—is Facebook a "nefarious temptation to continually assert our false sense of self" or can it be something more? And of course, if you so desire, don't forget to give the piece a http://www.danpontefract.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/facebook_like_button_big.jpg

Facebook Love forbes.com

Facebook offers a rich well of examples regarding the ways we perceive ourselves in relation to each other. Status updates, photos posted and tagged, and conversations we engage in all clearly display an unabashed sense of how we wish to be seen by others—both through our own presentation of a contextualized self and through our ways of interaction. It is, in so many ways, a vast ongoing street drama where we openly choose, through various methods, how we wish to be seen, appreciated and validated.
 
Facebook is described as a ‘tool for social networking’ and thus has as its central philosophical assumption a kind of monad-based view of the world; that is, Facebook believes that we are autonomous selves who must seek out connection with others. In its apps and functionalities it encourages us to create social personas that are characterized by our likes and dislikes, comments, statuses, postings and photos, and routinely relate to other people as mere objects that we desire, push away, or don’t care about. As such, it is not an extension of our personality, but a manifestation of our desire to be concrete, tangible and externally legitimated.
 
In Buddhist terms, Facebook is most clearly seen as representing a nefarious temptation to continually assert our false sense of self and the continued objectification of those around us.
 
This raises a critical question: is Facebook dangerous to the pursuit of an authentic existence? As with everything, there is nothing wrong with Facebook in and of itself, but there is always a danger in how we relate to things—how these things play into the multiple ways that suffering can be created, supported, and perpetuated. Like sex or sugar, it has everything to do with the way you deal with it. (Although it is important to note that some things, like riding your bike, are probably more benign than things like taking drugs, simply because of the way that they are bound to tap into that part of you that will, ultimately, crave and suffer.)
 
One thing is for sure: I’m not preaching from the mount. In fact, it is exactly because I know for sure that I’ve treated Facebook this way that I’m able to come to any of these conclusions at all. I have intentionally posted statuses with a certain flair knowing full well what kind of response they would draw. The truth of the matter is, regardless of how great they may make others feel, my primary motivation is to make myself feel good. Or as Stephen Batchelor writes in Alone With Others, “We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by our outward show of ‘civilized’ manners and ‘cultured’ social behavior into believing that self-concern, desirous attachment, aversion, and indifference are steadily losing their hold over us.” Things—or statuses—that seem perfectly altruistic are often nothing more than the worst kind of cover up.
 
One of the many truly excellent things about Buddhism is the lack of finger wagging; that is, taking this case as a great example, there is no need for me to say that what I’ve done is wicked or shameful. In fact, coming to realize this unskillful action is a major step in overcoming it: the First Noble Truth that Buddha teaches encourages us to understand; the Second, to let go. So in coming to see this action for what it is—creating an identity for the sake of answering a longing for permanence in an inauthentic way—I now have the choice to stop doing it. To let it go.
 
The ‘problem’ is that I like people. I like people and I like knowing what they are up to and I like saying funny things and even making others feel good. But as I said before, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Understanding that Facebook can be used to support and validate the erroneous view of a concrete self is the first step in letting that go and instead using your Facebook persona to promote understanding, compassion, and happiness. From this perspective, Facebook can be seen as a tool for actualizing being-in-the-world as being-with-others.
 
Today’s new status: Gold medal game for my son Sam as I watched from the stands. He slid a perfect assist across the ice and into the net off his teammate's stick. The coffee was strong and sweet, the molasses cookies moist in the cold of the rink.
 
Is that perfect? No. But at least I’m still trying.

Image 1: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nicoleperlroth/2011/06/23/facebook-valuation-inches-up/.

Image 2: http://www.danpontefract.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/facebook_like_button_big.jpg.

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ikkstans's picture

This is great, I just deleted or "deactivated" my facebook since CIA Agent Mark Zuckerburg won't have it that I delete it, haha, of course I"m kidding. This is all excellent stuff since I left facebook and it has been a very freeing experience for me. I love the "being-in the-world" since I am a philosophy major, I love reading those little things and I think that Tillich and Heidegger would both love it! I think we lock ourselves and each other up in two dimensional profiles so much that we forget some people actually exist and have lives outside of facebook, even though it is those lives that people broadcast. For example, I was walking and medidating the other day and thought of my cousin whom lives a good 1000 miles from me. He seldom is on facebook but when he was on facebook, we had a nice chat. Thinking in my "post deletion" I thought about how he was busy doing something and living his life too, outside of this facebook "world". And of course, there is a balance. I have a friend who uses facebook incredibly mindfully and I applaud her greatly, I did not and my irritation with myself and others got too great to where the "inauthenticity" of "Being" was too great, so it had to go. Facebook is a very fascinating existential and Buddhist topic. I shall ponder it some more. But thank you for this wonderful article.

Misha's picture

Well I love this article, this is why I haven't been using Facebook much! I feel like posts are just a way to gain validation most of the time, to assert what kind of person you "are" and have people approve of that. I know, sometimes you just wanna share stuff with your friends. But we really have to be honest with ourselves about why we're posting something I think. Secondly, I find it distracting from my life because I find myself processing my actions through a filter of "Gee, how shall I share this later on FB?" I would much rather experience the moment for what it is rather than always thinking about whether or not I should share this with everyone later. Life is sacred. It's too sacred to go posting all of it for the public to see. That takes something away from it. And lastly, having to know what Everyone is doing All the time is not natural, at least not for me. I don't want everyone knowing what I'm doing 24/7 and I don't want to know what everyone else is doing 24/7. Does that mean I don't care about people? No. I love people. But most of the people on here would never call me and say hi, or ask me to have a meal with them. Some don't even say hi when I see them in person on the street. Yet they would "like" a post of mine. It's all too easy and not always very sincere. I don't think we are meant to be best friends with 200 people every day. I have nothing against them but I have my own life to experience, you know? And fourthyly, it takes SOOO much TIME to see what Everyone is up to Every Day. So that's my two cents!

katemack's picture

Nicely said. As for myself, I've taken the approach of 'who owns this thing called Facebook?" It's like my cell phone or any of the other pieces of technology I use in my life. Facebook (Twitter, email) etc is wonderful when I remember that it's to enhance my life. I wasn't born to keep it 'updated'. It's my tool; I am not at its service.

That said, it's a great bulletin board. I find out when the next 'big sit' is taking place. And because I know you, I actually do want to know your kid got an assist in the gold medal game. Even if I didn't know you, thanks for reminding me about "molasses cookies moist in the cold of the rink". That stuff is precious.

What I like about Facebook the most is it reminds me that regardless of how isolated I am by circumstance, there are people out there who matter to me. The details of their life matter to me. I want to see the baby pictures, the anniversary parties. I want to know that the dog died. I like knowing what my friend Dan is reading and what he couldn't make his way through. Being off work and away from the metaphorical water cooler, Face book serves as a way for me to connect with the tribe. These days, that is important and useful.

Later,

Kate

jennyhighstreet's picture

The same qualities of a person in real life come out on Facebook, thus like any social exchange, it can offer potential for growth, to the extent that people pick up on social cues. I don't really think anyone buys the alter ego we're all trying to project. People who post constantly get ignored, people who are always cool and funny get boring and superficial,and conversely, people who are authentic move others.

charuramesh's picture

Facebook, like any new tool or technology is EMPTY - we p(o)ut what we want to IN IT and we take out what we want FROM IT - from its own side it is just a website - it all depends on US, on what we say what we do with it...

We should not blame the medium or shoot the messenger. Facebook showed us how good or great our minds are - did'nt it?

Equanimous-ly , we all should reflect about the comments and ills of social media and about articles like these before we judge them one way or the other...

Recently someone has speculated in an article about some yoga teacher who did misconducted himself ( sexually) and the author suggested that the cause could be the Asana Practice and the @tantra@ parts of the Yogis.. Isn't that really convenient...?

Just like that it is not Facebook or MySpace or G+ that @makes@ us behave in a certain way...it is US and our needs and our state of mind which for the most part needs the taming and the questioning and reflecting...

Ramesh

charuramesh's picture

Facebook, like any new tool or technology is EMPTY - we p(o)ut what we want to IN IT and we take out what we want FROM IT - from its own side it is just a website - it all depends on US, on what we say what we do with it...

We should not blame the medium or shoot the messenger. Facebook showed us how good or great our minds are - did'nt it?

Equanimous-ly , we all should reflect about the comments and ills of social media and about articles like these before we judge them one way or the other...

Recently someone has speculated in an article about some yoga teacher who did misconducted himself ( sexually) and the author suggested that the cause could be the Asana Practice and the @tantra@ parts of the Yogis.. Isn't that really convenient...?

Just like that it is not Facebook or MySpace or G+ that @makes@ us behave in a certain way...it is US and our needs and our state of mind which for the most part needs the taming and the questioning and reflecting...

Ramesh

sharmila2's picture

Great article; I have struggled with the same issues, but have noticed that my facebook use mirrors my real-life ego preoccupations rather than the other way around. If I am craving ego recognition & popularity, I find myself posting more frequently & flamboyantly, & checking my newsfeed incessantly; when equanimity is more prevalent, I check less frequently, and comment on others' posts more, which is more social interaction than ego-positioning. I think it is possible to use FB mindfully, but it is certainly harder & trickier than with many other pursuits, such as bicycle riding mentioned above. Using FB mindfully is more like trying to calmly drive a Ferrari at 100mph on winding country roads!

jennyhighstreet's picture

So true, I think we underestimate how much people appreciate having their posts commented on. Its a little affirmation that goes a long way.

kh1044's picture

Balance is the key. Twelve years ago I set up a social website for my wife's family. They are spread all over the country, but loving and caring. The website acted as a vehicle to renew their love and concern for one another, in a real-time, sharing way. Over the past decade, we've celebrated births, marriages, anniversaries, graduations, and other joyful events. We have contributed to prayer requests, mourned the passing of too many, and simply "been present" for each other. Posted photos helped chronicle our lives, we've shared recipes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. It was wonderful to watch this "lost tribe" come back together to renew their love.
The site is waning; mostly because the younger generation, and some of the older have become Facebook users, expanding their "community" to friends, and friends-of-friends, and in some cases, total strangers. I take this as an evolution, a positive one. The family site is still there, for private use, being rather like an old-fashioned kitchen, where the door is always open, and the coffee pot always on. Some of the youngsters spend, in my opinion, way too much time on the social networks, but it is their choice (although peer pressure does play a role). Some loiter like the idlers in the town square of a bygone era, while others come and go, exchanging news, learning, teaching, sharing.
Facebook has its down-side, and there can be divisiveness, but one thing it can show us is that despite our differences, we are all of a kind, where it counts. Time will tell if we can use it as a positive thing, or allow it to control us through attachment. It is, after all, up to us.

nigel.rees's picture

I have seen friends and family spend too much time on Facebook and be overly concerned with checking posts...some of my friends post versions of their whole lives on there.....I think it can be a good social communication tool but it does need a balanced approach....