West London Buddhist Centre

Buddhism in the City: Technology that (dis)connects us…

by Yashobodhi

Published on Jun 20th 2018, in Blog


Digital technology is supposed to connect us.  But at last week’s Buddhism in the City class, participants uncovered ways it can actually disconnect us from ourselves, and therefore from each other.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.  Using the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, participants also explored practical methods for making sure technology genuinely enhances our lives, rather than generating craving, and therefore suffering.
Yashobodhi, who led the class, explains..

The Buddhism in the City class of 16 June was held in the context of the BAM, Buddhist Action Month. Within the broader suggested BAM theme for this year, ‘Transforming Self, Transforming World’, we looked at our personal use of digital technology and its effect on our well-being.

We started the class by doing a three-stage metta bhavana. I had suggested to people to put their mobile phones in front of them, in airplane mode, to symbolise the relationship with digital technology. The first stage of this meditation was metta for ourselves as users of digital technology, the second stage was everyone in the room and the third was metta for everyone in the world. We meditated for about 20 minutes.

After the meditation I asked people three questions, and they wrote down their response on paper that had been handed out previously.

1. Is there a form of suffering, a negative effect on my wellbeing in my use of digital technology?

2. What is the cause of this suffering?

3. Is it possible for me to be completely free from this?

We then talked in groups of three what came up for us.

I then revealed to those who hadn’t spotted it yet, that these were three of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and promised to get to the fourth noble truth after the tea break.

After the break we explored some of the answers to question 1. This was not to deny there can be benefits in the use of digital technology. But it seems that everyone in the room did find some negative side effects. People felt they would often spend time on their phones and the internet to the detriment of doing other, possibly more creative, things. They reported feeling drawn in, over stimulated, dissatisfied, somewhat obsessed by news updates about their friends and family, the world news, etc.

Question 2 yielded a range of responses that seemed to be coming down to the same thing: we grab for our phones when we feel disconnected, wanting to connect, but somehow this doesn’t seem to hit the spot. We may feel something is missing; something needs to be added to our experience. Maybe this can be summarized by: wanting something different from the now, from what is here right now.

From the Buddhist perspective this is where a lot of benefit can be gained. If we could just be with our experience – even if it is painful – without trying to push it away, alter it, or clinging onto it, we would notice it can just pass through and we don’t necessarily have to react to it.

With regard to question 3, most people could imagine being free from the type of suffering that comes from using digital technology. So that seemed to be very encouraging. We just need strategies and methods to approach this.

This is where the fourth Noble Truth came in. In this context this is about finding a way leading away from the suffering that comes from using digital technology, and the people attending the class shared their experiences about what works for them in this area. Here is list of some of the methods that were suggested:

  • if you notice you get into difficult territory when chatting by text, suggest moving to a phone call before the conversation gets into unskilful speech.
  • Put up some boundaries, for instance switching off notifications.
  • Switch off your phone at night and put it in another room if possible. Or set up your phone to only let through calls from some selected numbers, e.g. if a family member is ill and you want to be contactable even in the middle of the night.
  • Don’t start using your phone straight after waking up, as that time after waking up can be quite precious. I brought in something I read about William Stafford, about the thoughts coming after waking up holding the key to self-knowledge. You can read more here.
  • When you reach for your phone, switch your attention to the sensations in your hand, so your attention goes to the body rather than the mind. This helps being more aware and not getting lost in a mindless sequence of clicking and browsing.
  • When notifications come, bring awareness to body and develop curiosity about what happens in your mind.
  • Knowing that the quality of your attention goes down when you are interrupted may motivate to switch off the phone regularly, so you won’t always be interruptible. Also it takes about 20 minutes after being interrupted (or interrupting yourself) to get back into deep and concentrated thinking. More background info about the science behind this phenomenon can be read here.

We finished the class with a period of 20 minutes just sitting meditation.

Here is a quote from Cal Newport I used in the session. You can find the full article here.

“Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.”

And finally here is an article on the topic of the digital detox effect of going on retreat by a colleague from the Bristol Buddhist Centre.

The Buddhism in the City class runs every Saturday, 10.30am-1pm, and is open to anyone who has a basic understanding of Buddhism (eg from an Introduction to Buddhism course), and has learnt to meditate. Please contact the Centre if you’re unsure whether this class is suitable for you.