At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. And in fact the designers of Facebook and Twitter have invested massive amounts of money into keeping us hooked.
Research shows that social media makes us unhappy and that we’re more content (and have way more time) without it. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with.
We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while brushing our teeth or while using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.
We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away.
How can we learn to say no?
I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use, I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.
It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”
Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.
“Trust the Dharma”
The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. But even the Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead from us suffering to our finding peace and fulfillment. For example, when his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:
Reminding Ourselves of Spiritual Principles
A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind just a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.
And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.
I’m saying to myself, “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
I’m saying, “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
I’m saying, “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”
All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”
We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to them. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means having hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.
Dharmic principles, which are very different from this, and sometimes counter-intuitive, can be swamped by the pressing urgency of all those