Getting ready for Wisdom 2.0 conference next weekend, and thinking about what might be talked about and addressed--especially in the unconference on the last day. I've spent some time over the past year and a half, while working here at HASTAC, thinking about how social media technologies of various types affect and influence and interact with my ego and my "self." A friend of mine recently sent me an article she wrote for a South Korean newspaper, and she describes some of these issues so perfectly, I wanted to share it. With her permission, this article is reblogged below.
Facebooking Is/Is Not Buddhist
by Sumi Loundon Kim
A few years ago, I became “friends” with a famous Buddhist teacher on Facebook. Of course, we weren’t really friends, as she had no idea who I was, but our new connection put her status updates in my infinitely long News Feed. Often, her updates were in the form of a haiku that involved herself, inner peace, and the moon, or she would post something about where she was teaching, her latest article, or a deep thought about the dharma.
As the months unfolded, the posts were so consistently about her, her, and her that I began to feel turned off. Eventually it struck me that the posts were enormously self-promoting. I was terribly disappointed that someone with 30-plus years of Buddhist practice, all aimed at insight into non-self, came across as egotistical. I did what would be unthinkable in a face-to-face interaction and for someone so prominent: I set her feed to “Hide All Posts.” I nearly unfriended her (closed the connection that would allow us to be “friends”).
The Buddhist teacher’s case is somewhat extreme, but it tipped me off to one quality of Facebooking that is particularly relevant for those seeking to practice Buddhism: Facebook provides an instant way for us “to self,” to create and build a sense of self, in a way that in previous eras only fame and power allowed a very few to do. I see this impulse in myself all the time: when I’m feeling a little isolated, because I am home alone with the kids, or I’m not feeling good about myself, or I just want a little stroke of approval, it suddenly occurs to me to post something clever or to post my feelings. “Sumi is perfectly content with the chicken dinner she just made.” When friends “Like” or comment on my status in a positive way, I feel, for a split second, like a better, more identified Sumi.
This is why Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and other social media are so enormously addictive, because it is at core an exercise in reifying the ego. When someone affirms me through a comment, I can actually feel a small squirt of neural pleasure in my brain. For this reason, at a fundamental level, Facebooking has the potential to undermine a core practice in Buddhism: relinquishing attachment to self. Once I realized this, I banned myself from posting anything self-referential or vain, such as “Met with [Well-Known Buddhist Figure]” or “My article on humility can be read here [website].” Moreover, if the impulse arises to make such a post, I try to be mindful of why. What in this present moment is not complete and perfect as it is?
Toward the end of a seven-day silent meditation retreat I did last month, I reflected on my use of Facebook. I had survived, and even found relief from, seven days of no computer use and no posting on Facebook. I thought about how, aside from a very few postings on news-worthy articles, I had learned almost nothing new and not grown or changed in any way as a result of using Facebook. I decided that when I got home I would close my Facebook account. The next day, though, I imagined life after Facebook (you can see how deep my meditation sessions were!), and somehow my world seemed less connected, cold, barren, without my Facebook community. Why? [Oh, back to the breath – in, out.]
I reflected on how in the decades of my life before Facebook (some of you reading this probably can’t imagine a pre-internet world), there had been many times when I wondered about a certain friend from years before and had no easy way of contact them. In this day and age, I have loved being able to rejoice in the marriages and birth of children of these friends. It has been uplifting to see that someone I knew is now a doctor or another moved to a city of their dreams. At other times, friends have posted news about the death of a parent, a breakup, or an unexpected illness. Here, many of us come together to provide consolation, advice, and care. In short, I’ve seen how Facebooking stimulates beautiful qualities of the heart: sympathetic joy (mudita), compassion (karuna), and lovingkindness (metta). It also reminds me that I’m not alone in my joys and sorrows, that we all have our ups and downs (equanimity, upekkha) and that these are weathered so much the better through community.
The Buddha spoke many times about the importance of good friends in the spiritual life.
[Ananda said,] “Venerable sir, this is half of the spiritual life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
[The Buddha responded,] “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the ENTIRE [my emphasis, obviously] spiritual life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
Certainly, my fellow Facebook dharma friends, who post videos and quotes from across the Buddhist lineages, have inspired me. The depth of their commitment to living the Buddha’s teachings is inspiring to me and has helped me remain focused on daily practice. So I see Facebook as a modern and beautiful means for not just friendship, but dharma-friendship.
In the end, Facebook itself is neither antithetical to Buddhism nor is it Buddhist: it’s simply a tool. Just as a knife can heal in the hands of a surgeon or kill in the hands of an angry person, this tool can be used in two opposing ways: it can feed our egotism and drive us to all-day distraction, or it can foster friendships and be a forum for practicing the brahma viharas. In all regards, if we bring mindfulness to our use of Facebook, then it certainly is possible to Facebook as a means of Buddhist practice.