Social Media Dharma

I know it sounds crazy, but Facebook has actually deepened my Buddhist practice.

And I’m not talking about the numerous Buddhist-based groups, discussions, videos, and podcasts housed on the social media site. While that stuff has enhanced my intellectual grasp of the dharma, I’m referring to something more visceral: Facebook provides the ideal platform for a unique form of active meditation.

In spite of the seemingly trivial value of maintaining a Facebook profile, I’ve found a dharmic approach to social media participation can actually benefit one’s spiritual growth. Just as we are taught not to suppress discursive thoughts and negative emotions—but to use them as grist for our practice mill—we can take the same approach with Facebook. For better or worse, social media is becoming an ingrained and often necessary part of modern life, so it only makes sense that it too should become part of the path.

One of the goals of traditional meditation practice is to become acutely aware of how we become distracted from the present moment by engaging and identifying with our thoughts and emotions. We suffer because we falsely believe these fleeting sensations are authentic representations of reality, when in fact they are no more an accurate depiction of reality than our Facebook profiles are an accurate representation of our lives. Like most any other activity, social media can itself become a tool for practicing mindfulness. Rather than viewing Facebook merely as a meaningless distraction, why not take advantage of the opportunity it provides to become intimately aware of how we get caught up in and controlled by our mental and physical sensations while online?

Even if you don’t compulsively check your Facebook status, when you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings while using the site, you’ll almost certainly discover times when you find yourself attached to its ego-enhancing properties. Whether it’s the number of likes your witty post gets, an admiring compliment on your latest profile pic, or the number of new friend requests you receive, this instant gratification works to fuel our desire for recognition and approval like a drug. These ego boosts can prove downright addicting, as we anxiously check out profile status, seeking more and more affirming feedback.

Social media also allows us to monitor the ways in which we resist and reject things we find disagreeable, threatening, or unpleasant. It’s all too easy to take personal offense over what essentially boils down to nothing more than pixels on a screen. A snide comment, a critical response to one of our posts, or even the lack of enough positive feedback can all cause distress. In extreme cases, these perceived slights can even lead us to aggressively lash out at others or withdraw from making further posts. Of course, when things get really prickly, Facebook offers us the nuclear option of “unfriending” those we deem too threatening.

In spite of the ways in which the technology can lure us into delusion, paying close attention to the mental and physical sensations that arise when using social media can be an effective way to avoid becoming either overly attached or defensive regarding one’s virtual self. One technique is to carefully pause and become aware of your physical and emotional state before communicating. Are you feeling tense, prideful, angry, jealous, or embarrassed? It helps to objectively label these sensations just as you would during sitting meditation and wait until they subside. From there, you can better assess whether or not what you plan to post will be constructive or harmful.

It’s also beneficial to consider your motivations for making a particular post. Are you looking to share something thoughtful, informative, or kind? Or are you trying to show off, attack another’s viewpoint, or be humorous at someone else’s expense? Fortunately, one of the unique things about social media is that, unlike face-to-face interactions, you aren’t expected to respond as quickly, so by mindfully pausing to consider your motivations, you can craft a more thoughtful and appropriate post—or perhaps not post at all.

Mindful social media participation gives us the opportunity to intimately monitor our habits of self-construction. After all, the website allows you to watch as your mind literally gives birth to its pixelated persona—which is nearly always designed to approximate, if not improve upon, our embodied personalities. Next time you’re online, carefully observe the different types of self-imagery you’re promoting. What character traits are you trying to possess and portray? What stories are you telling? What beliefs are you defending? What are you hiding or not expressing? What aspects of your online identity are you most passionate about or protective of? By identifying the most “sticky” aspects of our online identities, we might just uncover areas within our real-life personalities that need more attention.

Ultimately, a close examination of the ways we identify with and cling to our virtual selves can provide telling insight into the ways we do the same with our embodied sense of self. We all know without a doubt that Facebook and other forms of social media aren’t actually real, yet there are still times when our awareness lapses, leading us to attach a mistaken sense of substance and value to these digital forms. Similarly, when we fail to live our day-to-day lives with diligent awareness, we falsely assume that our ever-changing whirlwind of mental and physical sensations make up a solid, lasting, and independent entity. Just as becoming attached to an arrangement of pixels on a computer screen is obviously delusional, creating a false sense of identity out of the empty impressions found on the screens of our consciousness is every bit as misguided.

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