Last week I left social media. I have been Facebooking and Twittering for more than a decade and it has brought me great joy. It gave me new connections with lovely people, news about funky local events, and many hours of light entertainment. It helped me to find an audience for my books and writing, and it was a place where I shared my passion for eco-activism with thousands of people, hopefully inspiring some of them to take their own action. With all this good stuff, why leave?
Like a connoisseur of fine wine who admits that they have an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, I have known for a very long time that my relationship with social media was ruled by compulsion. Rather than it being a tool for me, I was a tool for it, spending more and more of my time in its grip. The effects of my social media use on the rest of my life were both obvious and insidious.
In obvious ways it sucked my time and energy as I found myself lost in endless scrolls, consuming the gossip of people I hardly knew. It also attacked my attention span—everything is so instant, and there are so many pictures and so much information, causing me to flit like a restless butterfly from post to post. I found myself less able to settle with a book or in meditation as my brain became accustomed to the drip-drip-drip of constant little bursts of dopamine.
There were also effects that are harder to quantify or prove, but equally as damaging. Being on social media takes me away from the material world and into the disembodied online world where things are easier in some ways, yet also less satisfying. I can bypass my emotions with distractions, and remain sedentary rather than going outside to cultivate the vegetable patch. It also fed the parts of me that are constantly hungry for “positive strokes” from others. Those parts of me gorged on red notifications and comments, and were always left feeling empty after the satiation faded all too quickly. This exposed me to a world of polarities—especially on Twitter—where the person with the strongest opinion is the one who is seen the most. These extremes beckoned me into forming extreme beliefs of my own. These are places not suited for nuance, but being able to appreciate nuance, acknowledge ambivalence, and tolerate not-knowing are essential qualities for those practicing the Buddha’s Middle Way.
And so I find myself outside social media for the first time in a long time, feeling a mixture of profound relief, excitement, and some anxiety about whether anyone will ever get in touch with me again. Maybe I’ll disappear into nothingness? Of course, there’s always WhatsApp. And Telegram. And while we’re talking about compulsions, did I mention my predilection for sugar, or how I binge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or my teensy issue with workaholism?
These compulsions are the stuff of life. Pure Land Buddhism tells us that we are bombu beings, swept about like corks on stormy water by our greed, hatred, and delusion. I loved this when I first heard it because it felt so true. When combined with the ubiquitous Pure Land teaching that Amitabha Buddha accepts us just as we are, I felt profoundly seen and accepted. In my school of Buddhism, this is where we begin: by acknowledging the inexorable nature of our compulsions and frailties, and so turning to the Three Jewels for refuge. Through this relationship with ”something bigger” we allow ourselves to be loved and, as a by-product, we are slowly transformed.
Onto the tongue-in-cheek question of my title: would the Buddha sign up to Facebook, or Instagram, or even TikTok? Of course, the Buddha isn’t pushed around by his compulsions in the way that I am. He wouldn’t worry about being sucked in by red notifications or gossip; he’d be able to take it or leave it. Maybe I can imagine him getting a bit weary at people’s comments on his posts sometimes, or perhaps having a disagreement with Ananda about whether or not known trolls should be accepted into his Facebook group. No, that doesn’t feel right. He’d have a media team to whom he could entrust all that. They’d write down his snappier quotes and create fancy shareable graphics, growing his newsletter list and booking him for Zooms with other famous teachers. Social media would both increase his reach and become a beast in its own right, not quite always reflecting his views in a way that he’d approve of, and not quite giving people the embodied and idiosyncratic experience of authentic Dharma transmission.
I don’t believe that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other social media services are bad places in and of themselves. They are designed to be addictive and some of us succumb—just like we succumb to a greater or lesser degree to the temptations of shopping, alcohol, gambling, or busyness. Some people can use social media to look at photos of their grandchildren or to connect with local recycling groups without any issues at all. Most of us have a more mixed relationship, and some of us, like me, are better off abstaining completely. The Buddha knew of the dangers of fairgrounds and he warned us to be careful in them.
We are also told that there is a Buddha in every hell realm. Like Ksitigarbha, some of us are called into dangerous or difficult environments where we can be a force for good. We risk the dangers of disease or war to help people in need, or we return to the bars as an alcoholic in recovery to pass the message on to others. A lot of people spend a lot of time in the alternate worlds of social media, and there are many opportunities there for skillfully spreading the Dharma.
Will I ever return? Who knows—never say never! Today I am happy to be connecting with people in different ways, and grateful to have some time and attention back. I am also grateful for the myriad ways in which we can connect with the Buddha’s teachings, online and offline, through Zoom and the practice sessions we hold in the temple garden, through the Earth’s wisdom. For the Buddha it’s all the same: bombu beings trying their best, and some with little dust in their eyes, aching to hear the Dharma. Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, we only have to open our hearts and the Dharma will flood in.