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In Defence of Social Media by Sarah Kokai Thwaites

The internet, like everything else, has benefits and dangers. I know that for some people it can feel like an addictive and agitating way to spend time and can serve as a distraction from real life and practice. For me though the internet, and the connections it makes possible, has been an integral part of my practice almost from the start and one I’m very grateful for.

Some years back I unexpectedly and suddenly found myself with a serious sitting habit. This took a bit of getting used to. I had almost zero experience of formal meditation and given that I was at the start of months of serious health problems, my options for connecting with other meditators in real life were limited. After hospital stays and the elimination of various ‘serious’ medical diagnoses I was told I had post-viral fatigue. Throughout this period I ‘sat’, as I still do, at least twice a day although sitting sounds the wrong word as out of necessity I meditated at first in the onely position I could manage, a heavily propped up semi-reclining position. For months I was barely mobile. I spent time lying in bed and it took all my energy to feed myself. I couldn’t read books because they were too heavy for my arms to hold up. I couldn’t watch TV or listen to music because any sensory input seemed to overload a crashing physical system. I couldn’t hold a telephone to my ears for more than a couple of minutes. My main contact with the outside world was through the internet with my laptop lying on top of me, typing very slowly, often resting between words.

As I slowly but very determinedly reclaimed my health, I noticed what an important part of my life meditation had become and I sensed that it was both part of what was allowing me to cope with the situation and changing me in ways that I couldn’t quite understand but noticed increasingly day-by-day. I felt a need that I couldn’t quite explain to share and talk to others about this. Some googling brought me to a small online community of meditators who use a website to log their sits and to share, if they want, anything that has come up for them. I started posting there and found that soon I was getting encouraging comments from other sitters and learning more about a range of meditation approaches from them. I think this helped ‘normalise’ meditation in my head. The cross fertilisation of ideas led me to try in my first months there a variety of meditation practices, some of which were certainly really helpful in loosening the first wave of my deepest grooves. I love that members are not there to pursue intellectual lines of debate or to impress anyone by verbal posturing (I’ve seen plenty of that on other forums) but to share their practice and to give and receive support from others who are willing to do the same. The site has an eclectic and ever-changing group of active users with people coming and going over the years. Many members are taking their first tentative steps into practice but aren’t yet ready to engage with a sangha or teacher. Others live in parts of the world where there are no meditation centres or have life circumstances which make sitting with others impractical. The internet also provided access to dharma talks from different centres around the world and a wealth of reading materials when I was ready for this.

It was even another site member who suggested zazen to me and I found it a perfect fit. By that point I was more mobile and was looking for people to sit with and within weeks of that suggestion I was at a StoneWater beginners session. The zendo felt like home from the first visit and I am so grateful to have found a real life meditation community and teacher on my doorstep. But my virtual meditation community has also been a blessing and 3 years later I am still on the site, sharing virtually the never-ending meditation journey with people from around the world. Giving and receiving support on the site continues to be an important element of practice for me. At first I posted anonymously which I think allowed me to write more freely although some posts, including any that refer to other people I mark as private and don’t share with other site users or the wider web. In recent months I have changed my name on the site and come out from behind the anonymity as that didn’t feel needed or honest anymore.

Posting online was part of my induction into a new life as a social being. I didn’t think of the site as ‘social media’ at the time and if I had I would probably have run a mile but it is, albeit of a niche character and on a small scale. I’d previously been dismissive of social media. I had a Facebook account but never posted on it and my password of “awasteoftime” pretty much summed up my attitude to it. Whilst living life as a very unsocial person, I didn’t get the point of social media. Now it is another delightful part of my life where I keep in touch with existing friends in between real life encounters, make new connections in a delightfully random way and plan adventures with friends old and new.

My take on social media now is that our attitude to it reflects our approach to life. The internet age can make it easier for us to play out our way of interacting with the world in a large and faster way than in the past. Information (helpful and less helpful) is at our fingertips day and night. We can indulge any habits that we have acquired in almost any way we choose. I know that can include any addictive patterns of behaviour and I do understand why for some people they feel that their life and practice is best served by keeping clear of social media. But if we exercise those choices mindfully, it offers a world of possibilities, of virtual connections than can supplement but should never replace real life connections and actual practice. I’m enjoying these possibilities and I’m curious to see where they will lead next.