The Internet: Navigating a Middle Way? – Alan Kaishin Crawford

Here is another piece in our theme of practice in the age of the internet, this time from Alan Kaishin Crawford.

Thinking about the topic of whether practice is supported or hindered by technology is an interesting one for me. It provokes mixed feelings as it is something I have wrestled with in my own practice. In fact, technology plays a fairly significant role in my practice, and I have a complicated relationship with it.

For example, I use the ‘Insight Timer’ app to time my daily sitting. It can feel a little incongruent at times – lighting a candle on the altar, offering incense in the time-honoured tradition of the ancestors… and opening an app on my smart phone! This app handily plays a recorded bell at the start and end of my sitting, as well as recording interesting statistics on my sitting habits. I can see when others in Liverpool (and around the world) are sitting, including other Sangha members that use the app, and it can feel nice to sit in solidarity with others although we are not physically together. It also has a plethora of guided meditations from esteemed Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation teachers of all traditions, which is handy is I ever fancy a cheeky dalliance outside of Zen, a loving kindness meditation perhaps or a meditation on self-compassion or forgiveness.  The statistics Insight Timer keeps can prove motivating, especially when I ‘have’ a decent streak of ‘consecutive days’ – this can give me the extra push to sit on those days when I’m tired or a bit under the weather to avoid the count returning to zero. But the irony of being driven by statistics and milestones in the goal-less practice of Zazen does not escape me. The question I wrestle with is, if it gets me on the cushion when my motivation is low and I otherwise might not have sat, does it matter?

For a number of years I had an option enabled that posted my sitting to Facebook for my friends to see that I had sat and for how long. Although there was always some discomfort with this (was is narcissistic?), I justified it to myself because I thought it helped keep me accountable (a motivation to sit regularly) and opened up the possibility for connection and mutual support with fellow meditators on my Facebook friends list. However, in the last year I disabled this feature – whilst there may have been some truth in the motivation of accountability and support, I could also detect processes within myself that wanted the fact that I meditated to be known for less wholesome and virtuous reasons. This part of me was subtly self-seeking and self-promoting in a way that I found embarrassing. I would probably have an initial reaction of judgement to someone on my friends list posting pouting selfies or pictures of their new Rolex or designer handbag. And it’s commonly known that posting about your gym workouts incessantly is somewhat irritating and perceived as self-congratulatory and boastful. Was me posting my sitting habits any different? Wasn’t I, to my own great embarrassment, just using Facebook to strengthen, affirm, validate and promote my small self? Again, the irony doesn’t escape me – using Zazen in a form of self-clinging / self-grasping that the Buddha taught is at the core of our suffering and dissatisfaction!

The whole Facebook phenomena seems to lend itself to self-clinging and self-promotion, and yet it can also be a force of good, and a vital tool for connection. For example, I have tended to write a fairly detailed ‘About Me’ section, describing my roles as father and husband, my affiliation with Zen Buddhism, my profession as a counsellor, my interests, hobbies, my political leaning, personality type etc, and have often questioned my need to do this. I mean who really cares? On one hand, as impermanent and unfixed as the sense of self is, part of me feels that identity and values are in fact important. I suppose I describe my sense of identity in an effort to share what is important and valuable to me; to invite connection with those with similar values. Connection and a sense of belonging with likeminded people is a particular longing of mine that is not always easy to fulfil. Yet, I also see that I am essentially defining and firming up a sense of self with a list of labels and preferences that I am, to varying degrees, attached to. In yet another irony, this self I am firming up with elaborate descriptions is the same small self whose tyranny I seek to undermine by sitting Zazen each day!

Yet Facebook also serves as a beautiful tool for connection. Being Facebook ‘friends’ with fellow Sangha members makes me feel more connected to them and their lives (and therefore, by extension, more connected to the Sangha). It also allows me to follow Zen teachers and Zen centres around the world; reading their articles and listening to their dharma talk podcasts supports me in my practice (as has listening to Sensei’s recorded talks on YouTube). It has also brought me into contact the Refuge Recovery movement – a Buddhist-inspired approach to addiction recovery that has been hugely influential and supportive to me and others recovering and healing from addictions of all kinds. A movement originating in America still in its infancy in the UK, I do not believe meetings would be springing up across the UK now without social media connecting people across the country and the world and allowing us to learn from and support each other.

Similarly, Facebook provides a platform for wise, compassionate social action or ‘engaged Buddhist’ responses to some of the challenges and suffering that we face today. It brings people together around a common cause, giving us a greater voice and more impact in seeking to alleviate suffering and challenging the greed, hatred and ignorance that creates it, whether through raising awareness, signing petitions, contacting policy makers, showing solidarity with marginalised or discriminated-against sections of society, making more ethical choices with regards to consumption, or attending workshops, debates, marches and rallies. Some question the relevance of this to Buddhist practice, but many others feel it is a natural extension of practice and a way to embody the Bodhisattva vow. I value that Facebook provides a platform for this kind of action to take place and reach a wider audience.

And yet there are also lots of times, to my embarrassment, that I allow my smart phone, and Facebook in particular, to take me away from my actual non-virtual life. I find Maezumi Roshi’s call to “Appreciate Your Life” a compelling and inspiring motivator, and yet, if I’m honest, I have spent more hours than I would like to acknowledge ‘killing’ and ‘stealing’ time scrolling through Facebook. Even if I’m reading, sharing and commenting on articles about Zen practice or Buddhism more generally, perhaps this time would often be better spent talking to my wife, tending to my overgrown garden or, well, sitting!

The other connection between practice and social media for me is the role I play as an administrator / moderator on the Soto Zen Buddhism Facebook group. I am one of a team of admins who try to manage this group of, at the time of writing, 13,841 members. Our objective is to keep the posts relevant to Soto Zen and keep the discourse respectful and kind. This can prove surprisingly challenging! For a start, people seem to see the word Buddhism and equate it with generic, new-age, spiritual fluff. Then there are the hard-line traditional Theravada Buddhist fundamentalists who seem to join the group just to show Zennists the true Buddhism. We spend much of our time removing such content. But there is also a surprising amount of rudeness and unkindness that clearly violates the speech precept. Trolling, snarky comments, one-upmanship and the ‘stink of Zen’ are prevalent, even from some seasoned practitioners. Deliberately opaque, obscure and, at times, belittling responses to genuine questions from beginners create frustration and division. Gentle requests at moderating speech are often met with defensiveness and accusations of censorship and control issues. It often reminds me of how people driving their cars can sometimes feel able, inside their metal cage, to be horrendously rude and unkind in a way they would never dream of acting if walking down the street. It’s like being behind a screen, typing, disconnects people from the impact of their words. It seems, in its worse cases, that the impersonal and at times anonymous nature of online communication can bring out the worst in people, leading to bullying, harassment and hatred.

The only conclusion I can draw from my own experience of practising with technology, is that it presents both risks and opportunities. I can misuse technology, or I can use it skilfully to enhance connections and support myself and others. It can distract me from practise, sucking me in to a vortex of wasted time and re-enforcing my ego, or it can enhance and expand my practice. In my own case, I don’t always get this right, but my relationship with technology seems to be maturing the longer I practice. I read an article recently that advocated Including internet use within the Fifth Precept (not indulging in intoxicants that cause heedlessness). This makes a lot of sense to me and is a practice I intend to take on, bringing mindful awareness to my relationship with technology and noticing when I am ‘intoxicated’ by my Facebook news feed, or allowing technology to distract me from appreciating and living my life.