The Buddha made no proscription against the Internet because there was no Internet 2,500 years ago. But if the Buddha were around now, don’t you think he would say something about this technology? Does the Internet oppose his teachings of moderation, restraint, non-confusion and non-greed? What about the Buddhist precept against clouding or confusing the mind with intoxicants? Is the Internet an intoxicant, sending us further into the delusion of separateness, wanting, control and self?
From Laptop to Brain
Does it matter what we fill our heads with? From a Buddhist perspective the answer is unquestionably yes. Every mind-moment can be wholesome or unwholesome; many are neutral. What happens when we deliberately imbibe excessive, violent, stupid, pointless, titillating and prodigious information in a direct link from our computer to our brain?
As an Internet user, I am now privy to vast new fields of information, stories, poems, bad jokes, commentary, porn, pet projects, hoaxes, dating opportunities, music, chat rooms, sweepstakes offers, commercials, products, advertisements . . . to add to my already full mind. Do I need more stuff in there? I have hundreds of books I haven’t yet read. I have interesting friends whose brains I haven’t picked, and libraries, remember them?
Now I cannot help but think Internet thoughts. My everyday discussions refer to links and URLs and sites. Once I commented to a friend that our conversation had become a website. We headed in one direction and a tangent sent us off in another, which led to another, and so on. We were clicking conversational links. “Would you hit ‘Back’?” he asked me. “I’m lost.”
Some say it doesn’t matter what goes into our minds. We forget everything. Watching violence on television does not necessarily reproduce violent acts in the real world, they say. After all, we have natural filters, and we humans are infinitely adaptable and smart to boot. We’ll forget the unimportant or awful stuff and retain what really matters, like which cable station is which number on the channel changer.
But my own experience—spending hours and hours watching my mind—has shown me without a shadow of a doubt that we are affected by what enters our minds even though we don’t always see it right away.
A Controlled Experiment
Here are the results of years of off-and-on meditating under silent, isolated retreat conditions, where I was not supposed to talk to anyone, read, write, watch TV, open a newspaper or go online. In all that residual mental space, everything I ever ingested floated to the surface. Yes, it was still in there, although hard to say where.
On one long retreat, I remembered the tiniest, supposedly most insignificant experiences, like the time I fought with my friend Karen when we were four because she wanted to color the entire coloring book red and I protested for variety’s sake; and when I was eighteen and threw up because I drank too much Jim Beam; the wallpaper in my bedroom at nine and the way the light shone through the tree leaves and created moving shadow puppets on the wall; the time Jocelyn and I called up o.b. Tampons and asked if they were related to Obi-Wan Kenobi; and the time I first kissed that boy who shall remain nameless. . . . No, this mind has not forgotten. It is all in there, especially the strong and violent stuff.
An avid fan of Salman Rushdie, I once snatched up with anticipation his former wife Marianne Wiggins’ first novel. Before long I found myself unable to put down an oeuvre on cannibalism. The plot chronicled a group of young girls who, shipwrecked on a desert island, resorted to dining on each other. I have scarcely encountered in literature anything as horrific as the little girls gleefully roasting the forearms of the ship captain and devouring the ghastly skewers. I quickly put it out of my mind. Or so I thought.
A few years later in the midst of three months of intensive silent meditation retreat (fourteen hours a day of sitting and walking meditation), graphic replays from Wiggins’ book tortured me. For a week I walked the halls of the meditation center like a wraith, tormented by images I couldn’t exorcise. Ultimately they played themselves out, thanks to vigilant mindfulness. I followed the experience with a heartfelt vow: from this day on I will never take anything into my poor mind that I don’t want to see later.
What Goes In Must Come Out
As a meditator, my mind has surfaced, at all hours of the day and without relief, unending rounds of seventies commercials, television jingles, Broadway musicals, The Brady Bunch and other TV theme songs, monologues from acting class, bad rock and roll, previous discussions, good rock and roll, songs from summer camp (“the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah”). They do not go away. Worse, when I try to sit still to find peace and calm (ha, ha), they come back to haunt me. (I will say, however, that in all these years of meditating, quantitative algebra has yet to rematerialize.)
Meditating is like going to the dump and having to see all our old garbage. Are we encouraged to hold down a basic level of ethics because we might not like what we see otherwise? If we are morally in good shape, we are not spending hours on the cushion engaged in remorse, regret and guilt: “I really should have kept my mouth shut, but the breakup story was just too juicy” or “I should never have shoplifted the Bonne Bell lip gloss from CVS in 1978.” (“The ants go marching three by three, hurrah, hurrah. . . .”)
What do we want in our minds? More junk? If so, log on. Do we really want to keep jamming in this useless, vaguely entertaining, often not even true, never-ending information? It will stay in there, I guarantee. And it will come out to haunt us.
Yes, yes, I know, we can learn very important things from the Internet. Alternative press has flourished. I have access to new studies, cool peace events in Bangladesh and Kenya, left-wing critiques of the war on Afghanistan. They used the Web in Chiapas. They organized with it in Seattle. I am not denying any of this. If you think I’m only complaining, you are missing my point. The question is, will it all make us better people? Will it make us more ethical, kind, generous or compassionate? Will it make our minds and lives more spacious and relaxed? Or will it drive us to act in ways we might regret? Inflame our greed, lead us to consume?
And, with all that ingested junk, and access to much, much more, how does the Internet affect our basic ability to free our minds?
Dependent (or Not) Origination
The Buddhist teachings explain on a microscopic level how our minds work. Here’s one scenario: We encounter a desirable object, and at the moment of visual, aural or touch contact with that object, a pleasant feeling arises in our minds or bodies. This pleasant feeling comes from a variety of places—past habit, training, media, standards of cool, socioeconomics, karma and so on. We have associated this pleasant feeling with the object, so we think we need to get the object in order to sustain the feeling. The feeling itself is wonderful. Then we cling to it tightly and, dare I say, buy the object.
Another way of saying this is that we feel something nice (pleasant feeling), we reach out for it (wanting), then grasp our hand tightly around it and don’t let go (clinging). Buddhists call this the chain of dependent origination. This sequence of events is happening continuously at such a rapid rate that we are seldom aware of the process. All we know is that we have to have the new DVD player.
Dependent origination teaches how we automatically grab for things to end the aching and sustain the pleasantness. How hopeless—we are robots. But this is where mindful awareness comes in. Through the power of mindfulness, it is possible to short-circuit the cycle and prevent the automatic response. If at any moment we apply mindful awareness to the cycle of contact with an object, pleasant feelings, wanting and clinging, we need not move on to the next link of the chain.
We can notice: Wow, I want a pair of boots. We can feel the feeling of desire in our minds and bodies and notice the accompanying thoughts. Then we can apply the Buddhist wisdom that a desire doesn’t have to be fulfilled to make it go away. We can recognize and let go of the desire. We can break the chain. The revolutionary insight brought to us by the Buddha is that wanting itself is actually painful. Letting go of wanting stops the pain. Getting what we want only temporarily soothes the wound.
All we have to do is catch a single point on the cycle. Oh look, there’s pleasant contact! Oh wanting! If we can bring mindfulness here, we can break the chain. It is up to us; we are not slaves to an automatic process.
Here’s the Cyber-Catch
What happens when reflection time is inhibited? Part of breaking the chain depends upon our ability to have some space for reflection. What happens when we throw the speed of the Internet into this equation?
We are losing the space between the desire and the satisfaction of desire. Back in the Stone Age (before 1994, when the Internet was just a toy for computer geeks and the military), if you wanted something, there was a process. You could think about it, visualize the image, and strategize to get it. Yes, we had mail-order catalogs, and I suppose even the Home Shopping Network existed back then, but there was still some struggle involved in the process to get. Not that this would deter us, but in those halcyon days, purchasing an object required getting off our asses.
We asked a friend to join us, drove (alas) to the shop, found parking, discovered (perhaps) the desired object wasn’t there, or that they didn’t have the right style, browsed other things, talked with a salesperson, stopped for a late lunch, and finally, when descending upon the desired object, maybe reneged—“Well, this may not be exactly what I want after all.”
Now, we peruse the Internet, log on to a neat-o website. We want something—anything really. There it is. Great. Type in your credit card number (or your computer—in true Orwellian fashion—remembers the number for you), hit a button, and it can be yours.
There is the pleasant feeling, the wanting feeling, and we act. There is no time for mindfulness to prevent the inevitable purchase. We have no time to get free.
What happens when space and distance are removed? What happens when every possible desire can (appear to) be fulfilled in the blink of a mouse? When getting an object is taken for granted in the wanting? In the new millennium, thanks to the Internet, the process is so sped up that we hardly have a moment to break the cycle. The profusion of objects is endless, we obtain them at lightning speed. This is not good news, contrary to all the hype.
Bertrand Russell states that one of the aspects of society that keeps us whole and ethical is its ability to delay gratification. This is a learned response. I imagine it is what keeps us sane. Delayed gratification is something we teach a child early on: “I know you want the cookie, Sally, but you can’t have it till after dinner.” Simple.
On the day I realized that I could have anything I wanted over the Internet, I bought ten new books, a subscription to a simple-living magazine, and a pair of black leather boots, and signed up to receive the daily quotes of the Buddha.
The Buddha sent me an e-mail about the law of karma. He said actions have results. If I plant a plum pit, I will get a plum tree. If I practice greed, I will be more greedy. If I practice generosity, I will be more generous. Buddhism 101.
What happens now in Internet culture where we can have dessert anytime we want? The delayed gratification that holds cultural sanity in place is unraveling. Is the Internet and the commercial end of it contributing to the breakdown of the social fabric? What happens when millions of young minds are taught that they can have anything they want whenever they want it? What kind of seeds are these children sowing? What are they taking into their minds, nonstop, with no filters whatsoever? What happens when the children grow up? What will happen to those sweet Buddhist values of non-greed, compassion and generosity?
I don’t think it is a coincidence that meditation is catching on like wildfire across the U.S. these days. Many of us need more space and time. We need to reflect, to ponder, to rest. I know this sounds heretical in today’s caffeinated culture, but we can see the truth of it by sitting retreats.
When external activity is so stripped down, every little event looms large in the mind. We see that the tiniest actions have effects, like the time on retreat that a butterfly landed on my toe and I stood transfixed for a few minutes, or when I nearly stepped on a toad and was anxious for three hours after. In silence my mind had time to feel the repercussions of each event, to integrate and settle with it.
I call this time reverberation time.
Last night I got the phone call I was waiting for. My mind was so excited afterwards it couldn’t stop spinning. So I crawled into the bath and reverberated as the hot water enveloped me. I let the rippling thinking run its course; I watched the chills and excitement and planning. After an hour or so, the thoughts mostly subsided. Then I went to bed.
We need this time. Events affect us all the time, of course, not just when we are on retreat. But the speed of our culture and the pace of our technology doesn’t allow for reverberation time.
Everything affects us.
What happens when we don’t give ourselves the silent space to reflect? What happens when we no longer have reverberation time?
Portions of this article originally appeared in ReVision (Vol. 24, No. 4, Spring 2002) and Turning Wheel (Winter 2000).
Diana Winston is a writer, activist, teacher and founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) Program. She is associate director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, California. Her writings have appeared in Tricycle, Turning Wheel and other publications, and she is working on a new book for teenagers titled Wide Awake!: Buddhism for a New Generation.