Finding our Technological Middle Way

Photo by Jane Newhagen

Finding our Technological Middle Way

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 06, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

I recently became aware that my increased listening to podcasts has some unwanted repercussions. These days, I often work out at the YMCA. I began listening to some podcasts while driving to the gym, while on the treadmill, and sometimes while working out. The time goes quickly, I enjoy it, and I learn new things. I also began listening more while driving to other places and while at home. However, I eventually realized that because of the podcasts I was spending more time living in my head with little or no awareness of my body, feelings, and emotions. There was a spiritual cost in terms of less time to be fully in the present moment, and also a health cost in terms of less effective workouts and an increased possibility of injuries. My podcast listening is, for me, similar to sugar intake. A little bit can be enjoyable and there is little downside. A lot is more problematic.

As I began to reflect on the relationship between my increased use of digital technology and my mindfulness practice, I remembered a talk Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) delivered at the beginning of the 2013 three-month winter retreat at Plum Village France. A month before the retreat, Thay and the monastic community had offered days of mindfulness at Facebook and Google and had met with executives. Thay’s conclusion was that so far, technology, especially social media, was primarily “a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.” He explained:                            

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. …

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil. …

Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Because Thay believed that using technology to avoid our feelings and emotions was not in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. He forbade it almost entirely at the 2013 retreat:

During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. … If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out. …

Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. …

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world.

 However, while forbidding the use of personal digital devices at the 2013 retreat, in his talk Thay was open to the possibility that digital technology and social media could be supportive rather than destructive:

… if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology.

Although Thay was especially concerned about the distancing from oneself and others caused by technological over-consumption, he also advocated for technology when he thought it might help bring the teachings of mindfulness to more people. I remember a discussion I had at Plum Village in 1996 after the community had created a web site. Some practitioners were extremely opposed. “Doesn’t Plum Village realize the internet is full of pornographers?” they argued. The Plum Village website remained and expanded. In 2004 Thay personally urged a group of us to create a website for the Order of Interbeing.

Plum Village’s creative use of technology expanded greatly after 2013, including a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and the Plum Village app. The pandemic pushed Plum Village (and the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center) to offer regular Sangha meetings online, as well as retreats, classes, and ceremonies.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha advocated a “middle way” between ascetic abstinence and harmful over-indulgence. In Thay’s translation of “The Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma,”  the Buddha explains the middle way to the five monks with whom he had practiced with these words:

… there are two extremes that a monk should avoid. What are the two?

The first is the devotion to sensual desire and the pleasure resulting from sensual desire. Such devotion is base, pedestrian, worldly, ignoble, and unbeneficial. The second is devotion to harsh austerity. Such devotion is painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial. By not following either of these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way that gives rise to seeing and understanding. This seeing and understanding are at the bases of peace, knowledge, full awakening, and nirvana. I believe it is helpful for each of us to practice our own technological “middle way.”

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will have time to explore our use of digital technology:

  • In what ways has your use of digital technology helped you as a mindfulness practitioners to be more present in your own life?
  • In what ways has it undermined your capacity for peace and joy?
  • Are there ways you would like to change in how you use digital technology?

You are invited to join us.

Thay’s 2013 talk is titled “The Horse is Technology.” It is available on line and is summarized in a Mindfulness Bell article.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 06, 2023


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