Mindful Consumption and Digital Distraction

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This past weekend I attended the Still Water family retreat with the theme of “Stopping.” I was glad to have the opportunity to look more deeply into an issue that I have been working with recently. At the core of our practice is the idea of stopping, breathing, and becoming present with whatever arises in the moment. But for me, like for many folks, it can sometimes be difficult to find stillness and silence in everyday life. In particular, I’ve noticed that my digital devices have emerged as constant companions, always ready to provide distraction and stimulation I crave.

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to explore our cravings: “Mindful consumption means looking deeply into your desire to consume, as it arises, staying with that desire until you have some insight into its origins and the intention at its base.”

As I have paid attention to my relationship with my devices (smartphone, iPad, and computer), I have come to see them as a kind of electronic handcuffs, but handcuffs for which only I have a key. When I really slow down and observe what is going on inside of me as I reach for a device, I notice that most of the time I use my devices wisely to execute a specific task.

But what have stood out to me are the times that I reach for my devices—in the elevator, while waiting in line, before I go to bed—when I am actually turning away from myself and not turning toward something useful or important. At times I catch myself being busy to avoid having to be me or feel my feelings. It’s a very subtle thing, and I’m not actually sure what I’m avoiding (because I’ve avoided it). But when I’ve stopped and invited myself to pay attention to these moments, I’m aware of a strong habit energy, a craving, to fill my mind with thoughts that are not my own. This drive to distract myself can be very strong at times, so strong I feel powerless over it.

This weekend’s retreat helped remind me that I am not powerless. I can stop and enjoy my breath at any moment. If I pause for a couple of extra moments before checking Facebook or the news, I might notice insecurity or doubt coming up. This practice has given me ways to hold those uncomfortable feelings. Maybe if I can make more space for myself and my feelings, my smartphone might start to feel like a useful tool again, instead of a digital ball and chain.

This Thursday we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and discuss the Fifth Training on mindful consumption. Please join us to discuss your attempts to practice mindful consumption. Have you ever struggled with consuming distractions? What have you observed? What does mindful digital consumption look like for you?

An expert from an article by Thich Nhat Hahn is below.

Warm wishes,

Rachel Anderson

Happiness in Every Breath, by Thich Nhat Hanh
From Lion’s Roar, February 3, 2011, https://www.lionsroar.com/happiness-in-every-breath/

The Buddha said that craving is like holding a torch against the wind; the fire will burn you. When someone is thirsty and drinks only salty water, the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes. If we run after money, for example, we think that a certain amount of money will make us happy. But once we have that amount, it’s not enough; we think we need more. There are people who have a lot of money, but they are not happy at all. The Buddha said that the object of our craving is like a bone without flesh. A dog can chew and chew on that bone and never feel satisfied.

We all experience moments when we feel lonely, sad, empty, frustrated, or afraid. We fill up our feelings with a movie or a sandwich. We buy things to suppress our pain, despair, anger, and depression. We find a way to consume, in the hopes that it will obliterate the feelings. Even if a TV show isn’t interesting, we still watch it. We think anything is better than experiencing the malaise, the ill-being in us. We have lost sight of the reality that we already have all the conditions we need for our own happiness.

Each of us has our own idea of happiness. It’s because of this idea that we run after objects we desire. We sacrifice our time and, to a certain extent, destroy our bodies and our minds. According to the Buddha, happiness is simple—if we go home to the present moment, we realize that we have more than enough to be happy right here and now. All the wonders of life are in us and around us. This realization can help us release our craving, anger, and fear.

The more we consume, the more we bring in the toxins that feed our craving, anger, and ignorance. We need to do two things to return to mindful awareness. First, we can look deeply into the nutriment that is feeding our craving, examining the source. No animal or plant can survive without food. Our craving, just like our love or our suffering, also needs food to survive. If our craving refuses to go away, it’s because we keep feeding it daily. Once we have identified what feeds our craving, we can cut off this source of nutriment, and our craving will wither.

The second practice is mindful consumption. When we end our consumption of things that feed our craving, ignorance, and wrong perceptions, we can be nourished by the many wonderful things around us. Understanding and compassion are born. Joy in the present moment becomes possible. We have a chance to transform our own suffering.