Digital distraction and the dharma

December 7, 2021

Numbing. Is there a better way to describe our modern, digital distractions? Our constant connections to the internet via our smartphones and entertainments like Netflix, videogames, Instagram, Facebook, and 24-hour news all allow us to temporarily transport ourselves away from whatever stresses or pressures we might be feeling at any moment of the day. While we might all be familiar with the sense that our digital distractions make it harder to engage in more worthwhile activities and make it easy to procrastinate, we rarely pause to reflect on how our distractions impair our ability to feel – to experience challenging thoughts, emotions, and moments in our lives. As practitioners of the dharma, it is useful to consider if our engagement with our digital distractions actually hinders our practice.

Digital distractions in our contemporary world

Digital distractions have never been more immediately accessible to us.  They gently smother whatever unpleasant feelings we might be experiencing in the same way as a smouldering grease fire – the feelings smoking away, waiting for the distraction to be lifted (the laptop to be closed, the phone to be put down) before the unpleasant feeling flares up again on contact with the air.  Our digital distractions deprive us of the opportunity to face the discomforts of life head-on.  If you feel slightly anxious you can just scroll mindlessly through Instagram or TikTok for hours. If you feel unhappy you can push down your ruminations with Netflix. If a party is slightly boring, then your smartphone is always there to absorb you. Indeed, it’s possible to have an entire day of this – a life spent moving from one glowing rectangle to another. You might know people in your own life who can’t even sleep without YouTube running in the background, or a podcast – so that there won’t be single moment in the day without being slightly numbed to what’s actually happening right now.

Obviously digital distractions are hardly new, but in the last 15 years the quality and accessibility of digital distraction has reached a point that our monkey minds are not well equipped to handle.  But while the quality of available digital entertainment now has never been better or more diverse, the real issue is availability and social acceptance – No matter how good a TV show was in the past, you couldn’t summon an episode on demand and watch it on the bus. Similarly, no matter how good a newspaper or magazine article was, you couldn’t read it in the middle of a party or while catching up with a friend at a cafe, but now we can pop out our smartphones and read news articles or blogs without anyone batting an eye.

So, what is the harm of reaching this new apex of digital distraction on our practice of the dharma and our spiritual wellbeing? One of the most significant impacts of our digitally distracted age is on our ability to practice the first task set out in the Buddha’s first discourse: to embrace life.

Digital distractions and the four tasks

The Buddha’s first discourse sets out the four tasks that begins our practice of the dharma (dharma practice is a question of tackling tasks). The four tasks are to:

  • Experience/embrace life – acknowledge and deeply understand and embrace the human condition, especially its inevitable difficulties
  • Let go of instinctive reactivity – the clutching and fantasising that these difficulties usually stimulate in us
  • See the stopping of that reactivity – experience the profound peace of mind that comes from this letting go, and
  • Act – respond, say, see, set a direction in our lives, cultivate a path – in which we work on the eight aspects of our lives set out in the eightfold path.

The first task, ‘Embracing life’ is the positive framing of the Buddha’s first task – ‘Dukkha is to be comprehended, totally known (pariññã)’

‘Dukkha’ is conventionally translated as ‘suffering’ but this translation doesn’t match the Buddha’s explicit list of what dukkha stands for: birth, sickness, ageing, death, separation from what we love, being stuck with what we detest, not getting what we want, and our overall psycho-physical vulnerability. No person can evade any of these experiences, so this first facet of the fourfold task is about embracing our human condition. The way to nirvana in this life, those moments (however fleeting) of lucidity and serenity when we’ve freed ourselves from all reactivity, is by firstly embracing life.  It’s not about valorising suffering – but rather about trying to be present and experience life as it is. In the modern world, our digital distractions deprive us of the opportunity to directly face the discomforts of being alive and to embrace dukkha.  They can provide us with temporary relief from the symptoms of dukkha (like stress and anxiety) and from dukkha itself, numbing us and dulling our deeper desire to find fulfilment and peace from within ourselves.  It also blunts our ability to engage positively in the world to address the underlying causes of dukkha in a skilful way.

Our digital distractions also distract us from the more positive aspects of the “mess of life”, blunting our ability to feel truly present in any moment, whether watching a beautiful sunset or spending time with people you care about.  Our digital distractions shatter our attention spans and ability to be bored, to be dissatisfied, to be right here, right now.  We might also observe that particular types of digital distractions also undermine our practice of the second task, to let go of our instinctive reactivity.  Our media (and social media) is singularly designed to monopolise our attention and often does so by provoking our reactivity and by making it hard to respond to provocations in a way that is skilful.  It does so by prompting us to engage with content that will induce anger, frustration or fear, and in so doing, dulls our empathy and compassion for those with different viewpoints, leaving us feeling more isolated and anxious.

Often, when our unskilful digital habits are pointed out we can naturally get defensive, pointing out the benefits of our digital distractions, especially as a comfort in our stressful lives. Instead of a defensive reaction, we could gently reflect that our digital distractions might be harmless if we could balance them and use them skilfully in our lives. However, our beloved digital distractions are often designed for addiction and for monopolising our attention, making any real balance extremely difficult to sustain. We need to apply some self-compassion and recognise that it is hard for us to skilfully use such easily accessible, socially acceptable distractions in moderation.

Deciding to forgo our digital distractions and fully embrace life is often easier said than done. We might even allow ourselves a little envy at how un-distracted life might have been in the time of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. The comparative paucity of available distractions from dukkha would have made the first task a lot easier!  Yet the Dharma, in particular the eight-fold path, has always implicitly recognised that our ability to practice the four tasks is impacted by the environment in which we situate ourselves.  A ‘nirvanic’ state, lucid and free of reactivity is difficult to achieve, but we make it even harder if we don’t care for what we consume and how we live in our daily lives.

Meditation as an antidote to distraction

While there are many tools and guides to help reduce our consumption of digital distractions, a meditation practice can play a central role.  With a sustained meditation practice we become more in tune with our feelings, our anxieties, and the general sensations of discomfort that our lives generate.  When those feelings arise, we can notice them and respond in a way that is more skilful. We effectively train ourselves to be better able to handle stress, anxiety, sadness and so reduce the need for self-numbing through digital connection. Meditation thus gives us the tools to better notice the feelings that lead us to want to numb ourselves with digital distractions, and also helps us manage those sensations in a more appropriate, sustainable and healthy way.

Importantly, a meditation practice is not in itself another form of numbing, quite the opposite!  A meditation practice can be a highly effective way to engage ourselves in our senses, our feelings, and with the whole mess of life, to feel truly present, rather than digitally absent.



One Reply to “Digital distraction and the dharma”

Roderick Ramsay

THANK YOU! I’ve been wrestling with media/social media for some time. This article was extremely helpful and I’ve been scribbling notes like crazy. Off to meditate.

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