There’s a traditional analogy in Buddhism: a man is walking in the forest when, out of nowhere, he is shot with an arrow. Now, instead of pulling it out and tending to his own healing process, he begins to spin out, thinking “Who shot me? Why am I always the one being shot? Everyone else gets to go around being happy, but I take one walk in the woods and as usual, I end up in trouble. Chuck at work deserves to be shot, not me.” And so on. This mental spiraling is known as the second arrow.
Arrow #1: The suffering inflicted upon us as part of life.
Arrow #2: The suffering we inflict on ourselves in response.
One of the ways we lock ourselves in stress and anxiety is by clinging to the idea that other people have it made and we begin perpetuating lots of stories about their lives. These days, there is no better forum to indulge this idea than on social media. You can open up Instagram and, within thirty seconds of scrolling, see people who are presenting the idea that they have their act together which, of course, only perpetuates the notion that you’re the only one who doesn’t. In your bones, you know everyone is suffering. We all experience arrows in our lives. Most of us perpetuate the second arrow too. Yet, social media portrays the opposite, leading to us feeling isolated and alone.
I’m not saying the only way out of stress and anxiety is to delete your Facebook account (although it may not hurt). I’m saying we need to reconsider what it means to engage in these platforms from a place of self-care and responsibility.
The main route to responsible social media usage is the same one for many activities we engage in: we look at why we’re doing the thing in the first place. Before we open up Facebook, we can contemplate our intention: “Why am I opening up this tab? Is it because I’m bored with work and looking to escape the feeling of boredom? Or did I want to check in on my friend, because they have been MIA lately and I want to see if they’ve posted?” The former might lead us to endlessly scrolling, then freaking out when we have wasted a half hour. The latter would take two minutes and lead to more skillful action.
Having grokked our intention, we can move into skillful activity. The Buddha outlined a number of guidelines for how we can communicate. In his teachings known as The Vaca Sutta, he said that any statement promotes positive communication if it meets these criteria: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
Let’s break this set of teachings out and map it for something he likely could not have predicted: the tremendous influence of social media.
In regard to goodwill, we can look at our intention behind posting on social media. If we have something cool going on, is our motivation to share the good news as a result of a longing to genuinely connect and get people involved in our life? Or is it so everyone thinks we also have our act together and are doing as well as or better than they are? If we are posting with a mind of goodwill, meaning the intention is to connect and benefit everyone concerned, then that’s a sign we may want to go ahead and do it. If we are going to be perpetuating the trope of someone who always has everything figured out, then we may want to contemplate whether that’s worth sharing.
The next factor we can consider when posting is whether what we are sharing is beneficial and affectionate to others. Beneficial is a subjective term, but it’s based in the idea that what we are sharing is meant to uplift or educate others, as opposed to tearing them down. Particularly these days, a platform like Facebook seems to be a venue for people to post a lot of political ideology, not so much with the intent of sparking genuine dialogue but to prove that their closely held views are right, daring people who disagree to argue with them.
When we see this sort of rhetoric, it may be a good idea to avoid the bait. There is an old adage that it is better to be kind than to be correct. When we are engaging with our community on social media, this simple notion can guide our hand in a way that we build bridges with people we may disagree with, as opposed to burning them and causing us further stress and grief.
Now we can move to whether what we are sharing is truthful. These days, people seem to post a lot of the glorious moments in their career or love life without acknowledging the heartache within each of us. Those who share only the seemingly endless good news of their life, with no moments of reflection, are contributing to what some call “success theater.”
Success theater is when we perform the notion that life is only joyful and beautiful moment after moment, with each new high being the foreshadowing to a new goal shattered, the best friends possible, and a life of endless ease and no frustration. For some of us, we may see such posts and in response cultivate what we Buddhists call sympathetic joy — a type of joy one experiences when witnessing the joy of others. But often when we see someone performing success theater, it leads to feelings of jealousy and insufficiency.
When we post, it might be worth thinking about whether we are sharing only the good while ignoring the bad. Someone who shares a picture of herself and her husband with the caption “No bad days” or “Always easy and in love” is clearly not being truthful. Even for the best-paired couples, there are bad days. On those days, love, while it might be on the emotional landscape, is obscured to some extent by a number of much more difficult emotions. Perhaps a more honest caption would be “Despite our hardships and getting on each other’s nerves, our love continues to deepen.” I have a theory: if people posted honestly about their lives, they would not only gain the vaunted high number of “likes” but contribute to further connection, even offline.
The final aspect of The Vaca Sutta I’d like to tease out is the idea of posting at the right time. If we are overwhelmed and looking to experience the support of other people, we may quickly learn that social media is not the best way to gain intimate connection. In fact, posting “Worst day ever. Can’t believe it!” may yield little to no response, only making us feel even more isolated and anxious. The “right time” for social media may be when we are wanting to share news with a large audience but are not particularly attached to the idea that we will have meaningful contact with them.
Which brings me to the notion that social media is not a replacement for human connection. The current head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Karmapa, once said, “When you are hurt, sometimes you just want someone to hug you. A flat screen cannot hold your hand and share your pain.”
At the time of this writing it is 2020, which undoubtedly will be known as the year the coronavirus pandemic shifted our global landscape. Like millions worldwide, I am working from home and my connection with friends and family is limited to Zoom calls and weekly poker games played via Google Meetup and an app. While I cherish my community dearly, these interactions do not make up for how, for months, I haven’t been able to hug a loved one who is struggling.. Similarly, no matter how many comments you get on something you post online, it will never be the same as someone looking you in the eyes and telling you “You’re loved.”
Social media has the ability to connect us with many people, so we do have a responsibility to post things that are true, kind, beneficial, offered with good intention, and shared at the right time. But if we can’t keep track of these foundational teachings of the Buddha or if we are looking to connect more deeply with others, we may have to close the laptop and seek out a friend who can hold space for us and give us support as we navigate our stressful situations. As the Karmapa went on to say, “The internet places our relationships in the cloud, but we need to live our relationships here on the ground.” The more grounded we are — with our breath and in our bodies — the more we are able to navigate the arrows that come our way and not add stress and anxiety on top, thus leaving the second arrow behind.
This has been an excerpt from Lodro Rinzler’s book Take Back Your Mind: Buddhist Advice for Anxious Times (dharma club publications, 2021)
Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and his latest, Take Back Your Mind, and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for 20 years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals.