Recently I’ve had moments where I’ve been without a phone for one reason or another. The power in my town went out. The battery froze during a cold day on the mountain. I dropped it in the toilet. In all these moments there’s a hint of panic, “What will I do?” “How will I stay in touch?” How will I know that people love me?”
This is a little embarrassing to admit. I mean, I have a meditation practice, my entire life is steeped in Buddhism, and yet losing my phone can rock me. And I need to remember that is really normal. We live in a culture where technology and other distractions are constantly accessible. We need to learn to be present and mindful in that reality which can be hard. And it’s important for us to see it as something we can work on, rather than something we beat ourselves up about.
The beauty of Buddhism is that the teachings can be applied to all aspects of our lives. So I can even look at my relationship to my phone through a Dharma lens. Even though the Buddha did not have a cell phone 2,500 years ago, his teachings can still be relevant today. As I’ve explored my relationship to my phone, and to technology in general, I can see how the teaching of the three poisons are showing up and ways I can work with them.
The three poisons in Buddhism are greed, aversion, and delusion. They’re said to be the root of all unwholesome actions. They show up in our lives in big and subtle ways, and we can learn to see and work with them. These are not our fault, they are part of our human experience, but how we relate to them can change our entire experience.
So greed, it’s pretty obvious; I want my phone back. I crave it. Something in my mind tells me I need it. Greed for me often feels like a nervous energy, kind of like a sugar high. I’m a little antsy and a lot preoccupied. My body feels energized but in a nervous way. When I was phoneless the other week, walking through an airport, unable to check my connecting flight status on my phone, I felt jittery and kept coming back to thoughts about my phone: “If I only had it with me,” or “When I get a new one…” The greed was prodding me along, trying to fix an unfixable situation.
Because the greed energy often feels so stuck in my body, I do well when I move it. Maybe just a few stretches, or sometimes some cardio. When I found out I would have to wait a additional day for my new phone to come I took a brisk walk, and by the time I got to my destination I felt better. My body felt calmer and my mind felt less caught up in the greed. Also, because I already feel “hopped up” when I’m lost in greed or craving, it’s best if I limit what additional stimulants I put into my body. Water, and a healthy balance of protein and veggies often seem to calm my system, and allow me to settle.
My greedy thoughts can often be so enticing and repetitive. “What if my calendar doesn’t update on the the new phone?” “Will I be able to sort out when I’m teaching next?” “What if so-and-so is trying to reach me?” Etc. Etc. Luckily, in the Pali Cannon, there’s a discourse that talks a lot about how to deal with our unwholesome thoughts (MN 20). One of the tools discussed in the teaching, is the tool of replacing thoughts with their opposite. So when I am stuck in greed, I turn my thoughts to generosity. Rather than obsessing about my phone as I waited in the Verizon store, I interacted with other customers, entertained small children, and turned my thoughts away from my desire, and toward how, in that moment, I could be a gift to the people around me.
While I experienced waves of greed when I’ve been phoneless this winter, there were times when I could deal with my thoughts and body in skillful ways, which allowed me to be less caught up in the greed.
It takes being phoneless for me to see how averse I am to being with many things. I use my phone as a distraction when I’m uncomfortable physically or mentally, or if something is happening externally that I want to block out. I reach to my phone to take me out of those experiences, and when I don’t have it to reach for, when I must sit with whatever is present, I can really see how strong my aversion is.
I can meditate and watch unpleasant states arise and pass away, because I know my time watching them is limited. But when I try and stay mindful in my daily life it is much harder; I see how often I want to push things away, or limit what I allow into my direct experience. As I sat in the dark during the power outage I had to sit with my bodily discomfort of being cold, my emotional discomfort of worrying about my loved ones in town, and the intrusion of all the crazy noises in my building that I couldn’t drown out. It felt like a steady stream of thoughts of “I don’t like…, I don’t like…, I don’t like…” And that’s not s pleasant way to spend time.
Again, a great time to turn my thoughts to the opposite. The opposite of aversion is love. So rather than focusing on what I didn’t like, I worked to look at what I did like, or what felt good. The beautiful candlelight, being able to hear my dog’s steady breath, all the cozy blankets I had – when I turned my attention to those things, the aversion lessened, I was less preoccupied with pushing away my experience. So while I was training my mind toward love, there actually became room for the things I don’t love, but they no longer were the only part of my reality I was placing my attention on.
Oh, the stories about my phone. About how essential it is to my life, or how I can’t connect without it, or how I am deprived by not having information at my fingertips. Delusion is not seeing things as they truly are. Believing in stories rather than our felt lived experience. While my delusion told me it was not ok for me to have my phone, when I sat and really checked in with my experience I found I was perfectly fine.
I write more about working with delusion here, it’s a complex poison to work with, because when we are deluded it’s hard to see through the delusion. Here’s another opportunity to try working with opposites; the opposite of delusion is clarity. So when I was suspecting that I was being deluded about my phone, I got into my body and did some grounding exercises, like noticing my direct sense experiences. It got me out of the stories and back into reality.
I have a new phone now. And because of my time without it I’m able to watch and see, when am I turning to it? What’s behind my desire to use it? How can I make sure I am attending to my present moment experience and not using it for an escape?
This is an ongoing process for me, and for all of us. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous in our culture we need to find ways to check into our experience and make sure we are staying present, and not using technology to numb our experience. Using the frame of the three poisons can help us to see when we’re getting caught.