The insights that come from silent retreats are subtle; you probably aren’t going to hear angels singing. One thing that I paid attention to this time around was my tendency to be an information junkie from news, gossip to simply wanting to read everything on the internet about any given topic. When you are silent and without access to the internet you simply can’t do this.
In Buddhism there are six senses: the five familiar to Westerners plus the mind. In the same way that an image is a sense object for the eye, thoughts are sense objects for the mind. There’s nothing supernatural here, but it’s nigh impossible to study this objectively, so western science has either sidestepped the question of consciousness or devolved into Freudian pseudoscience. One the other hand, learning to observe, work with and develop the citta, or mind, is front and center of Buddhist practice.
The body exists dependent on nutriments: rice and gruel seems to be the favored image in the suttas. Likewise, the mind exists in dependence on mental nutriments. You can’t get rid of an addiction to food by not eating; you’ll die pretty quickly. Were you to swear off all mental intake you’d go bonkers and enter some sort of psychosis in due order. In both cases, the key to health is in balance and ingesting the right things.
As a society, we’re as mentally obese as we are physically obese. By that, I mean that we ingest far more information than we need and much of it is low quality.
We eat out of boredom, sadness, happiness, frustration and craving. When fasting you really see that you don’t need to eat that much. I notice the same with myself. I open up the news because I’m bored or frustrated with something else. I go on a youtube binge because I’m tired. Social media is the real killer. This is observation is hardly confined to a Buddhist worldview or an anti-Facebook lament: Amusing Ourselves to Death made this very argument in 1985.
All of this needless consumption leads to a bloated and unwieldy mind. I could clearly see this on retreat. The desire to read the news was overwhelming at times. It worked like a nervous tick whenever I was too tired to meditate or deal with tougher insight states.
Fear of Missing Out
It takes a lot of training to get over the fear of missing out. It took me all of five minutes to catch up on everything I ‘missed’ during my ten days off the grid.
A New Sanity
I keep going back to limiting my news consumption to once a day in the form of a daily briefing from the NY times. I feel just as well informed as others without the constant the drip of information. For me this seems to work, as long as I can stick with it. Some substitutes for the nervous tick news checking are hacker news and a few subreddits that just don’t pack the excitement of ‘breaking news’.
The thing is, I do miss things from time to time. My knowledge of pop culture is slipping, but I get enough via osmosis in the office to hold a conversation. By not being morbidly obese, I’m sure that I’ve missed out on some great food. Oh well. Learning to deal with this is a huge part of the path.
Ajahn Buddhadasa stressed the importance of spiritual entertainment. This doesn’t have to be something fancy. A nice video chat with an old friend is far better for the mind than an hour of listlessly surfing the internet.
Right Information Leads to Right Speech
Cutting down on the gossip, unsubscribing from chats about nothing at work and limiting flow of information makes Right Speech automatically fall into place. This all leads to a peaceful and rested mind, which ultimately conditions a happy mind.
Next time you feel the twitch to ingest information, don’t do so right away. Watch the desire. What’s behind it? Do you really need the information? If so, consume it. If you are masking some disturbance in the mind such as restlessness, anger or whatever, look for a more skillful way to deal with it than going down the rabbit hole of the news.