If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.
Facebook pervades modern social discourse. With over 1 billion active users, it has achieved near ubiquity, and it has become near impossible to talk about what it means to be a modern human without mentioning it. It has become synonymous with social networking almost to the extent that Google has become synonymous with search. And the Facebook network continues to grow daily, though admittedly not at the rates it previously enjoyed. Some have recently asked: Will this trend ever stop? Will we ever reach “peak Facebook?” With over 7 billion people on the planet, and more and more of them joining the Internet each and every day, perhaps not any time soon. But there is something peculiar going on. In December of last year, the network lost nearly 1.4 million active U.S. users. And it has become something of a fad for bloggers and journalists alike to write about life without Facebook. What is this all about?
A popular Zen kōan, attributed to the Chinese master Lin-chi I-hsüan reads:
If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet an Arhat, kill the Arhat; if you meet your parents, kill your parents … in this way, you attain liberation.
Like all Zen kōans, the jarring literality of the phrasing belies a series of hidden teachings – messages nested like Russian dolls waiting to be unlocked by the diligent student. By no means did Lin-chi intend for his students to engage in murder. The first of the Ten Essential Buddhist Precepts specifically advocates “not killing.” Instead, the message is one of not worshipping false idols, of not fetishizing that which you do not understand, of recognizing that which is true, of being a “light unto thyself.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the true Buddha. You and the true Buddha are one.
These kōans are centuries old, and as we begin to popularize them in the modern West, they could probably use some refreshing. The language has become obtuse; the references outdated. For the purposes of this writing, here’s a proposed amendment to the one above: “If you join a social network online, kill the network.”
I am not a “Facebook hater,” but I deactivated my account over a year and a half ago. As a technologist and as a practitioner of Zen trying to live mindfully, I struggle regularly with integrating the two. Technology introduces significant amounts of psychological noise; mindful living seeks to eliminate it. The challenge lies in finding a middle way without becoming a complete ascetic or a technological hedonist. I still use Twitter and I still use Instagram, but I may go a day or more without checking Twitter and usually look at Instagram at most twice a day. Though far from completely independent, every day I try reduce my addiction.
I am not alone. More and more people have begun to reduce their engagement in online social networking because the noise to signal ratio on all networks has reached an all-time high. We have become disenchanted. We are, in effect, “killing the network.”
Killing the network does not mean destroying it or abandoning it completely. It means appraising it honestly. It means not allowing it to run your life, not fetishizing it, not turning it into a false idol. It means recognizing what it is and what it is not. Any online social network is no substitute for real face-to-face interaction. “Likes” are not the same as hugs. Comments are not the same as intimate conversations over coffee or tea. The online social network is not the same as a network of real human relationships based on shared physical experience, so do not allow yourself to be controlled by it. Give it a rest, turn off notifications, and perhaps only check it once a day or once a week. Yes, you will be missing out, but you’re always missing out on something, so don’t worry about it. As Leo Babauta wrote on Zen Habits, “... if you always worry about what you’re missing out on, you will miss out on what you already have.”
What you already have is right here, right now. Facebook can wait. Kill it.