Young Voices: A prescription for digital Millennials: Sanghas

- through Francois Leclercq

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Young voices is a special project of Buddhadoor Global bringing together insightful essays written by high school students in the United States who have taken experiential learning-based courses rooted in Buddhist teaching. Working in parallel with BDG Beginner's Mind project for middle school students, Young voices provides a platform for these students to share essays expressing their impressions and views on their exposure to the Buddhadharma and its relationship to their hopes, aspirations and expectations.

Chris Wong wrote this essay for his Global Buddhisms class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts.

A prescription for digital Millennials: Sanghas

I took refuge in my phone. I am constantly told the eternal story that the smartphone – I call it my dopamine machine – is causing the human species to lose touch with nature, with our communities and, ultimately, with ourselves . To this I ask how can we make better use of these metal and glass boxes?

As a high school student and Buddhist empath, I am in a unique position to ask myself this question; phones are central to adolescent socialization and Buddhism gives me tools for self-examination. Fortunately, thanks to a class assignment, I had the opportunity to detach myself from my phone for a week, take the opportunity to reflect on my usage and perhaps discover how Buddhist wisdom can help me manage my attachment to my phone.

Recently I took a course called Global Buddhisms, which focuses on the diversity of Buddhist practices around the world. On one of our introductory texts, we reviewed the work of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche Lovers of the world. Specifically, my class focused on his experience of leaving Tergar Monastery in Bodh Gaya to begin a wandering retreat, as well as the concept of “adding wood to the fire” in his journey.

The Tibetan expression "adding wood to the fire" is a practice of learning to harness one's inner resources to cope with changing external circumstances, or learning to "deliberately increase the challenges of maintaining a stable mind ". (Mingyur, 5)

Inspired by the thoughts of Mingyur Rinpoche, my class was invited to embark on our own contemplative experiment, adding wood to our own metaphorical fires in order to learn to confront the embers. Some of my peers gave up music for a week and others meditated, but I figured giving up my smartphone was an easy choice. I knew my phone consumed my life and provided comforting doses of dopamine whenever the world threw challenges at me, but I understood little about my relationship with this device. I also hoped to find answers about the roots of phone use in my ascetic practice, and perhaps discover what insights Buddhism might offer to this looming question. Plus, most of the other students in my class did it too.

I'd be lying if I said giving up my phone was the hardest thing I've done in my life. Sure, there were moments of silence and solitude that felt like an uphill climb, but those moments of unease were short-lived. What was most surprising was that giving up my phone felt more like a community practice than a personal practice.

Initially, I accepted this mission in part thanks to the influence of my peers. There was a comfort that radiated from the eagerness of my peers who also took on the challenge of giving up their smartphones. They helped sow the seeds of courage that led me to join them. As the week progressed, I also noticed that it was my peers who reaffirmed the importance of my practice to me. They were shields that protected me from the impending feelings of judgment I expected from spectators of this practice. As my resolve to add wood to the fire waned, they supported me by asking questions about my experience. In return, I shared my ear to hear about their struggles. Throughout this experience, my sangha has been the most important element to the success of my practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully about the sangha as a community of people who support mindfulness and provide a place of harmony, understanding, awareness, and love. (Hanh, Roar of the Lions) For me, a sangha is not just friends practicing Buddhism. They are the ones who provide unconditional support in mutual growth. I deeply resonate with Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path, which, he emphasizes, "is the practice of our daily lives, not just intensive retreats." (Hanh, The mindfulness bell)

My phone is often the escape I turn to in the idle discomfort of lunch lines or the looming silence of my dorm room. My phone alienates me from the physical reality of daily life and human interactions, so removing my phone forces me to come to terms with these uncomfortable forces. By observing the practice of giving up my phone through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, it becomes a Buddhist practice of mindfulness and right effort, in which my sangha also becomes the community that enriches my practice. So while my sangha is not necessarily made up of people seeking enlightenment, they support my practice in daily life through love and understanding and ultimately it is the practice that is the most important.

So, what do I take away on the issue of attachment to digital devices? I used to assume that my attachment to my smartphone was a personal problem and that I lacked self-control. But during these experiences, I saw that often my environment and the people around me also strengthened my attachment. It was very easy for me to justify using my phone as a way to connect with my community, which made it harder for me to detach myself from the internet.

However, the opposite is also true: once I realized that my friends supported my practice and were very curious about their own relationship with smartphones, letting go of my attachment became almost easy.

So what is my prescription for those trying to disengage from smartphones?

Find or help cultivate a community of people who match your personal aspirations for heightened awareness, honed discipline, or other goals. It is not a Buddhist cure, and does not only concern Buddhist aspirations, but it is by taking refuge in a sangha that we can find the strength to practice life as we wish.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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