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Many Look To Buddhism For Sanctuary From An Over-Connected World

Jul 7, 2018

On the floor of a Zen Buddhist worship space in an apartment building in Washington, D.C., about 15 people recently sat on meditation cushions. They chant sutras and meditate, in complete silence, for a full 30 minutes.

And then one of the lay leaders of the All Beings Zen Sangha, or congregation, conducted a "little exercise."

"It's very simple," said Mark Stone. "If you could take out your screens, stay on them for 12 minutes, doing what you usually do."

The "Zen Practice and Screen Use" workshop is one of a series that have been held at this zendo, or meditation hall, with the aim of helping participants have a more mindful experience online.

It's a response to growing concern over the amount of time people devote to their screens. One recent study estimated that Americans are spending nearly six hours a day on their connected devices. Add television to that and the total rises to nearly 10 hours.

Some countries are treating Internet addiction as a public health crisis. In the U.S., tech companies are under pressure to respond, and many are developing code and apps to help limit screen use.

But Stone, a retired economist, favors an approach based on Buddhist principles such as mindfulness and intentionality. He told the members of his Zen sangha that when they're online, they should be aware of their posture and take deep breaths.

He also recommends setting aside devices for meals and longer digital fasts, and making frequent use of airplane and "do not disturb" modes.

What's been really helpful for him, he said, "is, when I pick up my screen [to] think about my intention, why am I doing this."

During the workshop exercise, participants stayed seated in the meditation pose while sending texts on their phones or checking in on social media. One typed away on a computer with a sticker on the back of the screen that says: "Question everything."

After the screen time, and more meditation, Stone asked the congregation to reflect on the experience.

"I did notice afterwards," said one participant, Carlos Moura, "that I was focused, but I really wasn't aware of you all."

"I just physically noticed that my head really hurt, after looking at the screen and sitting, which I hadn't really noticed the first time we were sitting," offered another, Leslie Cohen.

Cohen, a tourist visiting from San Diego, Calif., said she came to this zendo for a chance to turn off.

"We were in Ocean City, and the TV was on, the kids were on their screens, and I had a moment of, like, I've got to find a place to meditate as soon as I get to Washington, D.C.!"

Buddhism is not the only faith that offers a sanctuary from the connected world. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are finding that many adherents value their unplugged worship spaces and activities.

In fact, blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, in a 2016 piece in New York magazine about meditation and "distraction sickness," argued that this should be religion's new role, with the potential of reversing the trends of disaffiliation and declining attendance afflicting many traditional congregations.

"If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation," he wrote.

At the Washington Buddhist Vihara, a monastic residence for monks in the Theravada tradition of the faith, chief monk Bhante Dhammasiri says living in the U.S. for 32 years has been long enough to watch a society become hooked on screens.

"What we see today, is they don't live the life. They forget to live the life, because they are addicted to cellphones — especially cellphones," he said.

Asked whether he has a smartphone, he smiles and says a devotee gave him one, and concedes he finds it useful for calling and as a calendar. And he likes the convenience of the built-in flashlight.

But he doesn't engage on Facebook or other social media because, he says: "You're never getting satisfied. You will waste your whole precious time."

Dhammasiri says the Buddha urged his followers to live a simple life, and rid themselves of luxury and attachments. Cellphones and other digital devices may promise happiness and fulfillment.

But, the monk says, it's just an illusion.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The amount of time people spend on digital devices is soaring to the point that several countries are treating Internet addiction as a public health crisis. According to one survey, the average American adult spends nearly six hours a day on a smartphone. As people struggle to deal with their distracting devices, James Socolovsky reports on a group turning to Buddhism for more mindful approach.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY, BYLINE: About 15 people are seated on the floor of the All Beings Zen Sangha worship space in an apartment building in Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Japanese).

SOCOLOVKSY: They recite a Japanese chant known as the ten-phrase, life-prolonging Kannon Sutra and extol the teachings of the Buddhist sages.

MARK STONE: (Singing) Heart of great and perfect wisdom sutra.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SOCOLOVKSY: And then they meditate for a full 30 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SOCOLOVKSY: It's completely silent - save for the air conditioning - until Mark Stone, one of the leaders, speaks.

STONE: If you could take out your screens - stay on them for 12 minutes doing what you usually do.

SOCOLOVKSY: During this screen-use workshop, participants stay in meditation pose while sending texts on their phones and checking in on social media. Stone, a retired economist, urges them to follow Buddhist principles, such as mindfulness and intentionality when they're online. He tells them to be aware of their posture and take deep breaths. What's been really helpful for him...

STONE: ...Is, when I pick up my screen, think about my intention. Why I'm enjoying this?

SOCOLOVKSY: He also recommends setting aside devices for phone-free meals and longer digital fasts. At the end of the 12 minutes on their devices, Stone has a request.

STONE: Anybody like to share how that was for them, to use the screen and then to sit, pause, take it all in?

CARLOS MOURA: I did notice afterwards that it really wasn't - that I was focused, but I really wasn't aware of you all. You know, it's, like, you weren't there at all.

LESLIE COHEN: I just physically noticed that my head really hurt.

SOCOLOVKSY: Carlos Moura and Leslie Cohen are among the people taking part in the screen mindfulness workshop. Afterward, Cohen, a tourist from San Diego, says the chance to turn off is what brought her here.

COHEN: We were in, like, Ocean City. And just - you know, the TV was on. The kids were on their screens. And I had a moment of, like, I've got to find a place to meditate as soon as I get to Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SOCOLOVKSY: A meditation session begins at a different Buddhist center a few miles away. Bhante Dhammasiri, who was born in Sri Lanka, is the chief monk of the Theravadic Washington Buddhist Vihara or monastery. He's lived in this country for 32 years, long enough, he says, to watch a society become hooked on screens.

BHANTE DHAMMASIRI: What we see today - they don't live the life. They forget to live the life because they are addicted to cellphone, especially cellphones.

SOCOLOVKSY: He has a cellphone, which he says a devotee gave him but uses it mainly for calls and as a calendar. And he likes the convenience of the flashlight. But he won't go on Facebook or other social media platforms because...

DHAMMASIRI: You are never getting satisfied. You will waste your whole precious time.

SOCOLOVKSY: These devices may promise happiness and fulfillment but, the monk says, it's just an illusion. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.