The Internet and Monkey Mind: Reevaluating Online Practice

Tarzan's chimp, Cheeta, had a real bad case of Monkey Mind

Saturday CSPAN2’s Book TV re-aired a panel from the 2010 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. The subject was how technology is affecting our minds and one of the panelists was Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The book has been called a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.” I would say any mind. Carr is of the opinion that the Internet is changing our brains and not necessarily for the better.

Here is a pretty accurate transcription of what Carr said at the beginning of the CSPAN2 program. After reading a sentence from Carr’s book (“The price we pay to assume technologies’ power is alienation.”) the panel moderator went on to ask him if he thought “alienation is a necessary byproduct of our winding up bombarded by all this stimuli?”

Yes, I do. I’m using alienation not in the kind of metaphysical sense, but in the very simple sense that technology alienates us in different ways from ourselves . . . it happens . . .  in the most extreme and the most personal and the most intimate ways with media and other technologies that we use to think with . . . I think we’re seeing it with the Internet and other digital technologies. One on the hand they give us enormous convenience, they give us access to far more information than we ever had access to before. But on the other hand . . . they are emphasizing a certain mode of thought and deemphasizing another mode of thought. I think what the net and related technologies are doing is emphasizing the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around and gather as much information as possible,  a very kind of primitive side of our mind . . . but what they’re deemphasizing is a very different mode of thought, slower, quieter, more solitary, the mode of thought that underskins contemplation, introspection, reflection . . . and I believe that we’re seeing on a personal level and a societal level a shift away from those modes of thought to this ever faster more superficial . . . mode of thought . . . My fear is that lose our capacity for the more contemplative modes of thought we are going to lose something very important to us as individuals and also one of the underpinnings of culture in general.

If Carr’s right, or only half-right, perhaps we should reconsider how we choose to use the Internet and other new technologies. This would seem especially crucial for Buddhists, or anyone who practices meditation. According to Carr’s research, our brains are changing on a cellular level and not only are we losing our ability to pay attention and focus, but also we’re eroding our contemplative mind, the very thing that we as Buddhists are trying to cultivate.

Those who have been so earnestly promoting online practice and sanghas might now want to reevaluate. I’m not saying that they have no value, yet considering some of the rather extravagant claims I’ve read, not to mention some insensible criticisms of traditional modes of communication, I am beginning to feel that this is seriously misleading people, however unintentionally.

I am certainly aware that these new technologies are not going away, nor would I want them to, as I greatly appreciate and enjoy all the convenience, access to information and fun they provide. However, the prospect of a future overrun by people with ADHD is rather frightening.

Actually, Buddhism considers Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to be our normal state with or without technology. We call this “Monkey Mind.”

Those of you already familiar with the term might have noticed how Carr’s statement quoted above contained a very accurate description of Monkey Mind: “the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around.”

Most scholars seem to believe that the term “Monkey Mind” originated in China. I’m not so sure. Chih-i in the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Stopping and Seeing for Beginners,” composed in the 6th Century CE, quotes a sutra (which not identified in any English translation that I’m aware of): “A fixed mind is like a bound monkey.” This sutra could be an apocryphal Chinese text, but it could also be an authentic Indian sutra.

In any case, a modern meditation master, Yin Shih, in his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health, offers a good explanation of Monkey Mind:

The mind is like a monkey and does not stop for an instant. What then should we do? We should prevent this monkey mind from moving by tying it to a stake and it will cease jumping about aimlessly. In the practice of [meditation] the first step is to fix the mind on an object (hsi yaun chih). When the false mind moves, it looks for something that is called its object. When all of sudden it thinks of one object, then of another, and then of a third and a fourth; this is its clinging to objects. The purpose of [meditation] is to fix the wandering mind to a post in the same way that a monkey is tethered to a stake; this stops it wandering.

A number of reliable studies in recent years have shown that people with ADHD can benefit from meditation. In fact, nowadays, it is almost universally accepted that meditation is an effective tool for reducing stress, improving health, and boosting concentration and creativity.

Most of us know this and it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all the reasons why a “contemplative mind” is something that we should not only cultivate, but cherish. The questions we need to consider are: Does the Net and other digital technology cancel out everything we gain from meditation? Do we break even? How should we balance this out?

If, as Carr suggests, the contemplative mind is important both individually and culturally, then we need to take steps to protect it. Of course, not everyone is convinced by Carr’s arguments, and they point to the fact that the jury is still out, after all while some studies support his thesis, others have found significant cogitative benefits from exposure to the Internet and digital media. But if we ignore the possible negative effects, if we wait until the jury comes in, it may be too late to reverse the damage done.

Lastly, let me share with you something from Winston Churchill. It’s a piece of wisdom that has really helped me out as I’ve made my way down this long road of life: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”

Now you know.

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