I stopped following my girlfriend on Instagram.
We live together, so it seemed absurd to see her selfies, stories, pictures, and reflections via this third party when I could hear about them, and see her, in person. And it felt weird to read reflections targeted to “the world” and not know about them myself. There’s more to the story – how my issues around jealousy, competition, envy, and the need for attention and acknowledgment crept in – but this was my rationale to myself, and to her.
Then I suspended my Instagram account altogether. Since turning off this piece of SNS (“social networking site”) about two months ago, I’ve felt liberated and free, but also sad and isolated. My own way of thinking and sensitivity had made it a complicated, painful place. Yet I grudgingly sort of miss it, despite not knowing really how or why to use it. Studies show that people use SNS mostly for “social interaction, archiving or documenting, self-expression, escapism, and keeping up to date.”  I could relate to all of that.
I had used Instagram for no purpose besides it being “there,” and then more extensively in 2016 for a political art campaign. I upped the usage in 2017 as a way to follow my kids … and my girlfriend (I’ll call her “Jane”). A long break from Instagram ensued for both of us, from January 2018 until October, when I took it up again as a disciplined daily blogging tool for a one-month reflection on Zen, inspired by sculptures I did each day. I continued into December, posting photos of work I did along with 2000-character reflections on Zen. I was preparing for jukai, the formal receiving of, and intention to fulfill, 16 Zen moral precepts.
I accumulated about 80 followers quickly, hashtagging like a madman, but some of them were existing Facebook friends. The writing and the photos complemented each other: the character limit on Instagram forced me to be concise and trenchant. Hashtags worked; one new follower said, “I came for the photos and stayed for the writing.”
Jane simultaneously returned to Instagram as a way to stay connected with friends in the wake of our major geographical move. She has about 1,500 followers, 98% women, many who were readers of her previous blog, amassed over years of writing and professional photography before Instagram’s inception in 2010. Over time, she added this professional work to her feed, interspersed with personal content — family pics, selfies, locations, and so on. (And yes, I sheepishly admit – part of this story, really – I noted who were the regular male followers: a Volker in Germany, a “ck5644″who loves trains, and a handful of others, both professional and anonymous.)
Often her photos now are accompanied by a poem, quotation, intimate personal reflection, or a vignette from a soon-to-be-published book for which she has been the photographer. She makes stunning black-and-white portraits, often with a wide-open aperture. Her posts receive from 40 – 125 “likes” and often affectionate remarks from people she knows. She says she uses Instagram as a way to stay connected to friends she has made over the years – some never met in person – and as a way to promote her professional identity as a photographer, since her account is public. She believes that the personal, expressive nature of her posts attracts potential clients who are moved to see a real, emotive, honest person, and therefore may hire her.
As I used Instagram more and more and noticed its effect on me and my relationships, and how I have perceived my own and others’ masculinity, I began thinking about several Zen precepts I have vowed to uphold in receiving jukai from Roshi Joan Halifax in Santa Fe:
- I will not blame or judge others, nor compete with others or covet recognition,
- I will not foster a mind of poverty in myself or others (I will not be stingy with my talents or compliments)
- I will accept and give love without clinging,
- I will compassionately and constructively speak the truth as I perceive it,
- I will embrace all experiences directly, without the many intoxicants of this world,
- I will abstain from criticizing others, taking responsibility for my own life, and
- I will not harbor resentment, rage, or revenge, and I will let anger teach me.
As a father, a lover, and participant in this online community of Instagram, I began to notice how these precepts were indeed meant to be intentions rather than hard-and-fast rules, because they were (and are) difficult to practice.
And as a man, my societal conditioning often seemed in conflict with the precepts, which themselves were at odds with social media.
For example, men are typically taught that competition and recognition are good; after all, if we are not recognized, how will our businesses or professions thrive? If we don’t promote our writing or art, how will we make money? If we don’t make ourselves look good, how will we attract partners? How will we maintain our belief that we are the center of our world? (Precept #1).
Men are taught that the way to get ahead is to beat out “the other guy,” and to seek fame and fortune. Hence social media is peppered with self-congratulatory or “wise” statements by men (and women). They assert they are authorities in their fields (even if uneducated or untrained) by making simple declarative statements, by offering lifestyle advice, and by becoming self-styled gurus. (#1).
In this competitive spirit, men may refrain from complimenting others; we may complain about our current lives not being enough; we may blame others instead of owning our own role in relationships, work, and play. The culture conditions men to be critical of loved ones or colleagues, in the name of being constructive. This also creates “man-splainers.” Men compete for partners, male or female, which morphs into sexism. (#1, 2, and 6).
Men also learn that anger is acceptable, that rage and revenge are positive and effective means of dealing with competition or insults. Men may believe that lying is the best way to protect themselves. On social media, one can find countless examples of this aggressive stance – starting with our President’s use of Twitter, for example. (#7).
For many men, intoxicants – particularly alcohol – are part-and-parcel of socializing, relaxing, and even getting ahead in business. Men – and women, of course – can also be intoxicated by drugs, spending, food, sex, gambling, gaming … or social media. (Who has not seen a bus-full of commuters pecking at their smartphones? Who has not dined with someone whose gaze is constantly wandering to their phone, screen-up, on the table?) (#5).
Competition makes men possessive about our love, our wives, or our partners. We cling to them and are afraid of their independence. Some of this may be genetically programmed, a holdover of our reptilian brain telling us to procreate, to guard our mating partners; some of it may be plain insecurity. (#3).
When it came to my girlfriend, I noticed this sense of clinging – of not freely and lovingly accepting who she was – arising uncomfortably when I followed her on Instagram. I noticed my urge to “covet recognition” when she posted one of my photos on her feed and I felt I hadn’t been properly acknowledged. I noticed how much “I” – an oft-used Buddhist word related to “ego” – was present in my thinking: a kind of stinginess. (#1, 3)
In fact, I noticed that in some way or other, with particular regard to social media, I was barely fulfilling my intention to follow the precepts. The precepts are moral and ethical vows that are completely interpersonal, acknowledging the web of interconnectedness of which we all are a part. They are meant to limit one’s own and others’ suffering. And since they are hard to do, for most people, there is a footnote attached: think of the precepts as intentions, things you will tryto do, because inevitably you will make mistakes and break your vows. This recognition – which is not permission – helps you relax, allows for your humanity. But mistakes hurt nevertheless.
In terms of these vows, I noticed the arrival of envy: the mother of blame, competition, clinging, resentment, and criticism. I experienced envy not only for Jane’s large number of followers but envy for many other people’s lives online. They seemed so much wealthier, wiser, centered, sane, and comfortable than me; I imagined – and resented – that others had the time to be this way because they were rich. (#2, 7).
I felt envy’s sister, jealousy (which is yearning resentment), at a photo Jane posted in which she was obviously topless (but not revealing her breasts), even though she looked happy and lovely (but at the time, other words came to my mind: seductive, beguiling, flirtatious). In another instance, in a quick exchange one evening, I felt a burning discomfort at her momentary hesitation to “block” a new male follower. He had been sending her overly-friendly direct messages, an obvious ploy to meet her. (It wasn’t obvious to her. To me, it’s a man’s clear intention to hook up that sparks him to send messages to attractive strangers on social media.) “Do you want me to block him?” she asked. This sparked the non-Zen inclination to rage and revenge, to hunt this man down and confront him. Jane is a loyal, trustworthy woman, so I knew her hesitation wasn’t about wanting to meet him – she explained it was more related to just a tired moment in her day, and that maybe she was issuing a quick test of my devotion. To me, it felt like she carried a kind of equanimity with having unknown men “follow” her. (#1, 2, 3, and 7).
At the same time, I wondered how much of this un-Zen-like “poverty of mind” was colored by personal psychology and conditioning: my “baggage” around abandonment, for example.
I also wondered if my feelings were generational (I’m 56). For example, I know a young man who has posted photos of his girlfriend in a thong bikini and is obviously unruffled at the knowledge that others online will be aroused at the sight of her naked body.
In my case, disquiet and fear arose in me when I viewed almost any selfie of my girlfriend. I felt covetous, insecure that other men would be attracted to her. She knew I felt threatened and began to pause and check in with me before posting these, but she found this frustrating. I knew I had subtly injured her. (#1, 2, 3, 7)
I hesitated at posting pictures of myself, especially ones in which I looked handsome or showed skin (above my collarbones!) I knew that I would be seeking “likes” and the surge of pleasure that this would cause. (Many studies have documented this – “The minute you … get a like on social media, this produces dopamine, which is a chemical that’s associated with pleasure” and its potential co-occurring cause, that you are lacking a sense of purpose, or your self-esteem is low).  (#2 and 5). I also knew Jane would be upset if I showed skin on social media too.
More deeply, my envy extended to her, and other people’s, ability to reveal themselves publicly, through words and photos, and to greater or lesser extents: to speak candidly with their own voices about feelings, thoughts, and failings, unafraid of censure. To show faces, skin, muscle. To be themselves, relaxed, without the rigidity or tightness in the body that possesses those of us who fear that self-expression leads to loss.
All of this, with regard to her and to others in her and my circle, made me realize that I was not “taking responsibility for my own life,” that I was fostering “a mind of poverty” (the “woe is me” mind), and that my love came with clinging. (When I saw the semi-revealing photo her, for example, I might have said, “Wow, what a gorgeous picture! I’m so glad I’m together with YOU,” instead of worrying that it might attract other men, and becoming wrapped up in my clinging).
Instagram itself was kind of an intoxicant. It intoxicated me to count up the number of heart-shapes or comments next to my posts, and, in a painful sense, it intoxicated me to witness the successes, thoughts, feelings, and photos of others – including my girlfriend – in the same way, that alcohol might feel good for a few minutes, but then leaves you hungover.
An edge began to develop between us, built on these doubts, fears, and anxieties. We began to ask each other, “Who is that man now following you?” and, “What’s your relationship with that woman who keeps liking your posts?” Even when these others were people we had known for years, casually or professionally or just because they were friends-of-friends.
The final trigger for me was one of my girlfriend’s “stories” – the scrolling account of one’s day that you can post at the top of your “feed.” It showed her heading off for a first day at a new job in a profession that is in high demand here. As for me, jobless for months, having sent out innumerable letters and resumes, and in an entirely new rural town and state, I felt envy. I was swollen with a feeling of vulnerability and inadequacy instead of good feeling for her. I couldn’t watch her story. I clicked it off. I stopped following her. Minutes later, I “paused” my account (it now appears deleted), and exited completely.
The weeks leading up to this, and the experience itself, reminded me of an old story, which goes something like this: you are walking down a road and you fall into a hole and hurt yourself; the next day, you walk the same road again and fall into the same hole and break your wrist; the third day, repeat; then, finally, on the fourth day, you walk the road, and you come to the hole, and you say to yourself, “Why hurt myself again? I’ll just step around the hole and go on.” (Reflecting this, The New York Times once published an article called “The Agony of Instagram”).
With Instagram, I was stepping into that hole over and over again. In the moment, it seemed better to take the painful thing out of my life until I could learn to deal with it. (Or not. Because we did perfectly well without it ten years ago, and, like so much else, in its essence, it was created as one more addition to a culture bent on consumption and sales.)
Jane and I have worked things out, but what was once a formerly innocent past-time for her became charged once she was in a relationship with me. And, vice versa. Of course, these interactions are colored by our personal histories, and the challenges and joys we have experienced together.
Yet social media brought to the fore issues that I recognized were related to my ingrained, conditioned ways of thinking, and to the tension between believing in my Zen precepts and actually living them genuinely.
Still, there’s a nagging part of me that is drawn back to this platform. Like everything in Buddhism, the phrase “not too tight, not too loose” applies. What could I learn in this environment? How might it help my mental health? How could it be a kind of practice in letting go of what ails me?
Instagram could teach me how to appreciate others more, and not to feel impoverished myself – to appreciate what gifts I have, too. To love myself. To develop a sense of purpose. It could teach me not to compete (for attention, for followers, for acknowledgment, for literary or artistic successes). It could teach me how to love openly and kindly, without clinging, living with the possibility of loss, and “embracing all experiences directly,” without zoning out. It could teach me to relax, to not over-think into inaction. To connect, even remotely, with distant old friends, or strangers out there who share similar interests. Most importantly, it could – maybe, possibly, and acknowledging all the other ways to do this – bring me back to my own voice, or help discover it anew, and compassionately and constructively speak the truth as I perceive it. (#4).
We’ll see. It may be time to re-activate a new account, with a new purpose. It may be time to learn to like myself better. It may be time to rub away at the ego that binds me.
Sánchez-Torres, Javier & Montoya, Luz & Potes, Paul. (2018). Behind the likes, content, and brand on Instagram.
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