Tense Situations, Social Media, and Zen

In the movie Repo Man, the character Bud, played by the late great Harry Dean Stanton, says, “An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”

I love Repo Man. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. It may even beat out Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro Monster) as my single favorite film. I had the honor of meeting Alex Cox, writer and director of Repo Man, when he was in Japan in 1998 making a documentary about Godzilla for the BBC. It turns out Alex Cox loves Godzilla too!

But this advice from Bud to budding young Repo Man Otto (played by Emilio Estavez) is the exact opposite of the advice I would give to a person who was trying to pursue the path of Zen. “An ordinary person spends his life getting into tense situations,” I might say, “a Zen person avoids tense situations.”

One of the most widely held misconceptions about people who practice Zen is that they are supposed to develop something like superpowers when it comes to tense situations. We imagine that a person who has practiced zazen for long enough can walk into any tense situation and remain completely calm, cool, and collected while everything around her goes nutty.

To a certain extent something a little like this may happen. Often people who practice zazen are able to maintain balance in situations when others are losing their sh*t. I’ve even managed to do this myself, often much to my own surprise.

But it doesn’t always work.

This week I put up a video about the incident that has come to be known as #CovingtonGate. If you don’t know what that was, it’s not that important. You can follow the link above, if you’re really interested. But the short version is that a huge proportion of the population of this country got really heated and emotional over what, upon further reflection, turned out to be much ado about nothing. And it was all because of social media.

Social media is powerful. It’s only existed for a couple of decades. And in its first ten years, hardly anyone even used it. We’re only in the first decade of the widespread use of social media.

This means that no one alive today has been able to properly acclimate to the existence of widespread social media use. Not even the Millennials or whatever they’re calling the post-Millennial generation have lived with widespread social media long enough to really comprehend its power.

Like a lot of my countrymen, I got caught up in the #CovingtonGate nonsense. If you watched my video about it from a few days ago, you saw me being visibly flustered. This is not a good look for someone who teaches about Zen for a living.

If I had more sense about cultivating a proper (and sellable) public image as a meditation teacher and writer, I would never have put that video up in the first place. Or, at the very least, I’d have pulled it down by now. But I’m more interested in honesty than in cultivating an image of perpetual Zen-ness.

What happened to me over #CovingtonGate has reminded me of a lesson I often try to convey to other people who are trying to get into the Zen thing.

It’s not that Zen meditation gives you superpowers to stay calm, cool, and collected in any situation so much as it gives you a sense of what your specific triggers of tension are. If you’re smart, you’ll pay attention to that and you’ll avoid deliberately getting yourself into situations where you’re likely to get triggered.

Of course, you don’t want to live a life that’s too sheltered. You don’t want to become so soft that you can’t handle any kind of tension.

You can, however, learn not to deliberately go to places where tension is high. You can learn to take steps to avoid people who bring you tension. It will not always be possible to avoid these sorts of places and people. There are times when these kinds of encounters are necessary. But you can avoid deliberately stepping into situations that are likely to be tense.

This is why I have chosen to stay away from Twitter and Facebook. I’ll post there when I write a new article or put up a new video. I’ll use them to promote books and public appearances. But I will no longer engage with people on these social media platforms, I’ll no longer read what other people post on them, and I’ll no longer respond to people there.

It’s not necessary. I lived most of my life without Twitter and Facebook. I know how to get whatever news I need from other sources. I know how to interact with friends and relatives in other ways. There’s no reason for me to deliberately engage in a space that I know will cause needless tension and may cause me to react in ways that I will later regret.

Social media is addictive. Maybe it doesn’t cause a physical addiction like heroin or tobacco. But it definitely can be psychologically addictive. For a while, there were days when I was checking Twitter first thing in the morning — even before zazen! I figured I could handle it. I was wrong.

I’m not doing that anymore.

For whatever it’s worth, I’d advise anyone who is serious about Zen practice to stay away from social media or at least limit your use of it.


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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a JerkHardcore Zen,  Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!



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