In a recent, albeit fruitless, effort to ween myself off social media, I was struck by a quote that runs along the lines of: “live a pleasant life, and support other people to find the same…if you don’t find a way of reducing the suffering of your surrounding, your suffering won’t stop.”
With a suitable background piano, and delivered by Shi Heng Li, no less (https://www.shihengyi.online/the-10-shaolin-virtues) the message smacks one “in the chops”, as we say back home.
It’s lingered over the weekend as a sentiment for me, like a welcome mental mist.
Out and about in the smog and hot fug of Saigon each day since, I’m running these words over and over, unsure what the necessary action is to satisfactorily fulfill Shi’s gentle command.
Every 50 metres you walk further away from my house, you will pass a dozen people selling small items, each day the same routine and outcomes, and yet I sense no suffering there.
Further afield, into Vietnam’s literal paddy-fields, and a similar story unfolds. Very small incremental gains for those living in the countryside. Some additional livestock purchased, perhaps, repairs to a roof, petrol for the scooter.
However, enter into these rural enclaves as I have done, and the warmth of welcome is deeper than the pockets of the most generous philanthropist.
The charm and wisdom of the millions of Vietnamese who have thrived, from one day to the next, away from the grey city skylines of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, all of their lives, cannot be matched by any city dweller, of any age.
What is the nature of the suffering out in these rice fields?
Were a local farmer to have access to Instagram, would we then learn more about his or her anxieties, through the medium of a ‘reel’ or a series of sarcastic snapshots? Would they be blogging in such existential ways?
I think not.
The curse of some of our modern day social norms, exacerbated by social media, is the value we place on our own brands as individuals, over and above the value which we place on lifting up others.
If many of us stopped spending time – as I am doing now? – talking about all the things we’re doing, and how we are feeling and, if we reduced the hours and hours of watching others doing the same, we’d have a whole lot of fresh time back, with which to tackle Shi’s conundrum.
So, for what it’s worth, I’ve settled on a humble solution for this, which takes a leaf out of many self-help books, no doubt.
You will see, as I reveal it, a corollary with such topics as diet, exercise, health, wellbeing, and so on. The solution? It needs, surely, to be the tried and tested “little and often” approach.
It being compassion, it being thoughtfulness, it being the act of lifting others up.
If we’re happy obsessing about walking 10,000 steps a day, or committing to eating less sugar with each meal, or more fibre and less meat, or more locally sourced products, or, if we’re looking at regular stretching, meditating, reading, or even regular time not on our phones (the list here is endless) then, let’s experiment with what it looks like, and feels like, to spend more time, little and often, showing up for each other.
I’m sure plenty of ground-breaking new science is released every week that I don’t know about. New poetry, fabulous prose, faultless new musical scores. Technology and innovation this century has already whooshed past me like a bullet train.
And yet, it’s a fairly humiliating prospect to contemplate the years and years of downloadable nonsense that we’ve collectively archived, since social media first graced our tablets and our smartphones.
What a seething canon of wasted oxygen and countless hours of millions of people’s lives, trawling the murky corners of someone else’s piece-to-camera, or trolling a perfect stranger’s statement about the ennui of their day job.
How many more cats slapping the household pet dog am I going to inflict on myself? How many more troll-able opportunities am I going to deliberate?
Elon may have slowed down his purchase of Twitter for now, but the bloated price-tag of the initial sale made me sick to the core – and guilty, too.
The 10 Shaolin virtues are a good start to some sort of social purging, no question. I’m not sure you could jump off from a more solid base.
Should it be, however, a little too much to digest and embody all ten in one go (I think each one probably requires about a year of practice first) then don’t feel too deflated.
Instead, simply practice the art of connecting with your loved ones, or with someone out there who you know would welcome the chance to feel your showing up them, for a few precious moments.