Social networks can be understood in two basic ways – sociocentric or egocentric. In the first way, the focus is on looking at an entire collection of people and how they are connected. The focus can be on how well connected the group is, or how healthy the connections are within the group. The second way, the egocentric way, is to analyze a network as it relates to any one individual; who he or she is connected to, and how many. The focus here is on how well a person’s connections help them achieve their goals – how much benefit they can extract out of their networks, as it were. These two ways of thinking about social networks were developed by the 1930’s.
Our digital environment, coming years later, clearly favors one way over the other. The digital environment places great emphasis on individual networking. When we think social network we are thinking about “my” or “your” social network…not “our”. We own our social network and it is designed to benefit us.
The social media has been coded that way. It is entirely possible that social networking sites could have been coded such that they connected groups instead of individuals. Think – you could have lived in a world where you register with your families account, or your schools, or city’s. That was certainly possible. But instead when you join a social network it is all about you – your posts, your likes, your friends.
In somewhat of a paradox, the social network brings us together while allowing us to stay apart (the premise behind Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together). It is also the reason why most people prefer to text or email than talk on the phone – they can communicate without the burden of emotion and connection with others. Ultimately, social media allows us to extract as much as we can from others, without giving of ourselves. We use others as tools to satisfy our own urges. Scientists can explore social networks sociocentrically, but most people will understand it as egocentric.
The egocentric social network is a nice complement to our post-industrial times. We live in an age of abundance, where concerning oneself with the group is no longer needed. You don’t need the direct help of others to satisfy your most basic genetic drives any more. Someone with a reasonable income can purchase any number of gadgets and contraptions to allow herself to not ask anyone for help. To be sure, we are dealing with a hollowing out of our middle class in the US – but make no mistake, this feeling of not making it is based upon an elevated standard of consumption and acquisition. The US’s poor are doing about as well as some other countries’ middle classes. This is mainly due to abundance – we have produced so much wealth as a society that government has been able to tax and build strong social safety nets and support systems. Thus, up and down the class structure, people have access to computers, the Internet…and yes, social networks.
The Growth of Meditation in the US
OK. So now I am going to try and make a connection between social networks and Buddhist philosophy. Bear with me…
Western society has moved steadily away from group oriented practices (the now-hackneyed phrase “we are bowling alone” from Robert Putnam’s famous research is apropo here). We don’t join. No clubs, no organized religions, no civic organizations. We are egocentric, participating in activities that benefit us the most, ignoring activities that are group oriented.
Mediation fits right in here. It is the perfect go it alone activity. Data is scant, but all indications point to a rise in meditation. A 2007 national survey found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months—compared with 7.6 percent in a similar survey conducted in 2002.
With all this emphasis on meditation, we forget where that practice comes from. Recently I went to watch a documentary on Buddhism’s spread in the West called When the Iron Bird Flies. All in all it was a fine documentary, showing how the spread of Buddhism in the West was catalyzed by China’s takeover of Tibet and the exodus of Tibetan monks. After the documentary, there was a talk led by two Buddhist teachers and a local academic.
From Egocentric to Sociocentric Thinking
During the movie and the subsequent discussion I was struck by the emphasis on the benefits of meditation. The idea is that your brain is forever plastic (neuroplasticity) and that meditation can help you mold your brain into an organ that is more aware, more calm, and ultimately more powerful. I can recall scenes in the movie of a monk having all kinds of sensors stuck on his head being rolled into an MRI machine. In the post-viewing discussion, a nurse began extolling the positive benefits of meditation for health and life. I have no reason to doubt the evidence, and in fact it is nice to know this. Maybe one day when I can settle down I can meditate more and get some of the benefits too.
But Buddhism is a lot of things, not least of which is the understanding of what causes suffering and how to end it (the four noble truths), and how to go about living one’s life (the eightfold path). Meditation is, in my mind, an integral component of Buddhism. But finally it is only a component.
Practitioners of meditation use it as a way to help them extract as much as they can from their world – their post-industrial, egocentric, social networked world. It calms them. It makes them more aware of when the urges of the brain are pulling them to and fro needlessly. Meditation benefits them not unlike the Atkins diet. Or pomegranate juice. Or yoga.
I am discouraged by this. Meditation becomes just one of an array of self-help devices people in abundance use to make sense of their world, and this degrades the practice to me. My understanding has been that meditation is a part of the whole, and that whole is equal parts self gratification, and compassion to others. One must start with the self of course, but ultimately living in this world requires orienting oneself to others.
The power of Buddhist philosophy is that it provides a framework that can guide people in this age where we are free from material concerns. That’s right – the religion that glorifies the humble monk shuffling from one house to the next asking for rice, is the ideal belief system for our times. We can no longer derive happiness from meeting life’s necessities. Instead we have to find new ways of managing our day. Instead of feverishly trying to satisfy our wants, we can invest that energy into trying to understand what is causing suffering in others, and extending compassion and kindness at all times.
Extending loving kindness to others is a difficult task, but in endeavoring to complete it, one stumbles upon happiness. By extending loving-kindness to others around you, you reorient yourself from that egocentric network to one that is sociocentric. You are free from the burdens of trying to manipulate every social connection in your favor. You are free from thinking so much about how others in your network see you. Instead, you work towards making others suffer less.
The key to happiness in this age of bit and bytes, is to meditate not to improve oneself, but to improve one’s ability to help others.