The Dalai Lama on Tweeting – Applying Mindfulness to Social Media

By now, the story is a well-recited one in Buddhist, meditation and mindfulness communities in the West. At a 1990 conference in Dharamsala, Sharon Salzberg, the initiator of the now famous interaction with the Dalai Lama, asked the question, ‘What do you think about self-hatred?’.

The Dalai Lama, less proficient in English than today, had a few exchanges with his translator in attempt to understand. Perhaps it was the exact wording of the idea which did not translate, or it was – as we like to believe – a truly foreign concept to him.

How does it feel to have no concept of self-hatred or self-criticism?

When we are prone to frequent assaults of self-criticism, we create a negative feedback loop. We internalize others’ opinions of ourselves (e.g. as a result of discrimination, childhood experiences, baseline low self-esteem), and by allowing conscious or unconscious self-oppression and negative self-talk to go unchecked, we fortify our perhaps already unstable opinion of ourselves.

That the notion of self-criticism – in any of its forms – cannot be grasped, gives us something to aspire toward (or conversely, it may spur a more fervent self-hatred by way of intense envy). If self-criticism sat on a spectrum, then we in the West sit on one extreme end while the Dalai Lama sits on the other. How do we begin to reconcile this gap?

The Dalai Lama joined Twitter in 2009 – now with 12.6 million followers – and has been sharing photos on Instagram since 2014. When asked ‘Do Facebook and Twitter help or hurt our happiness?’ in a 2014 Dalai Lama interview with TIME magazine, his response was consistent with the Buddhist view of the the Middle Way – a path of moderation between sensual indulgence and self-mortification.

It depends on how you use them. If the person, himself or herself, has a certain inner strength, a certain confidence, then it is no problem. But if an individual’s mind is weak, then there is more confusion. You can’t blame technology.

What exactly is a certain inner strength? As an audience to our friends’ lives via social media – photos, videos, captions and hashtags – we cannot help but reflect back on ourselves. Call it competitiveness, motivation, envy, or the desire to keep up with the Jones’ – it’s natural. But natural is not analogous to good when it comes to human emotions, and particularly when it comes to acting on those emotions.

Matthieu Ricard, in his Difficult Emotions sound byte on DIY Dharma, emphasizes the importance of recognizing our unique temperaments while not being at the mercy of our emotions, particularly strong emotions such as anger.

To resign ourselves to our baseline temperament creates the perfect breeding ground for self-criticism. We continue to allow our emotions to drag us through negative and often painful experiences time and time again, with a feeling of helplessness. We debase ourselves and as Matthieu explains, we give up the race before crossing the starting line.

On the other hand, non-acceptance of our quirks and foibles can also breed another kind of self-criticism which tells us we’re never quite good enough. It’s a seemingly lose-lose situation.

If we reconstruct ourselves bottom-up – a pared down version of ourselves without factoring in other people’s opinion of us, or our opinion of ourselves which we’ve developed over a lifetime of experiences – then what remains? As children, most of us started this way: filled with exuberance, with confidence. It was not the encouraging voice in our head providing confidence, but the distinct absence of a negative voice blocking our way.

Inner strength relates in part to cultivation of mindfulness and being able to take note of emotions without absorbing them. It is notable that so-called positive emotions are to be regulated in the same way that negative emotions require monitoring. For example, your friend, with whom you have always had a competitive relationship, is giving you a tour of his new apartment. Your first thought is: it’s so small and he is paying way too much. My place is much better than this. These emotions are masked as positive emotions initially since the final sentiment has you feeling pretty good about your situation.

Mindfulness extracts us from the treacherous waters which have us generate unchecked emotions. The point isn’t to push them out, but to actively observe and not accept them as part of our inherent self. As Dr. Rick Hanson so articulately stated,

‘Mindfulness is a quality of increased dis-identification from the inner movie.’ 1

1 Stated in a discussion with Michael Taft on the meaning of mindfulness in the Foundations of Well-Being course


1997 Dalai Lama; Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective