Beginner’s Mind: End, Beginning, Midpoint – Buddhist Economics in my Life

By Caleb Dittmar
Buddhistdoor Global | 2021-04-08 |

Beginner’s Mind is a special project from Buddhistdoor Global collecting insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning-based courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.

I would like to begin by saying that this semester has felt far too short and I am very sad to see the end of it. I had high hopes for this class at the beginning of the semester, and I feel that I haven’t had enough time to even make an honest attempt at realizing them. Yet, just as I had expected, I have come away from this class with new insights that I could not have anticipated. It is something of a cliché to say that I hope this is just the beginning, so instead I will say this: I hope that this class was a beginning, a midpoint, and an end for me. I am on many trajectories, simultaneously growing and changing in many different ways all at once. I hope that this class was the end of some of my old ways of thinking, and that whatever small ways of living in greed, hatred, and delusion I have let go of do not return. I hope that this class was a beginning and that the seeds of new insights, efforts, and virtues will grow and bear fruit in me on some a later day (sorry for the flowery language). Lastly, I hope that this class was a midpoint that connects well to the journey I have been on, and helps to guide me well toward a good path in the future. With that, let’s get into some specifics.

I came into Buddhist Economics anticipating my upcoming financial independence and struggling to find a way to palatably interact with an unjust global economy. As an undergraduate at Williams, I select my courses and then spend a lot of my time on assigned coursework, but I am reckoning with the fact that, increasingly, I will have to make more and more decisions about how to spend my time—decisions that I hope might add up to a meaningful life. So, as I have mentioned, I had high hopes for this course; I had hoped to make some serious progress on the twin challenges of how I should live my personal life and my economic life as an adult. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t figure everything out. However, I feel that I did make some progress.

Going into this class, I was very excited about the various experiential components and I was sad to not be able to participate in many of them. The biggest experiment we completed as a class was the social-media cleanse, which I’ve found has had somewhat of a delayed and unusual effect for me. Even before this class started, I wasn’t very active on social media. I didn’t think it would make much difference to me to eliminate a half-hour of Instagram each day. I deleted the apps from my phone and went about living my life, and I was mostly right. Not being on those apps didn’t make much of a difference to me. I don’t think my life would have been very different if they hadn’t been invented; nothing filled that role in our technology, and we all did our digital communications through calls, emails, and texts. What did make a difference, though, was starting a conversation about how we choose to engage with technology and our other addictions. This spurred pages of reflection in my journal centered on the topic of addiction and those things to which I have been addicted, and led me to impose further restrictions on how I use technology with the goals of forming healthier habits and exercising more control over my own actions.

I set up my phone so that it sent me reminders to stop using it if I tried to open it between 10pm and 7am. I used settings to put a 20-minute limit on mobile games, and stopped using video-streaming apps. I set my phone screen to black and white to make it less visually appealing. I consciously went places without my phone. I don’t like playing into the I-just-went-on-a-cleanse cliché, but it did feel liberating, especially when entangled with other, more spiritual practices.

Unfortunately, I discontinued a lot of these specific habits at the beginning of quarantine. Without face-to-face interactions, I am hesitant to disengage from screens for fear of becoming even more socially isolated.

Spending time thinking critically about social media and about corporate responsibilities to the world excited a new curiosity in me. As I recognized the same pattern everywhere of technologies designed to capture our attention above all else, I began asking what a different approach would look like. How could a technology company design a product that incorporated some of the values of this class? It doesn’t seem fair that choosing to interact with a technology capable of amazing things should mean exposing ourselves to something addicting and harmful. But if you tried to start a social media platform that wasn’t addicting or a search engine that didn’t run targeted ads, you would probably be drowned out by the competition. I don’t yet have a solution to propose, but the social-media cleanse was a beginning, and I intend to keep reading and experimenting on the topic.

There are pages more reflection to be done on this class and how it has affected me. I want to talk about my meditation practice and aspirations and my relationship with my material possessions. And I will. But for now, I awkwardly end this reflection. My one word for this course is midpoint in the sense that I used it in my introduction, because I want to see clearly how my previous learning has led to this course and how this course connects also to my future endeavors.

With metta.

Caleb Dittmar wrote this essay for his course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Caleb is a member of the class of 2023 and loves trail running, logic puzzles, and Walt Whitman’s poetry. He plans to double-major in English and Computer Science.

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