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Encore: Many Look To Buddhism For Sanctuary From An Over-Connected World

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you go on a summer vacation, how much are you willing to truly unplug? For many of us, it can be hard to put the phone down. Reporter Jerome Socolovsky checked out a more mindful approach to interacting with devices earlier this month. He met a group turning to Buddhism to help people stop reaching for their screens.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY, BYLINE: About 15 people are seated on the floor of the All Beings Zen Sangha worship space in an apartment building in Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANTS: (Chanting in Japanese).

SOCOLOVSKY: They recite a Japanese chant known as the ten-phrase, life-prolonging Kannon Sutra and extol the teachings of the Buddhist sages.

MARK STONE: (Singing) Heart of great, perfect wisdom sutra.

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SOCOLOVSKY: And then they meditate for a full 30 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's completely silent, save for the air conditioning, until Mark Stone, one of the leaders, speaks.

STONE: If you could take out your screens, stay on them for 12 minutes doing what you usually do.

SOCOLOVSKY: During this screen-use workshop, participants stay in meditation pose while sending texts on their phones and checking in on social media. Stone, a retired economist, urges them to follow Buddhist principles such as mindfulness and intentionality when they're online. He tells them to be aware of their posture and take deep breaths. What's been really helpful for him...

STONE: ...Is, when I pick up my screens, think about my intention. Why am I doing this?

SOCOLOVSKY: He also recommends setting aside devices for phone-free meals and longer digital fasts. At the end of the 12 minutes on their devices, Stone has a request.

STONE: Anybody like to share how that was for them, to use the screen and then to sit, pause, take it all in?

CARLOS MOURA: I did notice afterwards that I really wasn't - that I was focused, but I really wasn't aware of you all. You know, it was like you weren't there (laughter) at all.

LESLIE COHEN: I just physically noticed that my head really hurt.

SOCOLOVSKY: Carlos Moura and Lesley Cohen are among the people taking part in the screen mindfulness workshop. Afterward, Cohen, a tourist from San Diego, says the chance to turn off is what brought her here.

COHEN: We were in, like, Ocean City. And just - you know, the TV was on. The kids were on their screens. And I had a moment of, like, I've got to find a place to meditate as soon as I get to Washington, D.C. (laughter).

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SOCOLOVSKY: A meditation session begins at a different Buddhist center a few miles away. Bhante Dhammasiri, who was born in Sri Lanka, is the chief monk of the Theravadic Washington Buddhist Vihara, or monastery. He's lived in this country for 32 years - long enough, he says, to watch a society become hooked on screens.

BHANTE DHAMMASIRI: What we see today is they don't live the life. They forget to live the life because they're addicted to cellphone, especially cellphones.

SOCOLOVSKY: He has a cellphone, which he says a devotee gave him, but uses it mainly for calls and as a calendar. And he likes the convenience of the flashlight. But he won't go on Facebook or other social media platforms because...

DHAMMASIRI: You are never getting satisfied. You will waste your whole precious time.

SOCOLOVSKY: These devices may promise happiness and fulfillment, but the monk says it's just an illusion. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAIB'S "CAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jerome Socolovsky is the Audio Storytelling Specialist for NPR Training. He has been a reporter and editor for more than two decades, mostly overseas. Socolovsky filed stories for NPR on bullfighting, bullet trains, the Madrid bombings and much more from Spain between 2002 and 2010. He has also been a foreign and international justice correspondent for The Associated Press, religion reporter for the Voice of America and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. He won the Religion News Association's TV reporting award in 2013 and 2014 and an honorable mention from the Association of International Broadcasters in 2011. Socolovsky speaks five languages in addition to his native Spanish and English. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduate degrees from Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a sculler and a home DIY nut.
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