Sep 04, 2008
Engagement and anxiety
A Wildmind visitor called Cory asked:
I want to keep watch on world events so that I’m not naive with regard to politics, yet remain unburdened by worry, fear, and attachment of those events which I cannot conceivably control. My question to you is, what is the way to endure when a shadow of worry or fear pervades your heart? Loving Kindness has helped, but the worry returns again and again, as does foreboding of what the future will bring.
This is an issue I struggle with myself, and not always successfully. I’ve sometimes found myself addicted to the news, especially on the web. I’ve sometimes found myself endlessly browsing news stories. When I say I was addicted I don’t mean to imply that this was destroying my life or anything, but I would spend more time than was needed just to keep up with the news.
One thing I tried doing was having a “news fast” for a couple of weeks, where all I allowed myself to do was to read the headlines and lede of news stories. So I’d look at the first page of the New York Times’ website, for example, but not go any further. That definitely helped me break out of the cycle of news-addiction that I’d been experiencing, and at the end of the fast there was much less of a sense of compulsion and anxiety about my news reading.
I found over that time that I could basically get all I really needed from just the headline and lede (the one or two sentence summing-up of a news story that accompanies the headline). The rest is really just too much detail.
People’s stress after 9/11 was proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV
You might want to think about your sources of news. The images on television news are designed to have an emotional impact. And the TV news will repeat images over and over again in order to heighten that emotional impact. They want you to be afraid and horrified and anxious so that you’ll keep tuning in to find out what’s happening next. It’s been shown that people’s levels of stress after 9/11 were directly proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV. I don’t watch TV, so I didn’t actually see the towers falling until a long time after the event. It was horrifying, and I wouldn’t want to watch it a second time. Some people saw it hundreds of times. Newspapers, on the other hand, are much less sensationalistic. The images are static. They can’t repeat as much as TV does because you’d get bored and go away. A TV news program could show you the towers falling ten times in one show and you’d watch it. A newspaper isn’t going to tell you 20 times in one story that the towers fell, and even if it did the emotional impact would be much less. Public radio news (speaking about the US here) is also much more considered and less dramatic than TV.
There’s a notion out there that you’re avoiding engagement if you’re not subjecting yourself to all this violent imagery on television; you’re “avoiding reality.” But television takes us beyond merely knowing about what’s going on and into the realm of being a victim of what’s going on. We can become traumatized and stressed by being a participant in the world’s disasters. How does that help us? I don’t think it does. I think it disempowers us.
Another meditative method I’ve found useful in disengaging when I’ve found myself overly-caught up in news-surfing is to become aware of the craving as an object of mindfulness. So I’ll be sitting there surfing the net, becoming aware that I’m in craving mode where there’s a sense of compulsion beginning to mount. And I’ll turn my attention inwards, away from the news itself and towards the feelings I have about the news. In the pit of my stomach there is a sense of anxiety and longing, and I become mindful of that feeling. I surround it with a compassionate and gentle awareness that doesn’t judge but simply holds those feelings in my attention. At that point I can feel the emotional link with the news dissolve away, and I find it’s completely painless to close my laptop. No willpower required!
When we become addicted to the news we’re being overwhelmed by it and we’re attached to it. There’s a lack of balance in our relationship with the news. We’ve lost our equanimity.
It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved.
But I think Cory’s question was perhaps less about the phenomenon of being attached to the sensory input of news than to the actual content of the news itself, “attachment of those events which (he) cannot conceivably control.”
I have a few suggestions here. The first is compassion. It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved. Instead we get sucked into anger, or pity, or anxiety. All of these emotional responses are painful and unhelpful, and rooted in ego. When we cultivate genuine compassion for those involved in the news, not taking sides — not seeing good guys and bad guys — but simply seeing the human beings involved as human beings, there’s less ego involved. This isn’t easy for me to do. I tend to take sides. I tend to see political figures whose policies I’m opposed to as being either stupid or evil. I have to remind myself that in their own eyes their actions make perfect sense.
Having compassion where there are victims and perpetrators involved can be hard too, but it’s important to remember that everyone suffers, both those causing harm and those being harmed. It’s easy to demonize wrong-doers, but we’ve all thought of doing stupid things, and it might be wise for us to remember that when we see someone who has let thoughts turn into reality.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are various conditions — often hereditary — which make it harder for some people to empathize, to imagine the consequences of their actions, and to exercise self-restraint. If someone has such a condition and hurts others, their actions are reprehensible and we need to protect ourselves against them, but perhaps we could bear in mind that there’s an involuntary component to their actions. If we don’t blame a diabetic for having a faulty pancreas, perhaps we should also refrain from blaming a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder, which involves a defect in the way the brain processes information about relationships. We still have to hold people accountable for their actions — that’s not in question — but we can refrain from wishing them harm.
When we exercise compassion, we still suffer (suffering is inevitable in life) but we suffer in a healthier way. The sense of connectedness we have when we’re compassionate has an “immunizing” effect whereby suffering is in our system but can’t harm us. The pain hurts but doesn’t harm.
This reminds me that we also need to have compassion for ourselves. When we watch or read or hear the news we’re inevitably going to experience pain, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Often we can have a sense that we’ve failed if we experience pain, and we can try to push ourselves onwards, trying to ignore it. But if we’re suffering we’re suffering. And we need to respond to our own suffering in the same way we would if we were responding to the suffering of a child or a dear friend. Rather than brushing our suffering aside we need to hold it compassionately in our awareness and send it our love. In this way we can deal with our suffering in a kindly way. It’s like when you get a cut; you’d clean the wound, take care of it, and cover it in order to prevent infection. You wouldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen or see it as a sign of failure. Similarly, with our mental pain we need to take care of it. This doesn’t mean retreating to our bedroom for a week and sulking — it’s just a question of noticing our pain and being compassionate with ourselves. We can even do this while engaged in other activities.
…we also need to have compassion for ourselves
My second suggestion is that we practice rejoicing. In the Brahmaviharas meditations we start by cultivating love, then compassion, and then “empathetic joy.” And the balance of those qualities provides the basis for experiencing equanimity, which is what’s at the heart of Cory’s question. So if you hear bad news about, say, a famine in some far-off country, we can at least rejoice that there are people bringing this to our attention. Our focus can be completely on the negative — there’s something bad going on in the world — and this can lead to us thinking that there’s nothing but bad going on in the world. The very fact that someone cares enough to report on bad news is a good thing in itself. Then there are the people who are trying to help — aid workers, emergency responders, etc. And then there are all the other people out there who care; you may not be in touch with them but you can be certain they exist. Rejoicing and compassion complement each other, and as I’ve mentioned they lead to a more balanced state of mind that we can equanimity.
Thirdly, there are indeed many things that we can’t change, so it’s maybe worth thinking about getting engaged in those things that we can change. That could be volunteering one night a week, or giving a donation to Amnesty International, or writing letters to politicians. But if we do one thing where we feel we’re making a difference, we’ll feel less alone, and we’ll feel a sense of empowerment. We may not be able to do much individually, but no individual can sort out life’s problems. However many individuals doing a small amount can do a lot of good.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.