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Not watching the news as a spiritual practice

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Yesterday morning, on Google+ (my social network of choice) I shared a newspaper article by novelist Rolf Dobelli, called News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.

The lede of the article is “News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.” That’s the story in a nutshell.

Coincidentally, I’d just decided to go on a news fast. I’d been lamenting that I don’t have enough time to read books these days, and yet I commonly spend 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, and a similar amount of time dotted around the rest of the day, reading news articles and commentary. I tend to gravitate more to the commentary since this offers more of a analytical perspective — not just what the news is, but what it means.

Thinking about this, I realized that it’s not that I don’t have time to read books, but I’m choosing to do other things. So it seemed like it would be a good move to drop my news reading and to devote that time to more rewarding and productive activities. And so far that’s been great. I got half-way through a novel in the past week. And I’ve started reading On Intelligence, which Brendan wrote about a few days ago. (It’s a great article, by the way. Do read it.)

And I should say right here that I don’t have a television, and don’t watch news. The most I do is to read it. This is relevant, because not long after I posted the article by Dobelli, I heard the news that there had been a bombing at the Boston marathon. I got as far as skim-reading one article about this tragedy, and then remembered my news fast. The news was disturbing. Boston is close to home for me, and I probably know people who were running in the marathon.

The bombing comes four days into Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness, which is a way of consciously focusing on love and compassion. So yesterday I did lovingkindness as I walked to work and as I walked home. I felt very buoyant in the morning, and just a little less so in the afternoon. But I felt fine. A little sobered by the news, but basically OK.

And then I started encountering people who had been watching the news on TV. I could recognize them. They looked collapsed, shrunken, defeated. They looked haunted. I was reminded of the reports I’d read that levels of PTSD after 9/11 were directly correlated to how many times people had watched the towers collapse. The same footage, over and over again.

I started to pick up some of this haunted feeling myself, just by seeing and talking to my neighbors. I did a meditation in the evening called the karuna bhavana (development of compassion) and it was curiously flat. I was cultivating compassion for those affected by the tragedy, and for those who perpetrated it (I want to see them brought to justice, but I refuse to hate them). But the meditation felt a bit lifeless. That’s OK, though. It’s just how it was. But it felt not so much like the event itself was rolling through me, but that the toxic media coverage was seeping into me. It was like second-hand smoking for the mind.

I talked to one neighbor about how in times past it might have taken days or weeks for news like this to have reached us. And when we did hear about it we might literally have heard it in the form of a story delivered orally, or perhaps we might have read about it in a newspaper report. But there would have been no images. Now people’s consciousness is on the front lines. I haven’t watched any of the footage, but I know some of it features the explosions themselves, and bloodied bodies. I find it’s enough for me to know that a tragedy happened. I don’t need to see the severed limbs. Our minds don’t respond well to being on the front line of tragedy, day after day after day.

The news gives us a false sense of power, as if watching it will somehow protect us from events. But I remember the first few times I went abroad in countries where I could basically scrape by in the language for day to day purposes, but didn’t have a chance of understanding the details of a news broadcast. I worried that I’d miss something big. But returning home after two weeks it was as if I’d never been away at all. I hadn’t really missed anything. Not anything that directly affected my day-to-day life.

And in fact Dobelli makes the point that the news disables us. It fills us with anxiety.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

Dobelli uses the word “desensitization” and I think I see that. When I visit houses where the TV is always on, I’m shocked to see children (my children!) playing in the living room while a newsreader revels in the gory details of some murder-dismemberment. Would you talk to a five year old about such a thing? Why let a stranger do it? And yet this goes on in many, many households. I ask for the TV to be turned off.

I hear an objection: that I’m being overly detached by not watching or reading the news about a tragedy like this. You’ll have to take my word for it that I care. As I said above, until recently technology would have kept my awareness of such an event much more muted. Just because technology gives me an invitation to a ring-side seat at the carnage, I don’t see why I have to accept it. I choose not to attend, because I don’t want to “connect” in fear and horror. I’ll save my energies for being as loving and compassionate as I can, with the limited resources at my disposal.

And no, I’m not criticizing anyone who watches the news. I just invite you to consider that it is a choice: that you have a choice. I invite you to become aware of the toxic effect of watching TV news, and of the time-wasting effect even of reading it. The only way to do this, of course, is to stop, at least temporarily. Some people will panic at the very thought, which really makes my point for me.

Yesterday was a heckuva day to give up reading the news. But in a way it’s a good test. I’m going to continue testing out the hypothesis that news is bad for you, and that giving up reading it will make me happier. Just based on yesterdays events, I believe that’s true.


Update: Here’s a great comment from Facebook.

There is a big difference between “turning a blind eye” or not caring, and this approach in which you do not traumatize yourself through repeated watching of violent events, and anxiety-driven reporting. Not watching the mainstream news constantly does not equal being uninformed!

I absolutely agree.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Mary Sherman
Time: April 16, 2013, 4:14 pm

Thanks so much for this timely read. I can’t agree more. I’ve had a quote ringing round my head for months now, I think Wayne Dyer…”you can never make yourself feel bad enough to help someone else better.” And thanks for sharing the practices to help support us through these times.
Metta,
Mary

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Comment from Andy
Time: April 16, 2013, 5:40 pm

Totally agree. You make the case eloquently. “Second-hand smoking for the mind” captures it neatly.

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Comment from Adrian
Time: April 16, 2013, 5:53 pm

I think this is a good well written article, and I couldn’t agree more.
Bad news sells, with the news editors maxim ‘if it bleeds it leads’ . I am cynical, I put it crudely No matter how well the food (media) is prepared , or how slick the presentation, if it looks like Sh++ and smells like it . take my advice , dont eat it.
I do care , I feel helpless, hopeless in a fountain of filth !! (the TV) !!. and that’s not a positive place to be, I want to be strong for me and my family and be as positive person I can.
Beware the media can rob you of that !

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Comment from Mandy
Time: April 17, 2013, 3:42 am

I agree wholeheartedly. As someone whose anxiety easily gets out of control, I have to be careful about the adrenalin raising tendency of the news, and also alarmist TV documentaries here in the UK, shown with pulse-raising music. One thing I’ve found helpful is to read news on my mobile phone, using a Reuters app. You can choose what you want to read, and balance the scary stuff with positive stories (often the science/natural world ones). Plus the fact it is reduced to such a small size on a tiny screen seems to help!

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Comment from Phil
Time: April 17, 2013, 8:17 am

Remember that television is first and foremost a visual entertainment medium, so of all the numerous tragedies that happen around the world every day the ones that end up as news stories tend (unfortunately) to be those accompanied by dramatic pieces of film.
We should bear in mind that all of our lives we are ignoring most of the misery in the world; tragedies aren’t generally made worse by being on television, nor made better by not being on television.
Television shouldn’t be the arbiter of what we care about.

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Comment from Vernon Crumrine
Time: April 19, 2013, 3:17 pm

What you’ve said here is what I’ve tried to articulate in this poem I wrote just this morning. Interesting that many people must be thinking in much the same way…

Icarian

Enchantment with these terrible tremors
that are shaking not the ground we walk on
but rather our common sensibilities of truth

is much like looking directly into the sun;
prohibitively dangerous and ill-advised
for more than just the briefest of moments

for honoring this siren call of sensationalized
fear can often cause our own private world to
suffer needlessly, making us pay a high price

of admission to these spectacular side-shows;
pushing even reason itself to momentarily rock
uncertainly upon its already wobbly axis

leading us to desperately race to draw the
mottled curtains together and block out
the white light of reality

as all the while we insistently, furiously
focus upon diligently trying to still color only
within the defined lines of tradition

These are distractions all and they keep us
from the important business of finishing our own
stories; all because of someone else’s chaos.

-Vernon Crumrine

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Pingback from Poem a Day Day 18 | Life as a Writer and Artist
Time: April 19, 2013, 4:33 pm

[...] Here’s a link for a little Buddhist meditation on compassion and ignoring media hype.  Or at least not letting it in so deeply that it takes over the spirit. http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/not-watching-the-news-as-a-spiritual-practice [...]

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Comment from Joseph Marchione
Time: April 20, 2013, 8:46 am

The desire to protect one’s self, psyche, and heart is understandable. And it’s true: technology combined with a 24-hour news cycle — driven by the profit motive — has created news addiction, and we must be conscious and conscientious of our addictions and their ability to stunt our growth. Everyone must decide for him- or herself how much time and attention they can afford to “news.”

But I’m concerned about sentiments and beliefs that are mirrored in the last stanza of Mr. Crumrine’s poem:

“These are distractions all and they keep us
from the important business of finishing our own
stories; all because of someone else’s chaos.”

Because it isn’t someone else’s chaos. It’s our story.

We are one, of one spirit. To consider others’ trials and troubles not our own is to ignore this higher reality. The delusion of separatism is what causes much of the chaos we see on the news.

I would posit that a potentially more productive — and evolutionary — spiritual practice would be to reflect on the chaos and ponder what motivates that part of our self to create it. Once we name a problem, we can alleviate it. With understanding, we can grow past it.

Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha, who only came to awakening once he meditated on the sufferings of the world, might consider this a middle way.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 21, 2013, 10:21 am

I have to say I have no particular desire to “reflect on the chaos.” There’s a lot of “chaos” out there. How much of it am I going to reflect on? Should I be seeking out more “chaos”? I was very aware of the “chaos” in Boston recently, because I’m in contact with people living there, and I’ll reflect on it to the extent that I’m aware people are suffering and I feel care and concern for them. But I’m not going to read or watch the news about it. And I don’t see that the poem was suggesting that we shouldn’t do this. It was presented in the context of an article about not indulging in the media, after all, and that’s presumably how it should be read, not as a suggestion that we ignore suffering.

It occurred to me that the Buddha was well aware of the suffering around him, but I see no evidence that he decided to immerse himself it. Instead he focused mainly on how the mind works, in order to understand how to eradicate his own suffering — not, obviously as a selfish act, but more, as he put it in a simile, as a way of getting out of quicksand in order to be able to give people a helping hand so that they could likewise extricate themselves.

The best example I can see of the Buddha’s attitude to “the news” is how he describes suitable and unsuitable topics for discussion:

Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.

I think many of these topics could well be summed up in the word “news” or by the words “current affairs.” And I’d argue that watching TV or reading the newspapers is a form of (very passive) “conversation.” So the Buddha did not encourage us to dwell on such things, and I don’t think he would be encouraging people to watch CNN to keep up with the latest goings-on — certainly not for monks and nuns. Those of us who aren’t monastics have to draw the line somewhere. It seems to me you’re saying on the one hand “Everyone must decide for him – or herself how much time and attention they can afford to ‘news’” but on the other hand being prescriptive about what degree of attention is acceptable.

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Comment from Vernon Crumrine
Time: April 21, 2013, 10:56 am

There are several words and phrases from “Icarian” that I wanted to note in response to Mr. Marchione’s comments. And these are: “Enchantment with… honoring this siren call of sensationalized fear… side shows…block out the white light of reality.”

These are the “distractions all” to which I refer in the last stanza of the poem. And it is “ill-advised”, in my opinion, to focus for too long upon these fears that are being fed by repeated views of strategic moments designed primarily for the purpose of TV and News ratings. Because repeatedly concentrating on a few such graphic scenes, I think, can effectively immobilize both our bodies and our minds.

What I saw in Boston, beyond the obvious, however, was the onrush of a relatively few people who ignored fear for the moment and concentrated on what needed to be done. They had, I believe, “name(d) the problem” and were working on behalf of our oneness of spirit to alleviate it.

Of course, not everyone understands the concept of universality of spirit. Not everyone is capable of running toward chaos; the majority of humanity, in fact, tends instead to run from it. This is true, I think, both in the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Our oneness of spirit, then, is not in dispute as I see it. I do fully understand that one could read separatism into that last stanza. But at the same time I believe someone else would likely find that the phrase “all because of someone else’s chaos” involves simply being able to set aside the sensational distractions and fears of the moment and then getting on with the business at hand.

What is truly productive at such times as we’ve recently experienced is not becoming polarized by fear, but being motivated to do the best that we can so we can all move on. So “finishing our own stories” involves not meant to be a self-centered view of what has occurred and repeatedly viewing the carnage, but rather an understanding what needs to be done and then doing it.

That might be physically proceeding to help those who have been injured. It might be instead simply recognizing we need to tell people we know how important they are to us. In any event, the actions we choose to take should indeed be for the benefit of the one spirit that joins us all. The “white light of reality” that I speak of is in “Icarian” is in fact that middle way the Buddha spoke of.

One final note. I should point out that I was speaking not only of the bombings that occurred at the Boston Marathon, but also more locally of the explosions that occurred later in the week in West, Texas, about 80 miles from my home. The same thing may be said of the tendency of the media to focus upon the tragic events of the day. But then at the same time there was also overwhelming evidence of people who either directly or indirectly did indeed realize the concept of our oneness. Finishing their own stories in that particular context came to mean giving up their lives for the benefit of others.

Thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough comments. I truly appreciate it.

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Comment from Glen Zorn
Time: April 22, 2013, 2:09 am

I quit the news about 25 years ago & it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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Comment from Phil
Time: April 22, 2013, 8:22 am

This seems relevant to the debate. Ironic (and very honest of the newspaper) that it appears on a newspaper website

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 22, 2013, 12:55 pm

Hi, Phil. That article is indeed very relevant, since it’s the one I discuss throughout the article above :) — including in the first sentence…

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Comment from Phil
Time: May 5, 2013, 2:40 pm

Oops. Sorry about that Bodhipaksa. I overlooked the link. No wonder it seemed so relevant.

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