Not watching the news as a spiritual practice


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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Jon Kabat-Zinn gives advice for unhappy news junkies

wildmind meditation news

Jon Brooks: Jon Kabat-Zinn was on KQED Radio’s Forum show on Tuesday, talking about his latest book, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the founder of the school’s stress reduction clinic, which uses “mindfulness-based” techniques to alleviate stress. He is also the author of two bestselling books on mindfulness, which is defined by the clinic as “a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.”

After his appearance on KQED Radio, I took the opportunity to talk to Kabat-Zinn about a topic of personal relevance to me: How do you keep from being negatively affected by the news? He said a lot of really good stuff before recommending, among other things, taking a “news fast,” where you don’t read, listen to, or watch the news. At which point I remembered what I did for a living and had him escorted out by security.

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Jon Brooks

There’s been a lot of bad news in recent years with the economy decimated and unemployment high and budget cuts. For consumers of news who find themselves overly affected by negative reports, what can they do in terms of mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

If they’re very affected by it and negatively affected by it, what mindfulness would suggest is that you start to look at that and actually experience how you’re being affected by it. How it’s affecting your body, how it’s affecting the rest of your day, how much of your time are you spending consuming the news. That’s the word that’s often used; we consume the news, we eat it up. And it often consumes us; just the way tuberculosis was often called consumption. So in a way it’s a certain kind of disease process.

Why do we have to know all of that? And how much do we have to know it and in how much detail? And then why do we repeat it or read three newspapers or read the same newspaper three times and then read it on your iPad or iPhone? And maybe if it’s really having a negative affect on you, one might entertain the notion quite seriously of just for a couple of weeks taking a news fast and not doing it at all.

First of all you’ll have so much more time, and second of all real life still unfolds. You will still have a full life. And if you’re unemployed and you have to find a job then maybe you won’t be so bummed out that all the possibilities seem against you. You can tap into what’s possible, independent of what all the experts are saying is possible. That’s a hugely powerful way to work with things.

So one way is to just cut it out for a period of time and see how addicted we are to it and what the affect of it is. I had that experience once when I went on retreat right after 9/11. I was on retreat for six weeks, no newspaper, no radio, no nothing. I was just meditating and sitting and walking all the time for six weeks.

When I came out we were at war in Afghanistan and this and that, but the fact of the matter is that if you do a news fast for any stretch of time, the French have this old saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they’re the same. You can miss six weeks of the news, and it’s like almost any six weeks of the news will replace any other six weeks. The same maniacs are saying the same stupid things over and over again and they’re being decoded by all the pundits and everybody’s got something to say and a lot of it is just totally empty.

And the good news that there is in the newspaper — that often doesn’t get much air time. There’s an enormous amount of good news -– you can actually start to read some of the good things that are happening, or emphasize them.

The other thing to do is to bring mindfulness to reading the newspaper or listening to the news. And notice how easy it is to get addicted to it, and how passive a process it is, and how in some sense disempowering. And that awareness is actually in itself empowering. And how you choose to be in relationship to it is of course part of the repertoire of life decisions each of us must make moment by moment and day by day.

I bought a newspaper this morning to get on BART. At a certain point I just left it on BART because I wanted to walk down the street without a newspaper under my arms. I wanted to not go back to it if I had 10 minutes to — quote unquote — kill. You don’t have ten minutes to kill; no one has ten minutes to kill. Because those moments are irretrievable and they’re your life in those 10 minutes. So how about feeling the air as you walk down the street, how about noticing the light, noticing the quality of emotion on other people’s faces or the buildings if you happen to be in the city.

And in all those ways you’re reclaiming moments of your life, as opposed to in some sense pissing them away by absorbing something that has no direct relationship to your life at all.

Jon Brooks

You mention being empowered. One thing I find is that when I read the news is I get upset because I feel powerless — I have no control over these world-changing events that can affect my life, and that makes me frustrated and mad.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

I sympathize with and understand that. It can be quite depressing and anxiety-inducing. But for the most part it doesn’t lead to any satisfactory way to take a stand. Sometimes it does – this Occupy movement for instance. People actually saying we are fed up. And the news media very often, until you have thousands of people in the street disrupting things, doesn’t call a spade a spade. But when you have a meme like the 99% — we can be frustrated but we can also feel empowered. There are ways to actually bring awareness to how much we disempower ourselves and then blame it on the media.

I have to say, I read the newspaper a lot, I watch cable news from time to time. Because I want to see what other people are saying about something; it’s like taking the pulse of the nation. When I can hear people giving very different perspectives on things, it reminds me that no one has a monopoly on the truth. And everyone’s citing it from a different coordinate system, and it’s up to me to synthesize from moment to moment what I think is actually going on.

But to a large extent, the way society changes is when we no longer accept the consensus reality and say no, I’m a citizen, my reality is going to be the reality, I’m going to inhabit it and then take action in the social domain and exercise my rights of citizenship.

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Audio: Jon Kabat-Zinn on people negatively affected by the news

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News of selfless acts has positive effect: study

Good news begets better people.

That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of “moral identity” were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans’ selfless acts.

According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.

He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.

“Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people,” said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

“The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen’s recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour.”

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.

“These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness,” Aquino said in an interview. “We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we’re talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.

“Acts that require enormous…

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sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others.”

Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.

However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.

The second story recounted a couples’ experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.

Those exposed to the story of the Amish community’s uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.

In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you’d typically expect.

Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it’s described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.

A second group was shown McLachlan’s Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.

Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.

“It’s a group of people that generally wouldn’t evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you’re presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help.”

Media role
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.

“Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation,” he said.

Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.

“Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful,” said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. “There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others.”

People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.

“These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts,” he said.

Aquino said he didn’t know if a person’s culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem “virtuous.”

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Is This Your Brain on God?

National Public Radio: “More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.” Read more here.

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