A couple of years ago, I went on a silent meditation retreat after a particularly grueling period of work. I had just returned from a week at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where I was monitoring hearings for prisoners stuck in indefinite detention. It was all pretty depressing. So I’d decided to take a break. But even on retreat in the Berkshires in February, I couldn’t help checking my e-mail and news feeds. The drumbeat of bad news was continuing, and what was I doing isolating myself in the mountains?
One afternoon, Jack Kornfield, the renowned Buddhist meditation teacher who was leading the retreat, gave a talk about the importance of checking out sometimes – turning off the news and maybe listening to beautiful music or just enjoying silence for a while. While I appreciated the sentiment, I also thought to myself: “that’s fine for other people, but I have to know what’s going on for my job – and besides, how irresponsible to just cut ourselves off from the real world!”
Determined to tell Kornfield that this just wasn’t possible, I lined up to speak to him after his talk, and explained my dilemma. He smiled his wise and kindly smile, looked me in the eye and said: “you need to go on a news diet.”
Kornfield’s prescription was to cut news out of my life for 3 days a week. I listened and nodded politely, but I thought “I’ll never do that.”
I’ve thought about his advice a lot since then. I realized he was right — I needed to seriously limit the amount of time I was spending reading and listening to and watching the news. The onslaught had become toxic, and it wasn’t helping me or anyone else do anything to change it.
It’s a fine balance – between burying your head in the sand to take care of yourself, and being so alert to the problems of the world that you unwittingly bury yourself under their weight. It’s not an easy balance to find. But it’s really important.
In journalism school I had a professor who used to say “you are what you read.” She was referring to the quality of the writing, of course, but it’s equally true for the subject matter. Not surprisingly, psychologists have studied the impact of following all that bad news and found it causes major physical and psychological stress.
I think it was the Dalai Lama who pointed out that we shouldn’t be too discouraged by all the bad news we hear these days, because the fact that it’s on the news is itself a positive sign: it means it’s an event that’s unusual, and hence, newsworthy. It’s not like everyone out there is killing and raping and pillaging; and that’s why those that are make the headlines.
That might not seem like much comfort, but it’s a truism of the media that “if it bleeds it leads.” And with the 24-hour online, cable and social media news cycle, we can easily become engulfed in it. But if you immerse yourself only in the day’s headlines, you’re not experiencing “reality” any more than you would be if you immersed yourself only in the sounds of birds and waterfalls. They’re all real. It’s a question of what you want to focus on.
I’m not advocating focusing just on birds and waterfalls. Being aware of the Ebola crisis in Africa, wars in Iraq and Syria, terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and global warming all over allows us to make informed choices about how we live – and whether and how we might affect any of those situations. We can support aid or peace organizations, vote for anti-war candidates, and reduce our energy consumption, to name a few examples. But it’s also important to allow ourselves the space to rise above the bad news, to notice and seek out good things happening in the world, so we can consider alternatives and what role we want to play. Sure, our government is at war, but there also people volunteering their time to tutor people in prison, deliver meals to the homebound, or just clean up the neighborhood. And that’s inspiring.
It was on that same retreat with Jack Kornfield that I remember being struck by the thought, during a silent walking meditation in the snow, that I needed to allow more beauty into my life.
When I got home to Brooklyn, I enrolled in a life drawing class – returning to a way of honoring beauty that I’d loved when I was younger but had given up as an adult. And I eventually decided to study coaching — connecting with people in a positive way to help them discover what makes them happy and hopeful.
I rarely manage to pull off three whole days a week without news, but I’ve gotten much better at shutting it off in the evenings and on weekends. I’m also careful to not check my Facebook or Twitter news feeds too often, which can feel like another kind of assault. Sometimes, it’s important to create temporary barriers to limit the stuff bombarding us from outside in order to have enough quiet space inside to consider and make real choices: How do I want to live? Where do I want to focus my attention? And how can I really make a difference?