Time Out

imagesI’ve written almost nothing on this blog since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Partly I think it’s because I’ve been so outwardly focused – fixated on the daily, minute-by-minute news of the disturbing, twisted, often absurd machinations of this new administration that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think much. When I have, usually because all my anger and frustration has exhausted me, what surfaces is primarily a sense of defeat, resignation, and depression.

The other reason I’m not writing is because I’ve been seeing the world around me as rapidly deteriorating, so everything else seems trivial. I just haven’t been able to muster the energy to think of something positive or hopeful or encouraging to write about. And nobody needs more bad news to read. There’s plenty of that available already.

Of course, when I do stop to think about it, I’m not actually seeing the world deteriorate.  I’m reading, watching and hearing about it. It’s the focus of the news, of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, of ordinary conversation with friends, neighbors and colleagues.

What I’m actually seeing on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed that much — except maybe the buds bursting up in February or the snowstorms in mid-March, which were definitely disturbing.  Still, most of what I’m seeing is exactly the same as what I saw when Barack Obama was president:  the same buildings and trees outside my window, the same people and dogs on the street, save for a new baby or puppy that’s recently arrived. My physical and visual world, my own life circumstances, haven’t really changed much.

Of course, lots of other peoples lives have changed, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants or Muslim, and I recognize that I’ve been shielded from the immediate effects of Trump’s policy changes by my relative social privilege.

Still, it’s amazing how much our consciousness and sense of the world and of ourselves in it can change based on what we’re reading, watching or listening to: the material our minds consume.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can access news from all over the world in such an up-to-the-minute way and know what our government, for example, is doing. On the other hand, having that option can really take us away from ourselves, what we want and care about, and from doing the things and living our lives in ways consistent with that.

In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”

As the Buddha taught, what we frequently dwell upon determines the shape of our mind.

Many of us can’t just turn off the news, of course, and I don’t think we should.  We need to know what’s happening in our political system, and the real consequences it has for millions of people, and for the entire planet, to even begin to try to change it. But taking time to reconnect with ourselves is also key to staying in touch with what’s important to us and to recognizing our own inner strength and resources, despite the mayhem in the political world.  It’s also key to refueling — we need to re-connect with a sense of peace, with joy, with beauty, in order to replenish the energy it takes to continue fighting against these larger forces that threaten to overtake our better natures.

In Harper’s this month, Walter Kirn writes of driving from Western Montana to Las Vegas, without looking at or listening to the news the entire time. He finds it eye-opening, revitalizing, and oddly political: “In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

I learned recently of the death of an acquaintance, someone I knew slightly but not well, and it struck me that even in our occasional encounters, he had touched me deeply.  I remember him as open, kind, gentle and wise — all qualities I admire, and would like to have more of.

We don’t tend to think about it, but we influence other people all the time, through even our most ordinary interactions. Taking time away from the public drama to reconnect with ourselves seems key to understanding that, and to reminding us that we can choose how we relate to the world. And that’s really the only way we can even attempt to leave our best impression on it.

Should You Go on a News Diet?

image_83A 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. images

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?