When it comes to news and public affairs, we live in wild times. It doesn’t matter who you voted for last November or which party you affiliate with. The fact is that this moment in history places a unique set of challenges on those of us seeking to cultivate mindfulness.
Consider our story. Following the 2016 Presidential Election, Nate noticed that tracking the news became a near addiction: “I woke up each morning with an irresistible urge to view the latest headlines. During short two-minute breaks in my day, I would reach for my phone to scan through breaking news updates. Even though the news left me feeling anxious, I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Eric’s relationship to the news took on a similarly habitual form: “I generally don’t watch a lot of TV and yet for the few months leading up to President Trump’s inauguration and immediately following it, I became a news junkie. What’s more, I thought and talked about the most mundane details of the day’s news incessantly.” Both of us noticed that the latest tweet or controversy not only took over our conversations with friends, family, and co-workers. It also started taking over our minds, becoming the ever-present theme of our mental chatter.
We didn’t notice the gravity of the situation until we went on our annual silent meditation retreat in late March. During our time away, we shut off our devices and practiced open awareness meditation in the hills of Southern California. During this time, a political firestorm erupted in Washington DC over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And yet the contrast between our pre-retreat news-addictive behavior with the more centered experience of just sitting and being was striking. On retreat, we both felt a profound feeling of peace and freedom that resulted from being insulated from the political chatter. Our minds were able to focus on the sound of the breeze, the clouds, and the trees – to experience raw presence without the filters of TV news and social media.
When we broke silence at the end of the retreat, we enthusiastically shared the unexpected benefit of having taken a news holiday. What was particularly fascinating (and somewhat humorous) was that we hadn’t fully appreciated the severity of our pre-retreat news addiction.
This experience left us asking a question that many of us are confronting in this age: how can we remain active and engaged in politics and society while staying mindful of the present moment and steering clear of news addiction?
There are two obvious but undesirable approaches to answering this question. The first is cultural isolation. We could try to turn all of life into a silent retreat, hiding away from the latest news to maintain peace of mind. In our busy and engaged modern world, this strategy of escapism and non-doing does not lead to a lasting state of happiness.
As with all mindfulness practice, the key to experiencing the benefits of these news-based practices is to turn these tools into daily habits.
The other extreme would be to let the base desires fueling this news addiction run free – to itch each scratch of novelty-seeking behavior by giving ourselves unfettered access to cable news, political blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, day and night. This strategy also leads to a dead end because the mind state that accompanies news addiction tends to drown out the experience of being here now.
So what’s the mindful way forward? The middle way.
But what’s the middle way in this situation? Here, it’s helpful to turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson for timeless wisdom: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Avoid dropping out or mindlessly following the crowd, says Emerson. Stay informed, stay active in world affairs but do so using skillful means – watching these addictive desires closely and creating new habits that merge mindfulness with the political turmoil of the day.
Since our late March silent retreat, we have used our own lives as a laboratory for testing out such skillful means, and we’ve identified a few powerful approaches for finding the middle way of news.
1. The News Diet
The phrase “news fasting” has become increasingly popular these days. An occasional fast from the day’s events can have profound benefits. But as a permanent strategy, this method risks leading back to into the territory of cultural isolation. We’ve found news dieting to be a better, more sustainable, approach.
Here’s the basic strategy: make an intentional choice about how much news you want to consume each week. For instance, we have decided to only consume the news one day each week. We subscribe to The Week, which offers a detailed run down of all the week’s events. We also read the Sunday newspaper and watch a Sunday morning news show. And, of course, when major news breaks, we hear about it from our friends and family.
Once a week may be too radical. So you might consider starting with once each day. The key is to set a reasonable goal and then hold yourself accountable.
There’s also one small twist to the news diet. If you fear that news dieting might lead to political inaction, take the time you would normally spend watching or reading about political news each day and use it for political action.
2. A News Meditation
Regulating your consumption of news is a great first step. But, in our experience, there is also an opportunity to further your mindfulness practice by bringing present moment awareness to the act of consuming news itself. We call this “news meditation.” It’s the practice of cultivating awareness of the emotions and thoughts that surface while learning about the latest tweet or witnessing an angry partisan exchange. This not only comes in handy while watching the news but also when you encounter heated political discussion between friends, family members, and colleagues.
The approach is based on the strategy of Notice-Shift-Rewire. Notice the moment you begin shifting your attention to news or political discussion. Notice any judgements that your mind is making: “this is bad” or “this should not have happened.” Take a couple deep breaths. Then Shift your attention to a mindset of non-judgmental witnessing. Think of the reported events like thoughts passing in the mind. The practice here is to simply watch them come and go without getting caught. Then Rewire by appreciating the experience of viewing the political news from this bigger, much more interesting perspective.
3. A News Inquiry
Now for the last and most radical practice. You probably know about the power of questioning your stressful thoughts. This practice of inquiry can be found in the dialogues of Socrates, and even in modern cognitive behavioral therapy. The big idea here is that when you question your stressful thoughts – asking “is it true?” – or when you turn around the beliefs you see as true, you shift to a bigger perspective and feel greater peace and openness.
Here’s the radical part. When you feel anger or irritation at the day’s news, see what happens when you inquire and turn your underlying judgements and beliefs around to their opposites. For instance, if you find yourself thinking that the opposite party is destroying democracy, consider the opposite of this belief: how is the opposite party creating conditions that might actually strengthen the democratic process? Or, even more provocative, how is my party undermining democracy? With inquiry, the goal isn’t to reject facts, evidence, or reality. The goal is to keep an open mind – to avoid the kind of ideological intolerance that pervades the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum.
As with all mindfulness practice, the key to experiencing the benefits of these news-based practices is to turn these tools into daily habits. We know firsthand, the benefit of sharing our explorations of overcoming news addiction with each other. Our conversations about using Notice-Shift-Rewire to change our experience of each day’s political events were part of what helped us stick to the habit. We’d like to extend an invitation to you, the mindful community, to help one another by sharing your experiences, successes, and strategies on social using #MindfulNews. Let’s help each other, Notice, Shift, and Rewire.
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