Dharma Q/A: Overwhelmed by the News?

I have a hard time reading the daily news – I find myself getting angry and overwhelmed either by other’s opinions or what’s happening in the world. Yet part of me feels like I need to keep informed, but there’s so much out there that’s really confusing.

You are not alone. We live in an unprecedented era of information overload. In less than a minute, I can learn that North Korea just tested another nuclear weapon, in Chechnya gay men are being rounded up, a local woman is sentenced for abusing her children, the weather is predicted to be cloudy through Wednesday, and there’s a fuchsia plant sale at the hardware center – thus we begin our day. What shall we do with all of this information? How can we take in so much suffering and strife? How do we wake up with the morning news?

To be aware of global events instantaneously is a dilemma for practitioners wanting to respond to suffering. Rather than inspire our practice, often too much information sacrifices depth of understanding for numbness and a protective heart. Real depth comes when we realize that for every story we read, there are hundreds of stories untold about any single event which cannot be grasped by a single narrative.  Rather than remain frozen in light of the sheer volume of information, we can take charge of our media consumption. Bit by bit, we can transform overwhelm into a broader global awareness that serves compassion and wisdom energizing our practice.

Like our Zen oryoki ritual where we receive food offerings in our bowls, we need to find the place of “just enough.” If I lose myself in constant alarm level alerts, it’s like sugary soda where the more I drink, the less satisfied and more sickened I become. Turning away is also not the answer. This recent election has vividly demonstrated the cost of living in a cultural bubble surrounded by familiar assumptions that reinforce our own preconceived ideas about the world at the expense of a larger awareness. As Buddhists, we should seek the middle way with the media.

Bracket your news intake. Before slipping into the morning news over breakfast or the radio on the way to work, pause and notice your state of mind and your own motivation. Is the news entertainment for boredom, a daily habit, or something else? If this isn’t clear, take a breath and make your own vow to receive the news in service of your practice. What changes? Take a week or two and create boundaries around your news consumption with a strict time limit. Give what you take in your full attention mentally and emotionally rather than allowing it to be background noise.

You might carry around this koan question “What do I need to know?” and see what arrives.

Notice the articles you read and those you do not. Be curious how you are pulled along from one article or click to the next. Who is choosing this? Media managers know high conflict and titillating stories sell as we seem wired for the bizarre and the awful. Most of these kinds of sensationalized stories do not usually enrich practice. Just notice your own experience.

To read with mindful awareness helps us become more naturally attuned to information that matters to our practice and forgoing information that acts as “empty calories.” This doesn’t mean to only read what you agree with. On the contrary, to be awake means to be exposed to challenging points of view different from our own. Notice what happens in your experience after you encounter each article. Pause and breathe and consider. What’s the most important thing?

Ultimately, as people of practice, we develop an eye for the one daily story of karmic suffering, our interconnectedness, and a wish for universal awakening. Everything in the news ultimately falls within this overarching rubric.  We can read the details of a shared human life where we are not reading about “those people out there” but the story of everything human.  How does the news inspire our compassion and wisdom? Dropping the separation, I can see myself in all that I read.

To read with the lens of suffering and the conditions of suffering means to acknowledge and embrace the dukkha we encounter with an open heart rather than with reactivity. Can we pause to receive the difficulties in the world for a moment with acceptance? This does not mean we like what is happening or that we are helpless. Acceptance is a strong stance that bows to what is truly happening.

If media consumption leaves us with anger and overwhelm, this is often connected with an underlying sense of helplessness when we’re identified with our limited selves. But the Buddha’s teachings point to the way in which we are never helpless. We are only helpless when we attach to an outcome. There is always a response to whatever meets the eye.

One antidote to the helpless state of mind that constrict our life is to take some action, no matter how small, as a result of what you have read today. Let this flow naturally. Forget about being effective. Just move with your heart. If someone you don’t know has died, place him or her on the merit list that week. If there is increased repression in a foreign country, send a letter to your representative about your concern. If a neighboring group has been the victim of a hate crime, visit them and express your solidarity. To take up bodhisattva action means to be changed by the world and respond right where we are.

In the end, the most important thing we do when we read media is to refuse the implicit message that we are basically violent, rapacious, and polarized at heart. The media always summarizes our least common denominator. While our human nature includes greed, hate and delusion, the Buddha’s teachings point to a fundamental awareness that is clear, bright, responsive and connected. To take charge of your media consumption means to wholeheartedly refuse to be taken over but instead find the place of “just enough” and recommit to practice. Day after day, this habit changes our lives and the lives of others.

Media Gatha

May I read this news with a clear and open eye.

May I seek truth and understanding over entertainment.

May I accept the bitter, salty, sweet, sour and pungent flavors of life.

May self and other drop away and a sincere offering arrive.  

May I remember that in this collective awakening, I am not alone.


What is your own vow?

In gassho


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