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Since I’ve been back from India, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to the news, what I read, what I watch, what I listen to, and how it affects me. I had originally started writing this entry last week and had hoped to conclude it yesterday afternoon. Then the news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon broke, and suddenly I needed to rethink what I had planned to say in light of this developing news story.
Yesterday afternoon, I found my phone and tablet popping with “push alerts,” bulletins that media outlets deem important enough to send right away, so that they show immediately, as would a text message, phone call, or voice mail message.
As the story unfolded, I learned, with increasing horror, of the first estimates of injuries and the death toll.
This morning, both my phone and tablet alerted me that the FBI was investigating the bombings as a possible act of terrorism.
Last week, when Margaret Thatcher died, no less than five news outlets sent a “push” alert. Three of these alerts came from national news sources, while the last two were provided by local news stations. Later that day, I received three news alerts that mouseketeer Annette Funicello had died. Other breaking news alerts later in the week included UConn victories, Louisville defeating Michigan to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball title, and reports of multiple stabbings at Lone Star College, major accidents in the far corner of the state, and a traffic tie-up less than half an hour away. Of course, these were added to the Facebook, Scrabble, and Words with Friends alerts that pop up on my phone to inform me that someone has taken a turn or shared something with me.
By contrast, for the nearly two months I was In India, I learned five pieces of news that I can recall. Two I learned from my partner via one of the precious 200 international text messages we had on our plan:
- A blizzard had dumped 36 inches of snow at home in New Haven.
- After nearly 19 years in office, the mayor of New Haven had decided not to seek re-election.
As other people came to stay at the campus in Khajuraho, I learned of two other major stories:
- “Fiscal Cliff: The Sequel”: Congress was apparently deadlocked, and we were in danger of tumbling off the fiscal cliff. Again? And then we did tumble off that cliff. Again?
- The pope had resigned for reasons that were largely unclear. I initially didn’t believe this story at all. In fact, for a time, I was convinced that somebody had mistaken an Onion story for a real article.
Finally, and I imagine somewhat reluctantly, our teacher, Panditji, told us of a stampede at the Kumbha Mela, where we had been in weeks prior, near where another group traveling under the auspices of the Himalayan Institute was currently staying. According to news reports, like this one in the New York Times, over 30 people were killed. Staff was worried that we might get messages, as I did, from home with family worried about our whereabouts or the safety of others currently in the area.
And, strangely enough, and this may sound like heresy coming from someone who has worked as a reporter and now teaches journalism courses and advises a student newpaper, I didn’t miss knowing more, not one bit. Granted, my travel, study, and practice as well as the cognitive load of adjusting to an unfamiliar culture were likely offering me more than enough to keep my mind busy. However, even when we would go into town, and right there on the screens of the computers at Shiva Internet was a Yahoo News page, I didn’t give more than a passing glance. I remember seeing a large picture of President Obama and a headline that talked about Republicans fighting one of his proposals. “Well, that’s different,” I joked. “I can see that not much has changed since we’ve been gone.”
Of course, my situation is more than a bit unusual. A large part of the reason that many of us made the pilgrimage to India was to have time away from our everyday lives and their attendant demands on our attention, to fully immerse ourselves in the culture and to take more time for study and practice.
Yet even now, having had the chance to disconnect from the constant stream of news and information, I find myself really noticing how these relatively frequent bulletins intrude on my attention and amp up my anxiety level. I find myself wondering just how much I need to know, when, and at what cost.
Of the alerts I got last week, for example, few were actually information that I needed to have at the moment they were received. While I’m sorry for Margaret Thatcher’s family, I wasn’t exactly a fan of her policies or a subscriber to her political philosophies, and, even I were, it’s unlikely that learning so quickly of her death would have conferred any additional benefit. It’s sad to lose an American icon like Annette Funicello, but, again, this was not something that required my immediate attention. I’m happy for UConn, but likely would have been watching the game if I was heavily invested in the outcome. The major accidents were, for the most part, not information I could use, although learning of the jam-up on I-95 would have been of great use to me on my commute. While the Lone Star shootings were clearly breaking news, I was in no imminent danger that necessitated me knowing about the situtation as it unfolded.
The Boston bombings, however, were of such a nature, scope, and seriousness that I could understand why these were “pushed” to the phone and tablet right away. I wanted to know what was happening, how many people in my region had been injured or killed, and as much as I could about the motive for the attacks.
At the same time, with this and the Lone Star story, too, especially on the heels of the Newtown shootings just a few months ago, I also felt the now familiar and potent mixture of dread and fear and curiousity. Not another one. What’s happened now?
As Gavin DeBecker, author of The Gift of Fear, told PBS back in the late 1990s: “In normal, human experience, we would experience the calamities in our own lives. In the abnormal, bizarre experience that you and I are having today…we experience the calamities in everyone’s life. I see a local news story about a bunch of people hanging out of a building in a fire, and ladders and emergency, and it looks terribly alarming, and I turn on the sound and it’s in Caracas, Venezuela. Well, I’m here happily to tell your viewers that the fire in Caracas, Venezuela cannot burn you. And the hostage-taking scene with the gunman at the supermarket that’s 40 miles away, since bullets only go one mile, cannot shoot you. And the kinds of things we see that are designed to make us watch, by using fear, those headlines that say, you know, ‘Cellular phones can kill you. News at eleven. Earthquake dust choking your children. News at eleven. Contaminated Thanksgiving turkey kills family of three. Could your family be next?’ Those are all real. Well, in LA that contaminated Thanksgiving turkey was one turkey in a community of 11 million people. So I’m here to say that turkey could not kill your family next unless we all had very small servings. That was one turkey. It’s designed to get around our reasoning ability and go right to the emotional fear response.”
Today, in an environment of always-on Internet and smart phones, we have countless new opportunities to have that “emotional fear response” triggered in us. And with social media and reasonably high-quality camera and video capabilities available to us on our mobile devices, tweets and Facebook “news feeds” become yet another way in which to increase both our knowledge and our anxiety levels. In fact, at one point yesterday afternoon,, watching an amateur video of the first explosion and then a slide show of the scene at my computer, I found myself slipping into a near trance until I snapped myself out of it. It’s not that the bombings are not profoundly tragic and sad and frightening, of course, but how many images do I need to see, how many eyewitness accounts do I need to read, to grasp the full import of a crisis or disaster? And how graphic do these images and accounts need to be? In fact, WNPR host and Hartford Courant reporter Colin McEnroe warned Facebook friends and followers yesterday to exercise caution when reviewing tweets about the marathon: “Be very careful about clicking on images posted on Twitter. Some of them are upsetting and graphic. I’ve seen at least two I wish I hadn’t seen…and I get paid for this.”
We know, too, that the fear response that DeBecker speaks of has an impact on our overall health and well-being. A number of studies suggest what many of us have already experienced, that repeated exposure to disturbing images and reports of violence and disaster can bring about changes in mood and increase anxiety, sadness, and depression, especially in those already prone to these conditions.
That’s why wellness gurus like Dr. Andrew Weill suggest periodic “news fasts,” taking a few days or even a week away from news as a sort of mental cleansing.
But Weill and others seem to presenting a sort of all-or-nothing proposition, at least at first. The only way to bring our media consumption into line, then, is to completely detach from it. For a recovering news junkie like me, that is not the most realistic option. Whatever its faults, the mainstream media remains our best way to obtain the kind of information we need to make informed decisions as citizens. One of the easiest choices, of course, would be to simply shut off all notifications on the tablet and phone. Yet, like many other Americans, I have a desire to know and a desire to know as soon as possible, a desire only exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle popularized by cable news networks. In shutting off less relevant news, I would have missed news that might have been particularly helpful or important to me.
I’ve learned, however, to be more aware of how and when I consume news. After finally making the connection that a late-night diet of murder, mayhem, and disaster was disturbing my sleep, for example, I no longer watch television news before I go to bed. Instead of beginning my days with a breakfast of carnage and conflict, I start with my practice and some inspirational or pleasure reading or a long walk before checking in on the rest of the world. Since returning from India, I am more aware that, once I have the basic facts, what I’m really looking for is a deeper understanding, a larger context, something that is unlikely to be available in the form of a bulletin or news alert. I find myself searching, too, for stories that, in the midst of all the darkness and despair, uplift, that explore all of the acts of love and everyday heroism, like the one The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof shared via Facebook yesterday: “Most inspiring glimpse here of the Boston marathon: runners who reportedly finished the 26 miles and then ran over to Mass General Hospital to donate blood.”
Yet, as much as I’d like to say that I plan to shut off all news alerts, I haven’t done so yet. Why? For me, it seems that knowing what’s going on immediately, particularly when those events are of particular relevance to me, is of greater importance than the benefit of completely avoiding the shock or disruption of these alerts. At some point, perhaps, that will change. In the meantime, though, I do generally have sounds shut off, so that I need to be looking at the screen in order to receive these alerts, and I make more of an effort now to shut off the devices when I won’t be using them or when I need to pay sustained attention to what I’m doing, such as when I’m writing. I have also noticed, as was the case both yesterday and with the Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello stories, that the same basic information seems to be pushed out from a range of sources within minutes of each other. Perhaps another way to cut down on the impact of these alerts on the central nervous system, then, is to cut back on the sheer volume of them.
Finally, in times like today, too, when information, updates, and speculation about a particular news story are hurtling toward us at a rapid pace, when we may be struggling with sadness, anger, or other strong reactions, I’m reminded of the power of one of the fundamental principles of yoga. This principle, pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, is the fifth limb in the eight-limbed path of yoga. Free of my normal daily duties, I had a chance to enjoy pratyahara for longer periods than I usually can when I was in India, and the impact on my state of mind was profound. I felt more focused, present, and creative than I had in some time. It is one of the reasons why this principle, always an element of every yoga class I teach, will be the primary focus of the class I teach tonight.
When we practice pratyahara, whether in meditation or in savasana, our final relaxation pose in yoga class, we go within, closing the eyes to help us to block out visual stimuli, the way that we tend to take in most of our impressions of the world. The breath naturally begins to slow, and we find ourselves disconnecting from the normal, waking world. We may hear sounds or smell smells around us, we can feel the support of the earth or cushion under us, but we don’t feel a need to respond to this sensory input in any way.
In this way, we have a chance to practice widening the gap between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl so famously wrote about in Man’s Search for Meaning, After all, he writes, “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As we become more aware of and expand that space, then, when we return to our everyday lives, we have a chance not only to choose how we respond to the stimuli we can’t keep from coming at us, but also to make some clearer and more careful choices about the stimuli we allow in, more willing to weigh the benefits against the costs.