There are some days when I wish I could wind back the clock to the 1980s; to the time when we didn’t have the internet as such an integral part of our lives. When we could wake up and try to guess the weather just by looking outside. When we received hand written letters and even enjoyed writing them too. There was so much more time spent in silence, in playing outdoors with friends and imagining the future. There was a real innocence about that time; it almost seemed endless.
But these days it feels like we’re lucky to find a spare five minutes – to ponder, to reflect, to be still. Our minds race at a million miles an hour and everyone is in a rush, rush, rush. Even if we try to make time for meditation, it often feels like we need reinforced brakes like Formula One cars to try and slow down the speed of our distracted mind. Jumping from one stimulus to another seems to be the mind’s daily diet and whenever there is a spare moment, we rush to fill it with something else just in case we feel the anxiety of not having something to do.
One thing that has changed a lot for everyone in the last two decades is society’s ease of access to the news. With the information literally at our fingertips, it seems that many of us have developed what seems like an insatiable appetite for news stories. We can click from one news site to the next just to make sure we have covered all the news, even reading the same story twice in case we missed any important elements. We might let one story saturate our mind and then we’re off again quickly to the next one, until eventually we run out of interesting articles to read or watch, or we find something else to engage our minds in.
I was recently talking to someone who took a one-month ‘sabbatical’ from watching the news (on the internet or otherwise). Needless to say, he found that month to be infused with more calm and a sense of control than what he’d previously experienced. But not only can a break from the news instill us with a sense of calm, it can actually increase our energy levels. When CNN Anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, Anderson Cooper, decided to participate in a silent meditation retreat – to go without his electronic devices to see if there was any benefit in mindfulness practices like meditation – he quickly learnt how wonderful it felt not to dissipate all his attention. He said, “I’m on mobile devices all day long. I feel like I could go through an entire day and not be present. It’s exhausting.”
Another noteworthy moment in Cooper’s experience, was when Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts (who was actually conducting an experiment on Cooper during his retreat), explained that constant use of technology had “…the same reward pathways as addiction.”
So what does that mean? Are we really addicted to online activity, and in particular, reading the news?
Most of us will have different reasons for wanting to check the news often. Some of us may be constantly anxious about a particular crisis happening in the world, or we’re emotionally invested in a particular country’s conflict. Some of us might be just looking to pass the time and almost use the news as a form of entertainment, while others may simply want to check the sports scores. Whatever our reasons for our almost constant visitations of news sites, we need to look deep within in and ask ourselves ‘Why do we do it?’ What is the craving that is feeding our mind that we feel compelled to the check the news on such a frequent basis?
Unfortunately, given our prolific scrolling of the news websites these days, news outlets are forced to meet consumer demand by publishing more and more non-newsworthy and trashy articles. These kind of articles are now getting front-page attention, instead of being stuck somewhere at the end in the gossip section. Most news stories aren’t really news anymore. And moreover, we have to question: is the news really NEW?
I remember looking at some news sites after finishing my first eight month retreat, and I was a little surprised that there didn’t seem to be anything new. It was all the same old stories, just now with different faces. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to see, but I remember thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t miss much’. Then I was left to ponder, ‘Who is this Justin Bieber person anyway?’ before eventually having to Google him because, according to the media, he seemed to be really newsworthy!
Also, I remember another occasion on my first group meditation retreat, we spent five days cut off from the internet and the outside world, and I have this distinct memory of logging on to a news website and having the same thought, ‘Nothing has changed’, but this was also accompanied by the realization that I didn’t need to be vigilantly checking the news several times a day for me to feel okay. It wasn’t like my world would collapse in around me because I hadn’t had my daily dose of news-scrolling; and low and behold, the world kept turning even if I didn’t pay attention. It was actually quite a revelation for me at the time, given my then constant scrolling habits.
It’s good to take some time to think about our habits on the internet. We might be surprised at how much time we spend reading the news or other posts on social media websites. What are the payoffs we’re getting from these? Are they feeding our spiritual wellness, or just giving us more reasons to dissipate our attention and feel busy? We have to admit that most news websites don’t have our best interests at heart. The majority are simply trying to sell their advertising spaces or promote the owner’s own political views. And when we click on those sensationalist headlines, we only feed the demand for more stories that aren’t usually news but entertainment.
When we compare the way we ingest the news now as opposed to the way we did several decades ago, we will know that life operated just as well without us constantly needing a news report every hour. We had much more time and much less worry. So the next time you reach to visit your favorite news website, why not stop for a moment and see what resistance arises; what are the cravings that insist that we take a look? Some of us might hear a little voice inside saying, “But what if something new has happened in the world, some major catastrophe, something huge that everyone knows about, but me.” Well, we can then compassionately say to that little voice, “Don’t worry. If the news is so big, you will hear about it in time, but now is the perfect time to just stay with me in this present moment.”
Let’s not spend our whole lives caught up in this craving for ingesting a lot of non-news as news. Our lives are passing us by much too quickly. Ask yourself, do you want to read the old news out there or create something new and exciting within yourself? If it’s the latter, then that can only happen when you turn the dial back towards you, and give yourself more time for contemplation and meditation.
Perhaps we won’t be able to refrain from checking the news daily, but at the very least we should watch our mind and see what type of articles we are seeking and clicking on. What are the things we are feeding our mind? How do we feel the moment before reading some news? Are we possibly using other people’s sufferings at the expense of our own hunger for entertainment? We don’t really need to read the news to know there is suffering happening in this world on a daily or hourly basis. And if we don’t watch the news, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care what is happening – we do know and we should care. In fact, our compassion for the all-pervasive suffering of this world ought to be constant. But just because we don’t know the particulars of a current news item doesn’t mean that we’re less compassionate people for it.
Basically, we are feeding our minds every day and what we feed it matters. If our mind is constantly agitated because of what’s happening in the world or looking for the next exciting stimulus, then our practice of meditation will be an even greater struggle. Meditation means restraining our mind from external stimulus. It means refocusing our attention on ourselves and the workings of our mind. We have to try and calm our mind through repeatedly bringing our mind back to our meditation object, again and again. It’s not about letting the mind get caught up and entertained with every exciting thought we give rise to; otherwise we will never make progress in our meditation.
So if we’re serious about improving our concentration in meditation, we need to examine the distractions and cravings we have and those we continuously fill our day with. Whether it’s the news or something else – it pays to pay attention – because these could be the very things we need to renounce (even just a little) in order to see greater progress in our meditation. If not, we run the danger of our meditation becoming superficial and merely a momentary gap in an otherwise craving-filled day.
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