Monthly Archives: June 2019

Breaking News Breaking Your Heart?


If you feel worse for having watched the news, it’s not necessarily because the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket. It may be your brain saying ‘Give me a break!’

As concerned citizens of the world, we recognize our responsibility to stay informed, to understand the issues that face our society today. But we may need to find a better way to do that, a way that doesn’t mess with our minds, activating our negativity bias and setting our brains up to erroneously extrapolate that the horrible things we see on the news are happening everywhere all the time. Because apparently that’s exactly what the brain does! It creates a world view out of repetition. So the more bad news it sees, the more it sees the world as bad and getting worse.

But hey, you may say, there is a lot of bad news. Is there? The bulk of news reported is bad news, not because more bad things happened that day than good, but because bad things are actually rare, and rare things are newsworthy. Notice how on nightly news shows, they offer a little token feel good piece at the end — a sweet aftertaste. They could easily have filled the whole show with such pieces, ad nauseum!, but that wouldn’t be good business.

Sure, they could keep us watching by showing cute animal videos, but there is a journalistic negativity bias against good news. Author Steven Pinker says that journalists “believe that any positive development is not serious journalism but is corporate public relations or government propaganda.” So viewers/readers get traumatized by all the world’s sorrows and forget about all the world’s joys.

Pinker points out that most statistical data shows the world is becoming better with less crime, less war, fewer people living in poverty, etc. Hard to believe. A little time travel back to the ‘good old days’ might help us see our own times in historical context. If we really want to be well-informed we might want to include books and documentaries that tell us about the lives of others in our communities and around the world, so that we more deeply understand the joys and challenges of life today. Why would we ever rely solely on one or two sources for our understanding of the world we live in? Especially if they profit from keeping our negativity bias activated?

My husband’s earliest career was working as a television news film editor. He knew well the motto ‘if it bleeds it leads’. Beyond that, he witnessed how parts of stories, maybe important parts, would end up on the cutting room floor, making for unbalanced reporting. (After a decade in the industry, he couldn’t take it anymore! He found a career more suited to his talents and disposition.)

Anyone who has lived through a disaster knows how national reportage on a local event is often distorted. For example, the October 17, 1989 earthquake in the SF Bay Area caused a lot of devastation – a portion of the Bay Bridge collapsed, an East Bay freeway collapsed, San Francisco’s Marina District lost a lot of buildings to fire, some buildings in other areas were damaged and 67 people died. There was lots of horrifying and heartbreaking video footage to show. But by repeatedly showing just these images and not showing any assuring images of all the places where no damage was done, the news reports had people across the country thinking that all of San Francisco had crumbled and was up in flames. Distant friends and family thought it was a miracle that we survived. Yet we, like most other residents in San Francisco and surrounding communities, suffered no damage whatsoever. But that’s not ‘news’ even though it’s important information — proof that ‘news’ is not about information but about fueling fear and ratings.

That was thirty years ago and news reportage, with all the competition for viewers’ attention, has become even more aggressively negative, using heart thumping music to activate fear, over-using the words ‘Breaking News’ and lots of other gimmicks. They have set off an epidemic of FOMO – fear of missing out, creating a whole industry of 24/7 news to serve it.

There are times when most of us feel compelled to stay glued to the news, like when the twin towers fell and it was beyond anything we could ever have imagined to watch such massive destruction and such devastation and loss of life, trying to make sense of it and what it might mean for our country and the world. A more recent personal example was last November when my daughter and I stayed on the phone together every day as we watched the streaming of news and daily press conferences in Butte County as the Camp Fire raged in a community we had come to love.

But those are the exceptions. Most of the time we are offered up these images to satisfy some inner craving to be scared, shocked and horrified, to have our inherent negativity bias justified.

There are times when, if we are citizens in a democracy and have a vested interest in the well-being of our country, that we need to watch, for example, the upcoming debates so that we know the various viewpoints and can assess the candidates or ourselves rather than trust the news or candidate ads to point us in any direction.

But other times, oftentimes, we do ourselves a disservice by making heartbreaking news a habit. It’s worth changing the channel in our lives, discovering other more reliable sources for information that matters, using the time we save to listen in and reach out to others to work toward creating the world that reflects our best fearless intentions. And relaxing! Just relaxing and enjoying being alive! Summer’s here and the time is right to take a break and find the joy in this moment right now just as it is.

Whoa! or Wow! or Whatever!

It’s said that newborn babies lack object permanence so when something is gone it’s gone from their minds as well. Maybe we all lack object permanence because we recognize only the most obvious portion of the continuum of life. We see birth and death as the beginning and end. Beyond that, we may have strong beliefs, vague wondering, suspicions or speculations, but most of us see death as an ending to life, maybe even the opposite of life. And we may be like toddlers furious that the party is over, not able to imagine that whatever comes next could just as likely be another aspect of the continuum of being, an infinite loop of life nourishing and regenerating itself.

It could be anything! If we are being honest with ourselves, seeing through the patterns of all our fears and wishes, we don’t know what, if anything, there is beyond our ability to observe it with our physical senses.

And that’s okay. Accepting that we don’t know may be one of life’s great challenges, but the ‘I don’t know’ mind is also one of life’s greatest gifts. It keeps us open, flexible, grateful and joyous as life keeps us in a state of ‘Wow!’

I certainly don’t know. But that doesn’t keep my patterns of thoughts from devising interesting and at times compelling ideas about what ‘lies beyond’ and whether the wall between life and death is permeable. Just like everyone else’s, my mental patterns are by nature untrustworthy, but if I hold them lightly they provide me with intriguing thoughts. The other day I remembered a dream I had after my brother died two years ago. Released from the pain of his wracked body, he was joyfully traveling (by bus!) all over the country seeing all the sights. That dream came back to me recently when my husband and I were deliberating whether to take a major trip. All the planning and expense of transporting, feeding, clothing and sleeping necessary to allow me to experience a different place just seemed overwhelming. And I had the thought that this would all be a lot easier to do later on when I don’t have a body to tend to!

Whoa! or Wow! or Whatever!

(Having such a thought doesn’t mean I’m in any hurry to discard this body that serves me well. And if you are in such a hurry, please seek help from the suicide hotline immediately.)

Because I’m a practitioner and teacher of the Buddha’s concepts, as they’ve been handed down over the millennia, you might assume I’m a believer in reincarnation. But the Buddha’s focus was in this moment and how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. He encouraged his followers to see for themselves what is true. Well, how can we see the truth of what lies beyond the cessation of our breath until that happens to us? Until then thinking about it is a distraction and useless speculation, because we just don’t know.

So let’s be here now. Let’s value all beings in this life just as it is. Let’s take care of ourselves, our communities and our planet, and increase our understanding of how best to do that. And let’s relax around the compulsive need to know what lies beyond this precious experience of life here and now. Because we can’t know. We don’t have existential object permanence.

Photo credit: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Making room for your own inner wisdom

My primary interest has always been in helping people access their own inner wisdom. The regular practice of meditation — sensing in, following the breath — creates space for that inner wisdom to be heard, but it’s helpful to actively invite it in. So this week I initiated a variation on our class format, incorporating a post-meditation free-write session.

Instead of taking a five minute break for silent walking or communing with nature, we spent 25 minutes, notebooks in hand. I was available for anyone who needed me, but everyone seemed to take quite naturally to this new addition. It was such a pleasure to see them all having their quiet alone time out in the garden, gazing at a tree, the waterfall or the mountain, and then finding a comfortable private spot to sit in the sun or shade to write down a few inspiring words from their own experience.

Back inside in our circle, we slowly transitioned into discussion. The pleasure in silence was palpable, but eventually each student felt like sharing her writing or a comment on how the experience was for her. Their words confirmed that this was the right change to have made in the class format.

One student spent time deeply looking at certain elements in the garden – a particular plant, a tree, the waterfall, and then wrote down attributes of each. I have no doubt that her inner wisdom was actively highlighting the very attributes within herself that would be most helpful at this time.

Another student was able to see options to her standard line of thinking. Meditation creates a sense of spaciousness so we are not stuck in a linear mode, but can recognize more subtle offerings that bring a different slant or a new insight.

Two students were able to gain new creative clarity on what’s up for them: for one a business plan, for the other a solution to a challenge in her living space. Lots of creative thinking!

While wise words from sages through the ages may resonate and have meaning for us right now, the wisdom that rises from within ourselves when we really listen in is exactly what we most need to know in this moment. This only works if we have learned to cultivate a spacious inner quiet, to distinguish loving wisdom from the fear-based cacophony of judgments, opinions, memories, plans and attitudes that tend to fill our thoughts throughout the day.

If you have a regular meditation practice, consider adding a little extra time at the end for this kind of spacious creativity. If you meditate when you first wake up in the morning, as I do, you might be eager for that first cup of tea or coffee. No problem! Just make it part of your silent retreat mode, brewing it with a sense of ritual and really being present to the feel of it in your hands. Likewise with your morning wash-up, dressing, walking the dog. Extend your practice of mindfulness into the day. Why would you stop being mindful?

And if there is time to commune with nature, to pose yourself a timely and intriguing question, to make jot down notes in your journal, then that too is a wise extension of practice.