Mindfulness and Media

By Gary Gach, http://blogs.psychologytoday.com, December 28, 2008

San Francisco, USA -- CHRISTMAS WEEKEND 2008. Have you read the news today? Why is it that all the amazing, wonderful, remarkable, miraculous, inspiring instances of good news occurring each day seem to get swept under the rug by major news media (or slipped in at the end)? Instead we're served up a toxic stew of bad news, piping hot.

On today's front page (and above the fold) runs the second daily installment of the horrific story of the killer dressed in a Santa suit. A ninth body has been found. An accompanying story reveals "a dark secret." Five reporters worked together to bring us this news.

For yesterday's front-page scandal, substitute today's, and next week's for today's. Thus this post is, alas, ever timely. At least, so long as media capitalizes on the lowest common denominators of human emotional evolution: fascination with sexuality, sadism, violence, greed, fear, ignorance, and all the other lowest common dominators our primitive psyches are heir to.

I don't mean to be moralistic. I don't expect media CEOs to tell shareholders they could do more good but at a lower rate of revenue. (But maybe they might just to keep up with disintermediation, such as blogs. American News Service and the citizen journalist movement are also positive trends, pointing to a better way as being possible.) Nor am I going to trot out familiar statistics about violence in the media, such as its relations to children,  albeit alarming enough and only growing more so.

The vortex whirls along on a downward spiral. Sleaze, it seems, is addicting (and nihilism relentlessly erodes the level of what's permissible). No less important are recent studies discovering that, thanks to mirror neurons, what is pasively witnessed can be registered as vividly as what is directly experienced.

My food for thought here is easy to swallow. I'd be more than happy if you might simply stop, from time to time, and consider what images and sounds, ideas and emotions you consume ... and which you guard against. To defend ourselves, the art of mindfulness (aka emotional intelligence) can act as a sentinel at the gates of our sense doors. Lifting a wrist is a conscious act. Mindful eating includes looking closely at each forkful before we ingest and digest, be it noodles or newsbytes.

We consume media. Many people commonly take in magazine features and newspaper articles while they eat, as if they were the same.  Television and movies, seemingly "out there" on a screen, can be deeply internalized. The webpages and music that track our daily lives like wallpaper are a repast, feeding more than just our immediate awareness.  Toxic ingredients can plant seeds of destructive emotions and conflictual behavior. Beneficial ingredients can plant seeds of positivity in our depths (known in Buddhist psychology as alaya, "store consciousness").

The choice is plain on the basic level of karma (which is all about choice, not predestination). In life's interpenetrating web of moral cause and effect, a word, a thought, a deed can each create karma. An action can be prepared by a thought, just as a thought can be the result of an action. When we consume toxic media, we often sever empathy and instead objectify suffering, paving the way for later doing or saying things causing needless suffering.

(Bad karma.) American mainstream media tends to reinforce an attitude of cynicism. Continual negative news (mimicing depression)  can foster feelings of impotence and paraylsis.

I'm not suggesting Chairman Mao's policy, dictating the percentage ratio of positive to negative news permissible for newspapers. A democratic society depends on the quality of its news in order for its citizens to make informed choices. How shall we choose?

P.S. Remember, as Buddhist teacher and author Wes Nisker used to remind listeners, signing off his daily radio news programs in the ‘60s and ‘70s: "If you don't like the news today, go out and make some of your own."

Gary Gach, author of  The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism is a member of the International Panel of Advisers for the Buddhist Channel.