What do you do when the news is full of stories of murder and kidnap that you don’t want to hear but keep listening to? It shows what a strong habit the news can be. So how can we manage the pull of the news and the itch for stimulation?
I had a problem preparing this Thought. Each time I listened to the news, I heard more about the trial of April Jones’ killer and found myself reaching for the off button. It’s not that I don’t care; but I’m disturbed by the thoughts, images and anxious feelings the case provokes in me.
I have a similar response to the other stories of murder and kidnapping that are in the news, not to mention the gruesome details of what happened in Woolwich. I want to know these things happened – I think; but how much information do I really need?
The underlying issue is that, like a lot of listeners to the Today Programme, I’d guess, my news consumption is a bit of a habit. Many issues interest and concern me, but what draws me back to newsfeeds and bulletins is the sense that it’s important to keep up, stay in touch, know what’s happening. I know I don’t have to, but it feels like a compulsion.
There’s a degree of self-delusion in this. I’m not that important. In 1992 I spent four months on a remote retreat assuming that Neil Kinnock had become Prime Minister and hoping England had won the Euros. I came back to learn that nothing had changed in either politics or football.
Going off the grid on a retreat or a holiday lets you sense the itch for stimulation that drives so much of our news consumption as well as the other emotions, anxieties and obsessions on which it feeds. And we’re finding more and more ways to match that itch with rolling 24 hour, multi-channel, multi-platform stimuli.
I’m not advocating navel gazing, but I do believe that our attention is a precious, limited resource, with many claims on it. It matters how we use it. Buddhism advises us to ‘guard the gates of the senses,’ choosing to avoid certain stimuli because we can predict the effect they’ll have and giving more time to things that foster a sense of calm, clarity and kindness.
Detailed coverage of child murders leaves me feeling bad, but wanting to know even more. Far from connecting more fully, I’m less able to think clearly about child safely or respond compassionately to the real people who’ve been directly affected. I feel absorbed in a world of news, distanced from my real relationships and the areas in which I can actually make a difference.
The Buddha’s last words of advice to his disciples were, ‘Strive on with heedfulness.’ That means choosing input more deliberately, not just floating down the news stream, wherever it may take us.