Whew! The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the seemingly endless turmoil in the Middle East and Africa, the financial crisis and the economic downturn it caused, and over the weekend, the Supermoon? That’s a lot to take in. Even without any media jacking you up, it’s a lot to take in. So here’s my suggestion: Be very mindful about what else you take in.
In Buddhism, there’s a saying: Suffering is discomfort multiplied by resistance, which tells us that if we can focus on our discomfort in a healthy way, instead of jacking ourselves up about it or making it into a melodrama, we can avoid suffering (I don’t think the Buddha ever used the phrase “jacking up,” but you get the point). Notice that the Buddha makes a distinction between discomfort and suffering. Discomfort, as we all know, is an expected part of life. There will be trouble, and loss, and pain; there will be discomfort. That’s not negotiable. But what is negotiable is how we manage our emotions and our behaviors in the face of discomfort.
As we face the serious discomforts of 9.0 earthquakes and tsunamis that travel 6 miles inland; the damage to Japanese nuclear plants; the still-unaddressed earthquake damage in Haiti; the tragic parade of violent dictators; the loss of financial security and stability; the widening chasm between political and ideological groups; and the resurgence of multiple forms of intolerance and bigotry, it is a very easy thing to tumble downward into suffering. Because really, who wouldn’t resist all of this discomfort?
But let’s turn toward suffering and ask ourselves what it is, really? To my eye, suffering is an emotional state, or to be more precise, it’s a series of intertwined emotions such as depression and despair, anger and rage, fear and anxiety, dread and panic, and so forth. For each of us, suffering involves different emotions and different mixtures of emotion, but suffering seems to require that we add something extra to the discomfort that is already present.
Mindfulness practices can give us options when we head downhill toward suffering. The emotional mindfulness practice in The Language of Emotions helps you turn toward your emotions, identify them, and then take the actions that best complete those emotions. The discomfort will still be there, but you’ll be in a better position to deal with that discomfort — and most importantly, you’ll be better able to support others who are in pain. Mindfulness can help you avoid the paralyzing emotional badlands of suffering.
But once you’ve figured out how to identify your emotions and work with them properly, there’s another important protective step to take, and that’s to avoid people and situations that are emotionally abusive. For instance, we’ve all seen scientifically ignorant journalists go on panicky benders about the Fukushima reactors. These people’s inability to deal with their emotional reactions (and their truly abysmal research skills) caused a great deal of unnecessary panic and dread throughout the world (I’m writing from the coast of California, where some hysteria is occurring — as if we Californians are in imminent danger of nuclear fallout. We’re not.).
We’ve seen endless video loops of the tsunami tearing across the Japanese countryside and taking whole towns with it. I watched them — we all did — because there’s a part of us that needs to see disaster, so that we know what to do if we’re ever in one (learning about disasters and misfortunes is a very important survival skill). But let’s be honest; after two viewings, we can all glean most of the information we need. Any more than that, and I’d say we’re entering into a kind of disaster porn — where our eyes are glued to the screen as if we’re nearly drugged.
As you watch this sort of coverage, observe your emotions. Do you feel more informed, focused, and able to offer useful support to the Japanese, or to other suffering people? Or do your emotions get jacked up and caught in a different kind of tsunami? If you’re experiencing the latter situation, you’re experiencing emotional manipulation and abuse.
Protecting yourself from emotional manipulation and abuse
Sadly, advertising-dependent news media have two competing mandates: one is to provide the news, and the other is to find ways to keep you watching for as long as possible so that they can get paid. And sadder still, with the amazing amount of fiercely competing media now available, we’re not so much informed as we are targeted. Manipulated. Jacked up. Pandered to. Abused.
Last week’s Supermoon hysteria is a wonderful example of this. If you didn’t see the story, here’s a quick summary: Some off-brand astrologer who didn’t understand astronomy predicted that Saturday’s perigee moon would somehow cause natural disasters, and then he back-predicted to connect this week’s Supermoon to last week’s Japanese earthquakes. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.
But for people who were already frightened and jacked up by media porn coverage of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the Fukushima reactors, it made a kind of sense. So the story began to circulate, and was magnified by reporters who included the nonsense prediction in their stories as if it were a valid piece of information. Real astronomers and climatologists were put in the position of responding to this hysteria, and they did what they could. Clearly, the story was completely wrong, and if journalism was about informing the people, this story would have been reported in the Odd News category, or perhaps in the Failed Prophecies section. But in too many cases, it wasn’t.
I spent this weekend on Facebook and Twitter connecting people to reputable stories and scientists who actually know what they’re talking about. I’m glad to have done it, but how absurd is it that any of us should have to?
I expect (some of) my friends to send silly viral warnings about iodine pills or preposterous Supermoon prophecies, but I’m really tired of seeing actual media outlets follow suit.
So I have a question for you: How do you protect yourself from media manipulation, or from the well-meaning emotional abuse that your e-mailing friends expose you to? Where do you go for responsible reporting on issues that matter? Is Snopes bookmarked in your browser? Is Scientific American?
How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and maintain your compassionate focus? What steps do you take to tolerate honest discomfort yet avoid unnecessary suffering? Thanks for sharing your real solutions!