Imagine that a new drug comes onto the market. It is very addictive, and when scientists research it they find that it causes ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others and desensitisation’.
Would you seek this drug out? Would you avoid it? Should it be legal? Should it be subsidised? The drug is the news. Much research has looked at how it affects us, and one researcher coined the term mean world syndrome where the symptoms are cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism (from Rutger Bregman Human Kind – A Hopeful History).
Part of the problem is that the news presents a skewed view of the world. The murder rate in Australia is less than one in 100,000, one of the lowest in the world, but because the news focuses on murders, we think that murder is common. The news tells us that there is much danger, that bad things happen all the time, that many people are cruel.
Yet if I just reflect on the break I have just had, what stands out is all the kindness, help, and friendliness I have been greeted with everywhere. And often it is strangers who offer to help with luggage or directions, or just want to chat. What is your experience in general?
We have also been subjected to distorted narratives about who we are. A classic example is perceptions of how badly people behave in a crisis. Yet eyewitness statements often describe evacuations happening in an orderly manner, with people being kind and helpful to each other. This is true of accounts of both the sinking of the Titanic and the September 11 attacks. In relation to natural disasters, a friend of a friend was in Thailand at the time of the tsunami and while he was sitting in a tree, he observed the local population immediately offering food and support to everyone.
After he carefully examined the evidence, Bregman concluded that catastrophes bring out the best in humans. He quotes Rebecca Solnit who commented about the misinformation about people’s behaviour in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: ‘elite panic comes from people who see all humanity in their own image. Dictators and despots, governors, and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.’
Why are we told the opposite? Is Solnit correct? Another reason is that horrific news sells, it makes careers and going against the dominant story kills careers. ‘Good news’ stories are seen as less important, as fluffy ‘feel-good’ items at the end of the television news bulletin.
How does this affect us all? Do we now as a global population walk around with a flawed view of the world? One effect is that more and more of us avoid the news. When I was in Denmark recently, I was told that the number of people not watching the news has increased from 5 to 6 out of ten. What are the consequences of that?
We are realising that the news makes us unhappy. The ongoing input of misery, of a warped perspective of our nature, affects us negatively.
And we can’t just shake off this effect – by now it is deep in our subconscious. The subconscious is shaped by our past experiences – what we have heard and seen – and experiences are sorted and stored around the concepts of ‘approach’ and ‘avoid’. In this way, the subconscious is largely shaped by other people’s habitual thinking and trauma, based in an old understanding of the world or self-interest. Irrespective, the understanding is always flawed. As The Buddha said, all descriptions of reality are only temporary, a hypothesis.
It is the subconscious that runs the show 95% of the time. On an ongoing basis, whatever we pay attention to forms and sculpts our brain and therefore our experience. And whatever is dangerous shouts the loudest. Is it surprising that anxiety levels are higher than ever? I think it is fair to say that the news has been polluting our minds, not just in relation to misinformation but also through keeping our attention in general on silly issues, sometimes with the intention to distract from more serious issues. Let alone what engaging with silly news does for our intelligence. The news does not represent engagement with real issues.
Often in sessions that I conduct, the main thing that comes up around what stops people feeling great is worry, comparing, not letting go of work in order to do what I find most important, and focussing on problems.
Doing mindfulness is not enough; we need to protect our attention. Attention is a commodity and we need to wake up to that. It is up to us what we pay attention to.
We need to ask ourselves if what we are paying attention to serves us. Does what you are paying attention to right now represent a wise attention investment for a future healthy mindstate?
Engaging in the practice of waking up allows us to catch the subconscious/reactive. Mindfulness increases our ability to wake up and respond rather than react. Once we are aware and notice our system’s reaction to the moment, we have an opportunity to take a new approach. Every time we do that, we change our future trajectory and we also change the past, or rewrite it.
Rewriting the past is useful as the past is where our beliefs/conclusions about the world are stored. Through this activity we change our future trajectory.
We don’t change our programming through knowledge but through the re-programming of the unconscious. And that happens through much repetition – that is how change is made.
The world has never needed for us to be awake more than now, so protect your attention, challenge the habitual and catch the reactive with an attitude of kind curiosity. After all, the forming is not our fault but it is our responsibility to start to reset. Imagine what could be created…..
and of course, if you would like support with anything mindful just let me know!