Reading the News Mindfully

I will start with a confession: I am a news junkie, but one who, despite that, tries to read the news mindfully, though admittedly there is something of a contradiction in this. Thay has on a number of occasions encouraged us to read the news no more than once a week, warning that reading it more often can water such unwholesome mental formations as anger and despair. In my own experience, he is not wrong about the ways in which regularly reading the news can weigh down one’s spirit, fostering not only anger or despair, but also a certain degree of jadedness to the suffering one reads about. But, given that I teach and do research in the fields of sociology and global studies, I actually need to read the news nearly daily to remain properly informed about developments in areas I study and to teach my classes well. But, even given that, I read the news more than I need, sometimes checking my favorites news sites several times a day, as a way of taking a “break” from whatever I am working on. I do so partly out of unhealthy habit energy, but partly also out of a genuine interest in learning more about the lives of others across the world–out of wanting to deepen my understanding and thereby my compassion for the people I read about.

Given all this, I have tried to make reading the news part of my mindfulness practice, to make it something that really does help me deepen my understanding and compassion, rather than letting it be something that weighs me down with despair and anger, that makes me jaded, or that I feel guilty about doing too often. In particular, I try to take reading the news as an opportunity to practice the Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, “Awareness of Suffering.” The training reads in part, “We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact and using telephone, electronic, audiovisual, and other means, to be with those who suffer, so we can help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.” This seems to me a clear encouragement to make ourselves aware of the suffering of not only those we encounter face-to-face and know personally, but also those who are both socially and geographically distant from us. We may not always be able to aid them in a hands-on way, but that does not mean we cannot help them by raising others’ awareness of their plight and engaging in advocacy and activism to support them.

What I describe here are some of my own “best practices” for reading the news. I do not want to claim that I do them as consistently or deeply as I would like. Nonetheless, these are practices I aspire to regularly integrate into my engagement with the news–and even holding that aspiration helps to deepen my practice in regard to the news.

Part of making reading the news part of my practice is simply reminding myself to actually bring the mindfulness practice to the news. It would be all too easy to sit in front of my computer and start plowing unreflectively through all the information out there. Therefore before reading the news, I recite a gatha of my own composition: “As I read the news, I vow to cultivate compassion for all those I read about and to take care of my own anger, grief, despair and fear.” This helps remind me to bring a mindful, compassionate spirit to the news. I will sometimes find myself rapidly moving from one article to the next or growing upset as I read an article–and then the gatha will chime in my head as a reminder to slow down, step away and cultivate mindfulness before returning to the news.

Many readers have probably noticed by now that I speak of reading the news, not watching or listening to it. This is quite intentional. While others may have different experiences, I find it very difficult to watch or listen to the news mindfully. On the rare occasions I find myself watching the news on TV–generally when visiting a friend or a relative who does so–I usually find myself wanting to scream at the television and sometimes actually doing so, an action that is not exactly mindful behavior. When watching the news on TV, I have to follow along at the pace the TV show sets, which allows little room to pause and reflect. If I am reading the news, I can do so at my own pace–and, if I feel the need to do so, to stop, step away, take a few moments to follow my breath and be aware of what emotions I am feeling. This is certainly not foolproof–one time I found myself screaming at my computer screen after reading an article I found particularly hypocritical–but when I realized what I was doing, I quickly stepped away and decided to take a break from reading the news for a bit until I was more centered and less exasperated. I don’t want to claim that one can’t watch or listen to the news mindfully, but I suspect for most people it will be more challenging than reading the news mindfully. It may help if one watches a video or listens to a podcast that one can pause and step away from if need be rather than a broadcast where one might miss something one wishes to know about if one steps away.

When reading the news, I try, among other things, to take it as an opportunity to deepen my understanding and compassion of those I read about–including those whose words and actions arouse anger, horror or fear in me. As a number of other people do, I try to read news sources from a range of political perspectives, in order to have a chance to look at the world from vantages that are different than my own. But I try to go deeper than that, being mindful of my emotional reactions to views I disagree with, as well as when reading about public figures or events that upset me. One time I saw an article entitled, “Dick Cheney Says X about Y.” (I no longer remember the specifics and they aren’t really relevant in any case.) The immediate thought that ran through my head was, “I don’t give a s*** what Dick Cheney thinks.” After pausing and examining this angry thought, I decided that I should read this article–if I had this strong a feeling of aversion and anger, I needed a better understanding of Cheney and what he believes in order to better develop compassion for him. It is always tempting for me when reading the news to skip over articles about perspectives I disagree with or the places in articles where people I generally disagree with are quoted. When I find myself moving to do this, I go back and read those parts mindfully, trying to deepen my understanding of these people so that I feel more compassion for them.

In addition to watering seeds of anger, I find that reading the news unmindfully can water seeds of grief, horror and fear in me–or that it can make me jaded to others’ suffering. A lot of awful things are happening in the world, including things such as global climate change, terrorism, environmental pollution and others that can make me fear for my own safety. And even those things that do not directly threaten my immediate well being can fill me with grief as I read about the horrors other people, such as refugees from wars or sexual assault survivors, have to go through. When reading about such things, I find it is important for me to be aware of my emotional reaction, whether that be grief, horror, fear or some other dark emotion–or if I react in a jaded way, chalking the story up as another piece of evidence against the current social order (as if I needed any more evidence). If I react with grief or fear, I try to hold it in mindfulness and compassion so those emotions do not twist my mind and heart up in unwholesome fetters. And if I react in a jaded way, I try to remind myself that these are real people suffering and open my heart up to them.

I also try to remind myself that the news is often defined in a negative way and there is much that is positive that is never reported on. Scholars who study social movements argue that there is more activism happening in the US now than at the height of the 1960s–it’s just that much of it is localized and not covered by mainstream journalists and so remains invisible to most people, even those of us involved with social justice activism ourselves. There are many active, successful experiments with alternative forms of social organizations: worker coops–businesses democratically owned and operated by their workers; participatory budgeting, where city governments allocate part of the city budget through a process of participatory democracy; small farmers engaging in organic, ecologically sustainable farming; and many other such things. Much of this is small scale, but some of it is not–roughly one-third of northern Italy’s economy is constituted by networks of worker and consumer coops. Again, much of this receives little media attention and is not well known. In the US, some of this can be put down to the parochialism of our media, since US journalism covers events outside the US very poorly and many of the most innovative experiments are happening outside the US. But I think it is also the very virtues that these projects have that keeps them from being covered–they contradict the dominant belief system of what is possible, so members of the establishment–journalists, business leaders, political leaders–dismiss them as anomalous and exceptional and therefore unimportant. But if we seek out and learn about such experiments, we can see the seeds of a better world are possible–and this can serve to counter some of the despair and anger fostered by reading more conventional news.

The impact of my practice of reading the news mindfully on my life does not stop when I stop reading the news. Because I try to cultivate mindfulness and compassion when I read about the news, I am more likely to speak with mindfulness and compassion when I speak about such the events and people covered in the news. Practicing how I want to think about these matters also allows me to practice how I want to speak about these matters. Given that I teach sociology and global studies and that I am therefore frequently speaking about these things to a relatively large audience of students, it is all the more important that I remember to speak mindfully and compassionately about topics that my students frequently have quite strong and quite divergent opinions on. Sometimes I do drop into making sarcastic, cutting remarks about public figures or political beliefs I’m critical of, but most of the time I manage to avoid it and thereby help foster an atmosphere of respect in the classroom. I find it somewhat more difficult to do in conversations about politics with friends, family, colleagues, and fellow activists, but if I find myself drifting into unmindful, un-compassionate speech, I am at least usually aware of what I am doing and can pull myself back in the middle of it–or, at least, reflect later on how to do better next time.

I believe reading the news in this manner also makes me more emotionally resilient in the face of all the horrifying and despair-inducing things that happen in the world. I still frequently feel horror and despair when I read about many things that happen in the world. According to Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy in World as Lover, World as Self, these are normal and in some ways healthy reactions to the state of our world, a sign of an open, compassionate heart. But it would be easy for that compassion to whither in the face of being repeatedly bombarded by disturbing news. If we want to keep our compassion alive, we need to exercise it regularly. Cultivating compassion is hard work and something that needs to be consciously done. By doing so as I read the news, I can strengthen this virtue–and use it to take care of my feelings of horror and despair and learn to react to the world with a heart that is relatively open more often. And being able to see things through the eyes of compassion rather than horror and despair makes it easier to take it all in. I am better able to carry on with my own life, with reading the news, and with engaging with these political issues in my own activism and teaching.

Matthew Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL

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