How to Read the News

How can we follow the news in ways that nurture – and don’t diminish – wellbeing? Media scholar Holly Stocking offers some guidance.

Holly Stocking
21 July 2018
Photo by Elijah O’Donnel.

I began to think about the harm that mindless consumption of the news can do after hearing of a spiritual teacher who cautioned his students about going to the mall. The mall can be a place where we feed our afflicted emotions, he suggested, or it can be a setting where we deepen our practice. We can mindlessly shop for items that attract us, or we can reflect on the fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying nature of ordinary pleasures and cultivate renunciation. The choice is ours.

The news is not all that different. We can digest the news in ways that reinforce our suffering. Or, we can consume accounts of the day’s events mindfully, actively training ourselves, in the midst of apparent chaos, to become what Tibetan Buddhists call “foe destroyers,” or “warriors for peace.” Again, the choice is ours. So, how can we mind the news in ways that nurture – and don’t diminish – wellbeing?

One of the most important factors to determine whether an action is virtuous or non-virtuous is intention. In Buddhist ethics, which presumes effects both seen and unseen, intention is especially important. If our intention is to benefit all beings, the karmic law of cause and effect tells the results will likely be positive, whether it appears that way to us or not. Conversely, if our intention is to harm others, we can expect the results to be negative. But whether or not you subscribe to this karmic law, it can help to set a positive motivation or intention for consuming the news – not just to be in the know or to have something to post in cyberspace, but rather: I will absorb this information with the intention of enlarging my wisdom and compassion so I can be of benefit to all I encounter. With positive intention set, our action is more likely to ripen in positive ways.

It also helps to apply mindfulness — to read the news slowly, observing any afflicted emotions that come up and then bringing the mind back to love and compassion and non-attachment.

Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

Does anger arise?

If it does, we can aspire to practice patience and compassion for the objects of our anger, remembering that if they are harming others and wreaking havoc as it appears, then they will suffer for these deeds. We can remember, too, that our anger only strengthens our angry mind, making it easier to get angry at other targets in our lives. Loosening the grip of anger does not mean we have to forgo compassionate action to help those in need. It simply means we act skillfully, with an open mind and heart toward everyone involved, even those who appear to be disturbing all that we cherish.

Do fear or despair arise?

If they do, we can try to notice our attachments. Affection is one thing; attachment is quite another. Clutching, fearful hands can also act as fists. And, when we give up in despair, we have forgotten that events that appear to be life-shattering can be transformed with time into wisdom.

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It can warn us of impending dangers, but it can also propel us to do things that we later regret. Likewise, when we surrender to despair, we forget that sometimes even tiny acts can make a huge difference. Believing that there is nothing we can do, we lose our freedom to act, a form of bondage that can generate its own remorse.

What about cynicism, relief and other emotions?

Of course, anger and fear and despair are not the only afflicted emotions that can arise when we consume the news. For some of us, cynicism may arise. Others may note “compassion fatigue,” or even guilty relief when we aren’t affected by a harm that appears to have destroyed the lives of others. Still others of us may grow secretly addicted to the news of celebrities, which can not only distract us practicing love and compassion but also foster dissatisfaction with our less glamorous lives or – if we look down on the celebs – a smug sense of superiority. Whatever emotions arise when we consume the news, they can become the object of mindful attention and – in time — transformation.

Often these days I think of the news, like everything else, as a mirror. Our reactions to it can show us what we need to work on, to tame our own tumultuous minds.

Not long after I began thinking about this subject, I saw a poster of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, reading a newspaper, with his usual peaceful countenance. “Visualize World Peace,” the poster said. Since I was in the middle of composing my thoughts about consuming the news, I took this poster as a sign: Maybe it is possible to learn to consume the news in a peaceful, calm way; we just need to practice minding the news, to train ourselves to be warriors for peace.

Holly Stocking

Holly Stocking

Holly Stocking is a retired journalist and educator living in Bloomington, Indiana. She has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 1998. She is deeply grateful to all her teachers for their kind advice.