Mindfulness as an Antidote to Frenzied Media Culture

Since I have worked in the radio and news media since 1986, I have had an insider’s view of this business and gained a unique perspective of how it works. Media, all media is driven by ratings, which is about attracting attention. Once the attention of those ears and eyes are secured, they are used as leverage to gain advertising dollars for profit and non-profit media outlets alike.

More often than not, the most sensational stories lead any newscast or pop culture program. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the old adage. The word “sensational” is key to this discussion. By sensational I mean that which is the most surprising, emotionally titillating, upsetting and attention grabbing. Many stories are simply bad news, like war, disasters, threats to our safety et cetera. They are amplified repeatedly like a psychological battering ram.

Also, remember this: news outlets often act as organs of particular political points of view. This is a long tradition.

Once upon a time, networks made their money on other types of programming like dramas and sitcoms. Now, all commercial networks demand that the news broadcast also be a profit center. This is one thing that has led to the sensationalist 24 hour news coverage we now see. It’s all about the money, the worship of money and the influence that money can buy in our society.

This is also true about the entertainment media. The number of programs on currently that deal with the deepest kind of human depravity or silliness has skyrocketed along with the number of cable tv channels.

A steady diet of sensationalism can have a strong effect on the human nervous system. It can provoke a range of emotions that keep us in a constant state of turmoil or at least imbalance. It can contribute to depression and despair.

But here’s the worst thing about feeding heavily on media trash culture: we so often feel disempowered to do anything meaningful to change our world. Disempowerment leads to apathy, and apathy to inaction. We can get frozen into a permanent state of inertia. We are then subject to manipulation by a whole host of demagogues whose points of view are eagerly broadcast by—the media.

Thought I wouldn’t claim that there is a conspiracy involved in media programming, it’s wise to remember the words of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Hamilton, who strove to secure the support of the wealthy for the fledgling U.S. government, had little but contempt for common folk. He encouraged the wealthy to supply the “the rabble” as he termed us, with “bread and circuses” while our betters handled the serious business of governance. And that is, by and large the pattern we have today: poor quality fast food on nearly every corner and 24 hours of news, sports and celebrity drivel.

This is where mindful practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation come to our aid. These ancient mindfulness practices offer us a way to take control of our nervous systems so that we can connect with what’s in our soul instead of being whipped into the chaos that is the commercial news media.

For those of us who may yearn to stop the world so we can get off for a while, these mindfulness practices help us reset our nervous systems so we can gain a clear perspective on life untainted by the greedy maw of consumerism promoted by the media industrial complex. When we regain autonomous control over own minds, we get a panoramic vista of our own lives and how we fit into the crazy world we’ve created. We are no longer manipulated by every violent atrocity, celebrity news tidbit or the other magnified trash foisted upon us. Our buttons and triggers are not so readily accessible to the barrage of commercial stimuli constantly directed toward us.

So, if you’re weary of the rat race and the endless, ruinous competition that is being offered, retreat. Retreat to the nourishing practices that our ancestors have nurtured and handed down to us. We may always drink from the fortifying springs of these traditions as an antidote to the toxicity of so-called modern culture.

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Politics: Crucible for the Ego

The most difficult part about intense political involvement for me is participating vigorously while observing, and curbing the egoistic tendency to descend into rancor, negativity and ultimately, irrelevance. It goes back to something I heard as a child, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’ how you play the game.” Now that the March 18th special election is over, a contest in which I was intimately involved, the results of the actual vote are not as important as the condition of our community in the aftermath. If we lose our composure in the process of competition, how far will we have traveled on our journey to building a truly cooperative society?

The driving instinct to be the unassailable victor looking down on the defeated adversary lives within us waiting for the sweet moment of conquest. It is part of our deepest impulse to survive. It’s the fight part of the “fight or flight” equation that we are constantly calculating when confronted by uncertainty about our access to the means of survival.

And this is why politics is such an effective crucible, custom made to burn away the dross inherent within our nature. Starting from the premise that violence is not part of the game, (and it hasn’t always been so), we partner up for the fascinating dance of self-engagement through the struggle of working out our differences. We have ingeniously devised a proving ground to test every detail of our collective mettle.

We all talk about how nasty political intercourse can be. That’s the cynical cop out we use to keep our distance from the fire; the fire that will force us to look at the truth about ourselves: we are a juvenile species wrestling with conflict and how to express it in a way that doesn’t wreck the playing field and kill the players.

It all begins with our personal attachment to the results of our actions. We work hard towards a goal, invest our blood, sweat, toil and tears banking on achievement of the lofty pinnacle of success. We mythologize about how deserving we are, how right our motives, how just our cause. We wrap this all tightly into our breasts with the earnest expectation of the consummate prize. This leads us to justify the way we characterize our opponents.

They may begin innocuously as opponents, then they become adversaries, and somewhere along the slippery slope of rationalization, we clearly see an enemy. A foe who stands between us and our right to the Holy Grail. At this moment, our facade of humanity cracks and peels away to reveal the unadorned animal nature, ready to hoist the banner of certain rectitude against which only the devil would dare stand. All that’s left is to choose your weapons and commence with the blood shed.

We’ve heard it said that “the meek will inherit the earth.” The question is: how? Will the meek be all who are left after the demons of domination lay waste to each other, or will we culture an ethic that minimizes egoistic extremes and pursues policy making from a more cooperative angle? It’s an open question, but here’s a glimmering possibility for you.

Simply extend an invitation to goodness. Whether through prayer, mantra or contemplation, just sit for a few moments each morning and consciously invite goodness into your heart. Visualize the people and situations with which you have difficulty and send kindness and good will to them. By doing so we slough off the armor of hard-heartedness and start the process of healing our own wounds and reaching out to others.

This is a practice that I’ve humbly begun; an imperfect work in progress. It has helped me see others in a clearer, friendlier light. This doesn’t mean I won’t disagree with my opponents or try to hold them accountable for their policies and actions.; that’s what debate is about. But I do pledge to do so respectfully, eliminating pejorative slams and slights. I often fail, and in recognizing my failures try to amend my words and actions. It’s a hard, messy business.

Volunteering to enter the crucible of public involvement will confront and change you. For the sake of future challenges, we must all begin to think about our roles in the world and how we will function in times of crisis. Will we promote the highest aspirations of humanity, or will we disintegrate like Tolkein’s ring of power? The crucible is offered to us like a chalice. Will we drink of its experience or turn away?

If we do good for the sake of doing good and let go of our desire for guaranteed results, the good will sprout and bear fruit after its kind. We already know where the other choice leads.

Election Reflection

 

As some of you know, I was involved in the election just passed as a supporter of my partner, Michele Berger, for a seat on the Pittsboro Town Board of Commissioners. Though my mother raised me on a steady diet of partisan politics, I never got involved until I saw something I wanted to protect: the unique treasure that is Pittsboro. An old saying had been rattling around in my head for a long time: the world is run by those who show up. I figured it was time for me to stand up and be counted on to preserve and nurture something worth saving.

As a boy, I witnessed post-war sprawl devour the paradise of southern California. I sat in traffic jams and breathed air sometimes so foul it hurt to breathe. So, when fate brought my Michele and I here, I was delighted to be in a community where the air was clean, where a traffic jam meant a few cars slowing through the roundabout downtown, and where I could meet the farmers who grew my food.. I was also pleased to meet people who thought Pittsboro had the opportunity to emerge as a prosperous, self-sustaining town. But I was also aware of developers outside Chatham County who saw dollar signs as they gazed greedily upon vast tracts of vacant land and a vulnerable town decimated by corporate pressures that took their jobs to distant shores.

So, with a small group of friends, I walked the streets of Pittsboro to share our vision of a place that could bootstrap its own prosperity, a town that could cooperate with others to plan for our future common infrastructure needs, a town strong enough, smart enough and courageous enough to resist outside pressures and forge its own identity. We held rallies and threw parties. We met in homes, appeared at community events, churches and any place we could to share our vision of Pittsboro’s future. From late summer to early autumn we reasoned with our friends and neighbors and declared our message of prosperity by Pittsboro for Pittsboro.

For the most part, our message was well received. As in any contest we had our competition; decent people with a different take on what should be done for Pittsboro. We met the enthusiastic, the empathetic and the apathetic. I remember a middle-aged man on Small St. one day who told me, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna change.” Despite my protests, he persisted with his mantra. When it came time for a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, our opponents didn’t show up. We felt that the whole community had been stood up; denied the chance to hear a frank contrast of views between competitors. But it was a sly trick they pulled on us. I guess your views can’t be criticized if you don’t let the voters know what they are.

Finally, November 6, rolled around. Throughout the day we heard reports from our supporters that made us realize that there was no small amount of confusion at the polls that day. We began to suspect that voter irregularities were occurring. At the end of the night Michele was down by a handful of votes in an apparently flawed election.

Michele asked for a recount the next day.

In the week between the election and the recount, my capable friends and I scoured the rolls comparing voter addresses with the type of ballots they received. At the recount, Michele pulled within three votes of the nearest competition. As we completed our investigation of voter irregularities, we and the Chatham County Board of Elections discovered fourteen county voters who received Pittsboro municipal ballots and three Pittsboro voters who were denied their right to a municipal ballot. Seventeen irregularities occurred; almost six times the amount of votes that could have changed the outcome of the election.

I filed a protest of the election which was upheld by our local board and the state board despite our opponent’s opposition to our right to a fair election. The system worked.– Michele Berger was granted a special runoff election to take place in mid-March.

Looking back, it occurs to me that democracy is hard work. Perhaps that’s why so many shy away from “getting involved.” I think it was the French philosopher Voltaire who said, “People get the government they deserve.” Only 37% of the electorate showed up to the polls last November. Our apathy won’t save Pittsboro from becoming the sprawl-cursed twin of southern California. Vigilance and work do change things. If we think Pittsboro will be able to chart a sustainable, independent future, free of outside development pressures, it’s going to take a lot more of us to care and vote.