Given our current political climate, it will likely come as no surprise to you that the news can be a primary source of stress in our lives. This makes some sense. The news media cycle has quickened to an extent that if one wanted to it’s now possible to tune in all day every day. Interestingly, research also shows that secondary or vicarious trauma reactions are common as a result of reading about violent news stories.
In the wellness community, the “news as a stressor” conversation often leads to a couple of perspectives. There are those that argue that since it is so stressful, it makes sense to ignore it and eliminate it from your life. I’ve noticed (predominantly white male bloggers) will argue that they’ve gone news free and it hasn’t impacted their lives. Blissful ignorance for the win! Alternatively, there are those that think we have to engage with the news to be a responsible citizen.
Here’s how I’ve come down on this issue. At this moment in history, as someone in a place of enormous privilege, who is largely sheltered from the real world impacts of politics, I feel it is my responsibility to at least bear witness to what is happening and to be informed so I can take the actions that I’m able to.*
And yet, sometimes it gets really overwhelming and I have the urge to stick my head in the sand.
To help with this, I’ve adopted some barriers around how often and in what format I consume the news. I discuss this in Tip #2 in my book review of, Make Time, and you can view the full description here.
Today, I’m going to be focusing on another way to stay engaged with the news without it overwhelming you to the point of despair. Let’s talk about how to turn your news consumption into part of your compassion (aka heart expansion) practice.
You can do this by using something called “Tonglen” or loving kindness meditation. It’s a meditation practice that teaches you to be able to be present with suffering (your own or others) by helping you accept and turn towards the discomfort and in turn to offer warmth and compassion to that experience.
The philosophy is that any difficult emotion (fear, anger, disconnection..) you feel is a common human experience - one that can tether us with a broader sense of connection to humanity.
It allows your compassion to expand in proportion to your own suffering and the pain you encounter in others. When you incorporate this practice, each encounter with something negative, is yet another opportunity to expand your heart. So, what better time to practice then during your interaction with the news.
So now onto the actual technique.
Here’s how I use Tonglen during my news consumption:
Basically you use the discomfort you feel while consuming the news as an opportunity to expand your compassion muscle.
The approach is simple. Here’s the complete Tonglen habit recipe:
Cue: feelings of fear, overwhelm, anger elicited by hearing the news. Or perhaps the feelings that you want to close yourself off from the pain of it all and never listen to the news again.
Your New Reaction: Time To Do Tonglen!
Simply bring your breath and attention to the felt experience of your discomfort. Notice how it feels in your body. Breathe into the emotion and feel it in your heart.
Realize that this emotion is a universal experience felt not only by you, but also billions of other people throughout time.
Exhale out a sense of warmth and compassion for yourself for feeling this emotion and to all the other people in the world who share that common pain (common humanity!)
To close our this article, I’m going to let the queen of Tonglen herself, Pema Chodron, explain the practice.
If you aren’t familiar with Pema (yes, I pretend we are on a first name basis), she is a radical Buddhist nun who speaks to human suffering better than anyone. I trust her deeply as she avoids the common pitfalls of the spiritual teacher, such as favoring the positive end of the emotional spectrum and using airy fairy language that feels deeply disconnected from the real world. Instead, she dives head first into the heart of human suffering and uses practical meditation techniques to break open her own loving heart and presence.
Here are some of her words:
Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. We are out walking and we see someone in pain-right on the spot we can begin to breathe in that person’s pain and send out relief. Or we are just as likely to see someone in pain and look away. The pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So on the spot we can do Tonglen for all the people just like ourselves, all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid-who wish to be brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings. When you do tonglen on the spot, simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief.
For her full instructions on the practice click here.
Do you have any techniques you use to destress after interacting with the news?
*If you are going through a rough patch and know that your mental well-being will be negatively impacted by the stress of the news, I’m in full support of folks making the choice that feels best for you. Even if that means going cold turkey on the news for a while.