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Time to Go on a Media Diet
After burning out last week, I mostly unplugged. Here's what I learned, and why I recommend you try it too.
Last week was hard. For no reason I can pinpoint, my grief, over both the October 7 massacres and the thousands of Palestinians killed since, hit me harder than before, and I crashed. I ended friendships, was messy at work, and had some very dark feelings that I won’t be sharing here. Although one never knows if one has hit the bottom, I certainly hit a bottom, and I knew it. I clearly needed to do something.
So, in addition to prioritizing sleeping, eating, and exercise, I went on a hard-core media and social media diet. Not quite a fast, entirely – after all, I’m a journalist – but a significant cutback, powered by a lot of mindfulness.
Here’s how it went, and why I think you should consider going on a diet of your own.
Facebook was first to go. For the last year, I’d been using Facebook less (like a lot of people), but after October 7, I found it deeply comforting and was on it much more. My feed, disproportionately Jewish, was brutal. People posted endless pictures and videos of people who had been killed or kidnapped, plus horrible details of the rapes and massacre and heart-wrenching accounts of friends with close friends or relatives who had been murdered. But I wanted the brutality. I wanted to feel connected to those who were suffering, to be there, somehow, for them. I couldn’t go about my regular life anyway. I needed to go through it.
Gradually, though, the harm outweighed the good. After the war began, there were endless arguments in every direction, with rage at people from the left and the right who seemed (to me) to be behaving badly. And the same viewing of images that, for the first few days, felt like an important stage in my grieving process now began to feel simply masochistic. Who was I helping by reposting pictures of murdered girls who looked just like my daughter?
So I cut way, way back – again, not to zero, but close to it. The results were astonishing.
First, I immediately felt more balanced and more able to self-regulate. I realized how these posts and pictures had been punching me in the gut several times an hour, and how they were making me less compassionate, rather than more. I was stoking my own primal feelings, and my own anger, and not giving time for other, more empathetic capacities to arise.
Second, I noticed how frequently I felt the itch to check the news or social media. Having taught others for years about limiting one’s media intake, it was astonishing to see this for myself. Every few minutes I felt the itch. Even as I knew that scratching the itch would make me feel worse, not better.
I scaled back on other social media too. I ghosted a lot of people on Instagram, left some group chats on WhatsApp. I’d given up on TwitterX already, and am too old for TikTok. Basically, I drew a lot of boundaries. It’s been really, really helpful.
So, how might you go on a ‘diet’ of your own?
The key, for me, has been mindfulness, the capacity of the mind to notice, non-judgmentally, what’s happening in the mind, the senses, and the body. I feel incredibly fortunate to have taught mindfulness for nearly twenty years, and feel like I’m reaping the fruits of that work now.
But even if you’re not a mindfulness professional, you can do this. There’s no need to be calm, or take a deep breath, or close your eyes, or anything like that. Mindfulness isn’t really about those things anyway – it’s about being with whatever you’re feeling and noticing, whether it’s quiet or noisy, peaceful or agitated. It’s not about what’s going on – it’s about how you relate to it.
So, when you’re about to go on social media or check the news, take a pause, and inquire into how the mind and body are doing. How is the body feeling right now? Are there any strong emotions already present? And what are you hoping to gain by checking the news or social media? If it’s just a distraction, maybe you can find another one that will be less harmful. If it’s really for information, check and see if you really need to know what’s happening at this exact moment.
Sometimes the answer may be yes – that’s fine. It’s a diet, not a fast. But, speaking for myself, usually the answer is no. That’s all.
It’s fair to question whether I’m being irresponsible. After all, there are people who have it way, way worse than you or I do. Is this “diet” indulgent? Lazy? Selfish?
I don’t think so – in fact, I think it’s the opposite. First, I’m not ignoring the news; I’m just regulating my intake of it, and cutting out most of the arguing about it. When something important happens, I’ll find out. And, speaking for myself, I think my desire to get every detail is more about assuaging my own sense of helplessness than any real sense of civic or moral responsibility. (More on this next week.)
The result, I think, is that I’m more responsible, more empathetic, and more able to think clearly, rather than less. Rather than triggering fight-or-flight reactions with every outrageous bit of information, I’m conserving my energy, and enabling myself to think, feel, and communicate more effectively. That includes empathy for innocent people suffering on all sides.
There’s an old saw that good journalism afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted. Often, some righteous affliction is necessary; those of us who are privileged or complacent need to be shaken up now and then. But is that really where you are right now? I doubt it.
So my advice: use mindfulness to cut back on your media intake, especially your social media intake. Don’t click on every outrage. Stay informed, but be resilient enough to stand up when it matters. Don’t burn yourself out. The people you care about need you.
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Did you know that I work at the New York Insight Meditation Center? Well, I do, and in the midst of this challenging period, we’re hosting a big event in two weeks that I’d like to advertise: the New York Insight Fall Benefit with Dan Harris and Leslie Booker. It’s happening Tuesday, November 14th, 2023, 7:00pm – 9:00pm ET. In person at The Center, 208 West 13th Street in NYC, and online via Zoom
During their conversation, Dan and Booker will offer practical advice and heartfelt teachings to help attendees navigate life’s challenges with grace and wisdom. Whether you’re a seasoned meditator or just beginning your journey, this event offers a unique opportunity to gain inspiration and deepen your understanding.
Here’s Dan and Booker:
You can register here — and come say hello to me if you’re there.