In a world where we are constantly connected, it can be difficult to avoid a continual flow of negative media. Over 24 hours, seven days a week, we are subjected to literally dozens of stories about misfortune and injustice, from children caught in civil war, to refugees refused asylum, or even a family’s tragic death in a house fire or car accident.
This roller-coaster ride of drama from every corner of the globe has come to provide the background noise to our lives. But, unfortunately, much of what we are subjected to is worse than “noise”, says professor Mark Cohen, a pioneer of holistic and integrative medicine and a member of the RMIT University Health Innovations Research Institute. Rather, it is “manufactured news”, created for the benefit of corporations such as chemical companies, power companies or industrial food companies, he says.
Cohen cites Toxic Sludge is Good For You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, an international bestseller that lifted the lid off the multi-billion dollar PR industry with its revelations about how public relations wizards concoct and spin news for their own purpose, as proof.
But think about what we hear and see on our television, radio station or on the Internet, and we will soon realise that much of it is a toxic tickertape that takes us away from self-care, creative pursuits and wellbeing, says Shirley Hughes, psychotherapist of New South Wales’s The Calm Zone.
How we react to bad news
Psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body) has quite clearly shown that a constant stream of bad news negatively affects the immune system, says Cohen, who reveals he doesn’t own a TV. “And if your resilience suffers, you suffer,” he says. “You are disenchanted and more prone to disease.”
When we witness “coverage” of war zones, murders, attacks, rapes, fires or car accidents, we are triggering the fight or flight response at an unconscious level, explains Hughes. “Our stomachs tighten and our hearts race,” she says. Emotionally, the daily calamities we are subjected to visually and aurally may prompt everything from anger and anxiety to grief, she adds. “We can also feel overwhelmed and, when we are overwhelmed we tend to feel less centred and less powerful.”
We are also affected mentally and spiritually, says Michael de Manincor, director of the Yoga Institute in Sydney. “Yoga teachings, especially in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, have much to say about the effects of sensory input on the functioning of the mind,” he says. “Perhaps the most relevant aspect of yoga in this context is pratyahara, presented in Patanjali’s model of the eight limbs.”
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, is concerned with cultivation of inner awareness and perception; of moving from external sensory stimulation to a more inward experience, says de Manincor. “Whether it is the flickering images of a screen, the sensory bombardment of a busy urban environment, or even the rich diversity of a natural forest, each of these can have a negative effect on the overstimulation of the mind, and its limited ability to cope with too much sensory processing.”
Making conscious choices
While communing with nature can be soothing, it would be difficult to argue that the daily media blitz we are subjected to is beneficial to our wellbeing. To combat its effect, it is helpful to realise that we can filter the news or even re-select what we want to hear.
“Many people seem to think it is important to be aware of things happening in our world,” says de Manincor. “This may be true. I am not suggesting that we need to stick our head in the sand. However, is there any value in knowing mostly about the bad news?”
“There is a wealth of other media available to us besides manufactured news,” says Cohen. “If you are looking for an alternative, select free podcasts, or documentaries, or find DVDs that you personally find uplifting and empowering. Audio books are also a wonderful thing.”
Cohen suggests asking ourselves where our bliss or passion lies and then using these resources to feed it. This more conscious pursuit of nourishing media will help build santosha, or contentment with our own truth, rather than nurture a constant anxiety that the world is a bad place.
Flicking the off switch
Of course the other choice is to go on a media fast at least for part of your day, or week. Switching off the sources of sensory bombardment and engaging in periods of silence and meditation are very important to a spiritual life and to yoga practice, says de Manincor.
This encompasses pratyahara, the branch of yoga study that is concerned with unfocusing the senses and stepping aside from the world we can see and hear. We can reach this place through meditation which, ultimately, can train the mind to be stronger, more calm and focused, he says.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) is a good way to begin to understand pratyahara on an experiential level. “Pranayama practices [the use of the breath to affect the mind] can also be very helpful,” says de Manincor.
“Breath is a powerful asset that is readily available to us. It allows us to step back from a situation and become a witness; to take time to observe it without a feeling of being frozen into it,” says Hughes. “It can also allow us to gain a new perspective and to put ourselves back in our personal power by enforcing our own wellbeing.”
The idea of entering a space or an environment where what we think of as “keeping up to date” is put on hold is one that is supported by Melbourne-based motivational expert Mark McKeon, author of Get In The Go Zone. He believes everyone should have a “No Zone” and quotes Nelson Mandela: “I wanted to be free, so I let it go.” “The No Zone is where we refresh and recover; it produces a heightened state of awareness,” he says.
The fact is that we are always connected, says Cohen. “The choice is where do we put our attention?” Moving away from a media-created world can allow us to spend more time on relationships with friends and family and on spiritual practices.
“I think the niyamas, in particular tapas—the discipline required to make these choices—is relevant here,” says de Manincor.
In reality, we can’t entirely avoid bad news, says Hughes. But, rather than feel powerless, especially about events happening in far corners of the globe, we may choose to go deeper into our practice.
Undertaking Lovingkindness meditation for those who are suffering is one way of taking positive action.
We may also want to take small, concrete steps towards effecting positive change in our community and in others’ lives.
In his book Beyond Outrage, US author and political commentator Robert Reich suggests reaching out to groups in our communities to build a powerful network for change. Working together with like-minded people is energising, empowering and brings us hope, he says.
Keeping ourselves in a balanced state, through an “attitude of gratitude”, associating with positive people, following a natural diet and, of course, focusing on our yoga practice, is also crucial to wellbeing, says Hughes.
A recent RMIT survey of almost 4000 yoga practitioners in Australia found that more than 50 per cent took up the discipline to combat stress and anxiety. All of these things take you away from worry—and towards wellbeing.
A relaxation practice
After your asana practice, try this deep relaxation from Shirley Hughes at The Calm Zone.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, loosen your clothing and either sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes and allow yourself to relax by taking three deep breaths in and letting go of all tension as you exhale slowly with long, slow outbreaths.
Continue breathing deeply and let your breath wash right through you as you see in your mind’s eye a path leading down to a beach.
Feel the warmth of the path underfoot and feel your body sigh with pleasure as you step onto the beach and walk onto the warm sand.
See the deep blue and green sparkling water of the ocean stretched out before you and the bright blue of the sky with a few white clouds scattered here and there.
The sun is shining and it feels so good to be there.
As you look around you might see brightly coloured beach umbrellas, people lazing in the sun and hear the laughter of children as they play in the sand or the shallow water.
The sand becomes cooler and damp beneath your feet and as you walk along the water’s edge you can feel the gentle ripple of the cool, fresh water on your feet as it breaks on the sand.
Sit down for a while and gaze out at the vastness of the ocean and if there has been any worrying thoughts bothering you lately roll them into a ball. Now throw the ball into the water and watch the thoughts being carried way out to sea.
As they vanish feel at peace and enjoy lazing on the beach a little longer.
When you are ready walk back along the beach, up the path and back into the space you are relaxing in, feeling calm and peaceful.
Helen Hawkes is a freelance writer and Iyengar Yoga practitioner based in Byron Bay.