Jon Kabat-Zinn was on KQED Radio’s Forum show on Tuesday, talking about his latest book, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment. (Listen to the show here.)
Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the founder of the school’s stress reduction clinic, which uses “mindfulness-based” techniques to alleviate stress. He is also the author of two bestselling books on mindfulness, which is defined by the clinic as “a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.”
After his appearance on KQED Radio, I took the opportunity to talk to Kabat-Zinn about a topic of personal relevance to me: How do you keep from being negatively affected by the news? He said a lot of really good stuff before recommending, among other things, taking a “news fast,” where you don’t read, listen to, or watch the news. At which point I remembered what I did for a living and had him escorted out by security.
An edited transcript of the interview follows the audio…
There’s been a lot of bad news in recent years with the economy decimated and unemployment high and budget cuts. For consumers of news who find themselves overly affected by negative reports, what can they do in terms of mindfulness?
If they’re very affected by it and negatively affected by it, what mindfulness would suggest is that you start to look at that and actually experience how you’re being affected by it. How it’s affecting your body, how it’s affecting the rest of your day, how much of your time are you spending consuming the news. That’s the word that’s often used; we consume the news, we eat it up. And it often consumes us; just the way tuberculosis was often called consumption. So in a way it’s a certain kind of disease process.
Why do we have to know all of that? And how much do we have to know it and in how much detail? And then why do we repeat it or read three newspapers or read the same newspaper three times and then read it on your iPad or iPhone? And maybe if it’s really having a negative affect on you, one might entertain the notion quite seriously of just for a couple of weeks taking a news fast and not doing it at all.
First of all you’ll have so much more time, and second of all real life still unfolds. You will still have a full life. And if you’re unemployed and you have to find a job then maybe you won’t be so bummed out that all the possibilities seem against you. You can tap into what’s possible, independent of what all the experts are saying is possible. That’s a hugely powerful way to work with things.
So one way is to just cut it out for a period of time and see how addicted we are to it and what the affect of it is. I had that experience once when I went on retreat right after 9/11. I was on retreat for six weeks, no newspaper, no radio, no nothing. I was just meditating and sitting and walking all the time for six weeks.
When I came out we were at war in Afghanistan and this and that, but the fact of the matter is that if you do a news fast for any stretch of time, the French have this old saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they’re the same. You can miss six weeks of the news, and it’s like almost any six weeks of the news will replace any other six weeks. The same maniacs are saying the same stupid things over and over again and they’re being decoded by all the pundits and everybody’s got something to say and a lot of it is just totally empty.
And the good news that there is in the newspaper — that often doesn’t get much air time. There’s an enormous amount of good news -– you can actually start to read some of the good things that are happening, or emphasize them.
The other thing to do is to bring mindfulness to reading the newspaper or listening to the news. And notice how easy it is to get addicted to it, and how passive a process it is, and how in some sense disempowering. And that awareness is actually in itself empowering. And how you choose to be in relationship to it is of course part of the repertoire of life decisions each of us must make moment by moment and day by day.
I bought a newspaper this morning to get on BART. At a certain point I just left it on BART because I wanted to walk down the street without a newspaper under my arms. I wanted to not go back to it if I had 10 minutes to — quote unquote — kill. You don’t have ten minutes to kill; no one has ten minutes to kill. Because those moments are irretrievable and they’re your life in those 10 minutes. So how about feeling the air as you walk down the street, how about noticing the light, noticing the quality of emotion on other people’s faces or the buildings if you happen to be in the city.
And in all those ways you’re reclaiming moments of your life, as opposed to in some sense pissing them away by absorbing something that has no direct relationship to your life at all.
You mention being empowered. One thing I find is that when I read the news is I get upset because I feel powerless — I have no control over these world-changing events that can affect my life, and that makes me frustrated and mad.
I sympathize with and understand that. It can be quite depressing and anxiety-inducing. But for the most part it doesn’t lead to any satisfactory way to take a stand. Sometimes it does – this Occupy movement for instance. People actually saying we are fed up. And the news media very often, until you have thousands of people in the street disrupting things, doesn’t call a spade a spade. But when you have a meme like the 99% — we can be frustrated but we can also feel empowered. There are ways to actually bring awareness to how much we disempower ourselves and then blame it on the media.
I have to say, I read the newspaper a lot, I watch cable news from time to time. Because I want to see what other people are saying about something; it’s like taking the pulse of the nation. When I can hear people giving very different perspectives on things, it reminds me that no one has a monopoly on the truth. And everyone’s citing it from a different coordinate system, and it’s up to me to synthesize from moment to moment what I think is actually going on.
But to a large extent, the way society changes is when we no longer accept the consensus reality and say no, I’m a citizen, my reality is going to be the reality, I’m going to inhabit it and then take action in the social domain and exercise my rights of citizenship.