A few months ago, I got this nagging voice in my head. It told me that I needed a “reset”. This was the time when the Orlando shooting happened, when racial tension was at a national high due to the recent police shootings, when it felt like terrorists were attacking every corner of every major city, and planes were dropping from the sky.
Not many people know this about me, but I was (key word, was) a news junkie. I watched the local news every morning, listened to National Public Radio (NPR) on my way to work, watched the nighttime news with my husband during dinnertime, read Google News sitting on the toilet, and had a bad habit of clicking on all of the news articles on Facebook that reminded me how terrible the world was. As you can imagine, I was inundated. I normally prided myself in my knowledge of world events. I liked being a well-informed citizen. But in the midst of everything that happened this year, I mostly felt anxious about being in this world. I also felt scared shitless of what world I was bringing my daughter into.
I became well-aware of the extent that the media was controlling my mood and my beliefs. It made me paranoid about being in public places and anxious about strangers on the street. It made me wish I could live in a cave far far away from the evils of the world. This is what happens when we have a media infrastructure that spotlights the terrors of the world and feeds on the resulting fear and anger of its viewers. This type of news cycle keeps us glued to the TV screen/newspaper/internet because we depend on it to stay aware of the dangers of the world.
When this nagging voice inside of my head told me I needed to reset, it reminded me that there are good people in this world and good things happen every day. But when I choose to be a subscriber of negativity-driven media, I am choosing to pollute my mind with fear.
My solution to this was to abstain from the news and social media for one month. On top of that, I threw on an extra challenge of abstaining from meat, a habit that I started when I became pregnant (after being vegetarian and pescatarian for about 10 years) and continued to eat with great guilt after my daughter was born.
To replace the time I normally spent consuming the news, I instead dedicated my time to writing, self-reflection, and developing a daily Buddhist practice. I also chose to view and listen to informational media that would be helpful in advancing my self-understanding.
During this time, I discovered an amazing podcast called “Invisibilia”, a production of NPR. Its whole theme is about exploring the things that are invisible to the naked eye, touching on topics in the realm of psychology and sociology. In one of their episodes, they interviewed a woman who had a unique set of symptoms in which she could actually feel the physical sensations of other people. For instance, if she saw someone being choked, she, too, would start to feel as if she was being choked. This rare disorder is called mirror-touch synesthesia. It turns out that one reason why people experience this phenomenon is due to the high activity of their mirror neurons, which is responsible for our ability to understand what others are experiencing and develop empathy for others. People with this type of synesthesia have mirror neurons that are so strong that their brain is tricked into feeling the sensations of everyone around them.
Where am I going with this? No, I don’t have mirror-touch synesthesia, thank God. But learning about this made me realize that my mirror neurons are also very strong but in a different way. Much like how the woman in the podcast feels the physical pain of others, I cringe, cry, and crumble at others’ emotional pain. I am particularly susceptible to feeling the emotional pain of children and animals.
During my one month fast, I sought to accept and understand my highly sensitive nature. There is even a term for this, I discovered. Someone coined the word empath to describe people who have a deep sense of empathy. This trait is one reason why I thrive in my profession. But it’s also caused me to feel overwhelmed and overly responsible for the injustices of the world. My deep sense of empathy makes it hard for me to separate my own feelings and experiences from that of other people. It makes it easy for me to absorb other people’s energy and for my energy to leak out. This is why I need lots of alone time so that I can restore my energy. And this trait explains why I am so affected by media.
Just as an example, I remember vividly when I was in a Southeast Asian Studies course in college. My professor had us watch a documentary about sex trafficking of children in Asia. I couldn’t watch the whole film–I laid my head down for half of it. Afterwards for several days, I remember walking around feeling like I was one of the trafficked children in the film and all of the men around me were johns. I felt disgusted, angered, and victimized. By the way, this is why I no longer watch documentaries.
The month free from media and meat did help me with this particular problem. I developed a keener sense of when I needed to restrict my energy output, such as when I felt very tired or needed an energy reserve for a certain activity. I also tried to limit my exposure to things and people that exhausted me.
At the end of the 30 days, I indeed felt more grounded, calmer, healthier and less pessimistic. But I also knew that I needed to develop a consistent practice in order to reap long term benefits.I’m sharing my practice in this blog post in case it can help any of you reading this:
- Abstain from watching the news. Yep, I decided to do away with watching the news completely. In the end, I determined that it was a complete waste of my time and energy. My husband, a news junkie himself, inadvertently has done the same.
- Limit the amount of news articles and social media that I consume online. I’ve figured out that I can click “See less of this” on articles that pop up on my Facebook feed so that I can better filter what I am exposed to. I also reduced the habit of reading the news and scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone during downtime.
- When driving, listen to music or casual talk radio. I commute about 20 miles each way to and from work. I became aware that listening to NPR or podcasts did not help me unwind from my job during my drive home. Now, it’s usually Pandora’s Disney station or the local easy listening radio station 🙂
- Commit to a daily spiritual practice. Although I have long believed in and studied Buddhist philosophy, I never declared myself as a Buddhist until recently. In the last few months, I felt the benefits of a daily practice of Buddhist chanting and praying. Along with expressing gratitude for the blessings in my life, I pray for the people who I serve in my work, the beings in the world that are suffering, and the spirits that are watching over me. I pray for greater strength and courage to make more positive change in the world. When chanting, I hold in my mind the people who I’ve encountered during my day and send them my blessings.
- Study myself intently. The intense awareness of my thoughts, behaviors and feelings that I practiced in the last few months has benefitted me greatly. I process what I’ve observed about myself through my writing, sharing with others and in therapy. I feel so much more clarity about what I’m doing and why I am doing it!
- Use guided imagery on a daily basis. (If you don’t know what guided imagery is, click here). The exercise that I use most often is one where I imagine a giant cord that starts at my collar bone and connects to the center of the earth. I direct all of the energy that is not mine to escape from my body to be recycled by the earth. I then direct all of the energy that I’ve left in other places to return to me in a giant gold orb. Another one that I learned recently is to imagine that I have a bubble around myself; when I’m feeling overwhelmed or tired, I can direct my bubble to be smaller and closer to my body so that I do not absorb others’ energy as easily.
For those of you reading this, what part of this story resonates with you? Even though you may not classify yourself as an empath or highly sensitive, how do you find yourself negatively impacted by the media? What negative habits can you imagine yourself fasting from?
I’m hoping that this writing inspired you, amused you or simply bridged a connection between me and you.