Staying in the middle: How to ride through uncertain times
11 September 2019 | Briony Gunson
Jon Kabat-Zinn, an influential figure in mindfulness and founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), once said: “You can’t control the waves, but you can learn how to surf”.
At present, you don’t need to spend too long scanning the news or social media to feel the strength of these metaphorical waves, or see how dark and foreboding the sea of life currently appears. We are surrounded by messages of change and uncertainty – from Brexit to climate change – which are almost entirely negative in outlook or alarming in tone.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking: “I have to stay up to date with the news!” Or, we may mistakenly conflate being well-informed about current affairs with intelligence, and thus feel pressure to keep up with the news. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself if reading the news every day is a useful or healthy habit?
I’m not suggesting you live in ignorance, but it’s important to consider a common sense question: what are you going to do with this information? If I spend 20 minutes scanning The Guardian website (how predictable!), I might be intellectually stimulated by much of the content, but the news stories I read may also trigger me to feel emotions of anger, worry and anxiety. Anger at Brexit. Worry about the future. Anxiety about the climate. The fact is, we are hardwired to pay more attention to negative news, because it’s essential to our survival to be aware of such threats.
But once we’re “up to date”, what do we do with this information? Rant to colleagues about Brexit? Have a sobering conversation with a barista about the Amazon rainforest? The likelihood is, for many of us, we’re not going to do much – practically speaking – with all this new information. We just continue on, day by day, becoming more “well-informed” at the expense of our wellbeing.
“We live in complicated times. We seek, but we don’t necessarily find, the ultimate things we long to experience – contentment, joy, love, inner peace. Our lives are too often overloaded with demands… [and] this just adds to our inner stress and turmoil. The media constantly bombard us with images reminding us of our lack… and we so often feel like failures.” Annie Lennox, We’re In This Together, Resurgence 2017
It doesn’t take much for our brains to trigger an emotional response in the body. When we perceive a threat, a very ancient but highlighly effective part of the brain – the amygdala – kicks into action. Almost immediately, we are in the tight grip of a prehistoric physiological response. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood the system, preparing the body to either freeze, fight or flight to protect ourselves.
But what if you’re just sat on the tram, commuting to work, and browsing the news on your phone? Your body is now on high alert, having triggered the well meaning but overzealous amygdala. The mind – at least at a conscious level – understands that there’s no immediate threat. You know you don’t need to leap off the tram and run for your life. You instead continue on your journey to work. But the body still has to ride through that physiological response. Eventually the nervous system will calm down… until the next time you read the news. You see an article about Trump and WHOOSH! The amygdala sets off all over again.
So when we choose to read the news (a daily occurrence for many of us, often multiple times), we are regularly flooding the body with negative emotions as well. This can lead to us having over-stimulated agymdalas that, in turn, impacts on our outlook and action:
“Psychologists have… noted that this exposure to graphic violence, and to negative media can either cause an over-sensitization, where we become more sensitive and pessimistic or can lead to desensitization, in which we are actually numb to the effects of violence… [T]his pessimism can lead us to ignore the many things that are positive in the media, and in the world. The quality of life for millions of people has actually improved – despite what the headlines suggest.” careersinpsychology.org
When you consider these facts, it becomes clear that we need to avoid using the news and social media as a passive pastime, where we just take on-board whatever information is shown to us. The empowering fact is, we can choose what information we want to expose ourselves to. We can use our critical thinking to filter information and decide what we want to get emotionally involved in. Just like deciding what food you want to eat. You have a choice whether to eat something healthy and nurturing, or eat something unhealthy and lacking in nutrition, and we all know what the long-term impact of eating unhealthily is. Similarly, we have a choice about what news and media we want to consume. And, just like with unhealthy food, consuming negative news can have a long-term detrimental impact on the body’s health, as our body’s system is continually disrupted by the flood of stress hormones.
So how do we tackle this?
It’s not practical to cut yourself off from the world around you, so how can we stay grounded in what are uncertain times? Mick Timpson, the founder of beanddo, often talks about the importance of “staying in the middle”: to be connected to ourselves and aware of the world around us, but not caught up in it.
So how can we learn to stay in the middle? We know that meditation is a fantastic tool for not only switching off the fight or flight response, but it also enhances some essential mental faculties that can help you ride the waves of life, rather than be continually buffeted by them.
These mental faculties are our attention and awareness, which in turn leads to more meaningful action. Let’s explore these briefly, in the context of how to stay in the middle during uncertain times:
- Attention – Be protective of your attention. It is finite so don’t just give it to anything put in front of you. Ask yourself: what am I going to do with this information? If you’re scrolling through social media or the news to pass the time, know that you’ll likely trigger the amygdala. Find other, more fulfilling or enriching ways to use this time for yourself. Remember: in the Attention Economy that we live in – with tech giants all fighting to capture your attention – being in a state of fear means we are much more likely to stay glued to the news.
- Awareness – How much of your awareness are you devoting to external circumstances over which you have no control? Maintain perspective. Question everything. Not in a cynical or paranoid way, but with a sense of curiosity and objectivity. There are large scale changes taking place across the world, but don’t go down the rabbit hole and lose sight of all the good. Don’t allow your emotional state and actions to be steered by a third party and their editorial agenda. Remember that you have a choice about how you view a situation. Don’t give your power away. Make meaningful considerations about what you read and take in. Consult a variety of sources. Have a break from it all for a while.
“…There are millions of ingredients, and nobody has complete mastery over them. When it comes to the inner situation, however, there is only one ingredient: YOU. You can be the sole architect and creator of your inner life. But you don’t know how. That is the rub. If you were in charge, for sure, you would not manufacture a misery for yourself. The fundamental freedom is you can think whatever you want. What then stops you from thinking pleasant thoughts? The problem is just this: the fact that your mind is not taking instructions from you.” Sadhguru Inner Engineering, A Yogi’s Guide To Joy.
- Action – Are you responding or reacting? As the body is the instrument of the mind, our emotional state will be influencing our actions. Feeding the mind negative narratives on a daily basis regularly floods the body with negative emotions. This will not only impact your mental and physical health, it can make you highly reactive and skews your view of the world. It can also lead to desensitisation and likely rob you of your motivation, which leads to inaction. In order to stay focused, energised and inspired to make positive choices, ration the use of social media and news consumption. Or try to access these platforms purposefully, rather than unthinking, with no agenda. Meditate regularly and take action on those things that you don’t feel right about. The world is full of people waking up to the reality around us, not liking what they see and making positive changes. For example, veganism is the biggest trend in the world right now – (https://foodrevolution.org/blog/vegan-statistics-global/), and of course there’s the fight against plastic, often being spearheaded by children (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p078tv89)
Stay aware of what is happening around you but, more importantly, stay aware of what is happening within you. Stay in the middle, stay connected to yourself, and with the help of meditation you can build yourself a strong surfboard to ride the waves of life.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Rumi
Hero image credit: Photo by Alex Wigan on Unsplash.
Other beanddo articles you might be interested in…
Practical ways to cope with all the bad news
The ‘always on’ culture is not sustainable (or beneficial)