Voices of Doom

Media Sensationalism vs. Mindfulness Meditation

It is a cliché, by now, to state that the media thrives on sensationalism and fear-mongering. This, now obvious and undeniable, fact applies not only to trashy tabloid publications like The National Enquirer, The Daily Mirror and The Sun but even to the pillars of the supposedly mainstream media like CNN and Fox News and, dare I say it, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

It is now apparent that even responsible, mainstream journalism cannot escape the influence of the established tenets of lurid tabloid journalism, namely, that “sex sells” and that “if it bleeds, it leads.” This explains the over-abundance of gratuitously sexual and violent stories and images that have saturated the media for the last century and, even more so, in this century. And, as in the case of Rupert Murdoch, when the press barons of today are actually purveyors of tabloid journalism themselves, the line of distinction between so-called “responsible journalism” and “tabloid journalism” becomes increasingly blurry and indistinguishable.

Recent examples of the absurd depths to which mainstream media institutions have fallen in their ongoing attempts to sensationalize the news, range from CNN’s infamous reporting on such trivial occurrences as the changing seasons as if they were national catastrophes and Fox News’ exaggerated reporting about teenagers on spring break as if they were crime-ridden orgies. You can say what you like about the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst — at least they had some standards! Compared to the blatantly unethical press barons of today, those vendors of early 20th century yellow-journalism come across as the most credible of media outlets!

The long-term effects of this constant, never-ending barrage of negative news can be devastating to the public. It is designed to distract and stimulate the brain’s amygdala, much in the way that Roman imperialists relied on “bread and circuses” to keep the public preoccupied and perpetually on-edge, and oblivious to their own poverty-stricken, miserable condition. Simultaneously, it is about selling massive quantities of newsprint and gleaning millions of dollars in TV advertising revenue. But for the populace at large — over time, they are reduced to a mass of cowering, paranoid, jittery lemmings — perpetually panic-stricken and on the verge of mass hysteria over the slightest untoward circumstance!

It is no overstatement to say that this is, in itself, a dangerous development. When the public has become conditioned by mass media to become so nervous and on-edge that any sudden movement by some unsuspecting bystander may be misinterpreted as a horrendous crime against humanity, then when real tragedy or catastrophe strikes, the public is so completely off the deep end that they would, potentially, give up all their human rights and liberties in the service of the next wannabe authoritarian tyrant or dictator! This is very similar to what has happened in the US over the last decade since 9/11, with the introduction of mass-surveillance, the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq as textbook overreactions to an undeniably devastating national tragedy and catastrophe. This trend in the media can only have one long-term consequence — to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy of Doom by inducing a populace of panic-stricken lemmings into a frenzy of hysterical self-destruction!

There is no easy solution to this problem. The only one that has really helped me has been the practice of mindfulness meditation that I have taken up recently. This form of meditation has its roots in the Zen practice of the far-east, which, in turn, developed from Dhyana Buddhism, originally from India. In fact, the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which morphed into Zen when the practice migrated to China and Japan, literally translates to “mindfulness” or “awareness.” This practice ultimately derives from the archaic Indian tradition of yoga and pranayama breathing techniques, which have truly stood the test of time in proving their usefulness and power.

Mindfulness meditation is enormously helpful in enabling one to clear one’s mind and free it from the distractions of day-to-day urban life. It effects a shift in consciousness from the amygdala — the easily excited, constantly distracted seat of consciousness that is so rampantly exploited and manipulated by the modern media — to a deeper seat of consciousness, where one can achieve perspective and think more clearly and profoundly about things. The results for me, after a relatively brief foray into this practice, have been astounding. I feel more at ease and relaxed for the most part and I find my level of reading comprehension has improved significantly. I feel less traumatized by the horrific images to which I am repeatedly exposed on the TV and I find myself more inclined to read good books instead of habitually vegging out in front of the boob tube. I find myself more aware and appreciative of the simpler things in life and, in general, my life has become more meaningful and filled with serendipity and Jungian synchronicity.

While I cannot prove it, I think there is a strong case to be made for a direct causal relationship with these developments to my recent practice of mindfulness meditation. Indeed, the scientific data supports my argument, as mindfulness meditation has been proven to be extremely powerful in treating cases of stress and trauma. The power of mindfulness meditation techniques have even been demonstrated to ease PTSD among military veterans.

The prevailing mood of pessimism and gloom induced by media sensationalism is a problem, especially when such a mood can induce the public to panic-stricken acts of overreaction and self-destructiveness. The only olive branch I can offer as a symbol of hope and peace to the hysterical masses is an entry in my blog urging more people to take up mindfulness meditation. There are apps for this practice on the IOS app store (and, I presume, on Android as well), so it is all the more accessible these days, no longer requiring one to travel to the Himalayas in search of a Guru! Here’s hoping that calmer heads will prevail in the future — and the more calmer heads there are in the future, thanks to Zen and mindfulness meditation, the more likely it will be that they will prevail!

Loud and Stupid: On Groupthink and Mob Psychology

We live in an age when, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, it is easier than ever before to express oneself and to make oneself heard. On the other hand, thanks to these very same technological wonders, the sad reality of groupthink seems to be more pervasive than ever before — people appear, at some level, to be more inclined to follow the herd and less inclined to think critically as individuals and ask difficult questions of themselves and others.

The media appears to have lost every shred of integrity, a fact underscored most recently by the Brian Williams fiasco, and is so much at the mercy of market influences that one cannot take it seriously any more. The public appears to be more misinformed and deluded than ever before — at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians, marketers and PR firms peddling their dubious wares. The disturbing levels of pervasive religious superstition and the lack of basic scientific knowledge in mainstream society are getting to be downright dangerous — the prevalence of apocalyptic ideas among the religiously minded is on the verge of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy!

And yet, the tools for widespread education and enlightenment are readily at our disposal. It is easier than ever before to educate oneself — one can even audit lectures from the world's leading universities online for free, and great works of literature have never been more accessible, thanks to their publication in digital form by such ventures as Project Gutenberg, Google Books and others.

So what keeps us in this state of pervasive ignorance? What prevents us from achieving the enlightened state that would keep us from being manipulated and exploited by politicians, marketers and religious con-men? Perhaps it is about recognizing that mere access to tools and technology is only the first step in a very long process. There needs to be a cultural shift away from ignorance, groupthink and a mob mentality, and towards education and critical thought. There needs to be greater awareness of the tools and technologies at our disposal that enable us to better ourselves and others. We need to learn to think for ourselves and give less credence to loud-mouth talking heads on TV who try to tell us how and what to think!

The truth is probably that we are in middle of a cultural paradigm shift — a fundamental transformation that is at least as significant, in many ways, as the invention of the printing press. Technology changes so rapidly that it hardly has the time to be fully appropriated by society before it makes yet another quantum leap! And the exponential rates at which technology continues to advance means that the problem is likely to get worse in the near future before it gets better!

I guess, in the end, the only thing that will save us is our own human individuality — our human capacity to grow, learn and adapt to the rapidly shifting circumstances around us — to develop the faculty for critical thought and the ability to learn empirically as well as theoretically.

In the end, I believe that we, as human individuals, can do a great deal to shape our destiny.