As you have perhaps heard, this week in England a man went on an insane rampage with a shotgun, massacring twelve people and injuring several more. Whenever I hear about things like that, I find it so hard to understand what would drive a human being to commit such an unspeakable atrocity. But it really got me thinking.
There’s no question that many people have totally warped minds. The way we process reality is through a screen of thoughts, judgements, beliefs and conditioning and this informs our behaviour which, depending on the structure and content of our filtering process, can exhibit many forms of dysfunction.
No one is immune to this. All of us have these ‘erroneous zones’ to quote the title of a Wayne Dyer book. In most people these areas of perceptual distortion create comparatively minor dysfunctions, perhaps in certain areas such as relationships, self-concept, anxieties, fears or dysfunctional behaviours. But in some people, their internal wiring is so deeply distorted that these individuals become inhuman monsters, capable of committing untold acts of evil. And, somehow, they always manage to find ways to justify their behaviour.
The sobering thing is that, depending on the way our mental filtration system is wired, any one of us has the potential to become a psychopath! Unless, of course, we have the ability to acknowledge, witness and see beyond our perceptual filters, because only then can we transcend them.
At this point in time, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of people don’t have a sufficiently high degree of self-awareness to be able to do this. That’s why the majority of people believe that it is always situations, other people and the world that are the cause of their suffering, rather than their own interpretations, stories and commentary about those perceived externals. To be lost in our interpretations and mind-stuff and continually, pathologically, mistaking them for reality is live life asleep at the wheel, or enmeshed in samsara as the Buddhists might say.
Waking up from the dream of thoughts, belief structures and the maze of our mental interpretations is one way to transcend them and find genuine peace in life. Another way, and one that’s possibly easier for many people, is simply to shift the focus of our attention. This is one of the simplest laws of life and it’s not rocket science: we become what we focus on. If we focus on negative things, such as miserable, depressing, hateful and violent things, then tend to become miserable, depressed, hateful and violent people. On the other hand, if we focus on qualities such as harmony, balance, peace, gratitude and love, then we can’t help but become more harmonious, balanced, peaceful, grateful and loving people.
You can experiment with this right now. Take a moment to ruminate on the following words: hate, misery, suffering, violence, murder, pain. Repeat them silently or aloud to yourself and notice how it makes you feel physiologically. If you really take some time to notice how your body responds, you’ll probably feel a tightening and contracting sensation and perhaps even a slight nausea. Now spend some time focussing on these words: love, kindness, joy, hope, harmony, peace, beauty. How does that make you feel? I’m guessing your body will feel lighter, freer and more at peace. Instead of contraction, you might notice a feeling of expansion and openness and maybe even a pleasant tingling sensation.
Focussing on positive qualities such as love and kindness doesn’t just give you a momentary buzz. When you spend enough time focussing on these qualities, it actually changes the structure of your brain. This has been demonstrated in brain scans of Buddhist monks who regularly practise what is called metta meditation, a practise in which they sustain focus on love and kindness. The focus of their attention demonstrably rearranges their brain structure and as a result they are more aligned with the qualities they are focussing on, becoming more peaceful, loving and compassionate. The implications of this are unquestionably profound.
If focusing on positive attributes such as love and compassion can change the structure of our brains and make us experience these attributes more readily (and, no doubt, altering the entire way we see and experience the world and life), then surely the opposite must also be true. By continually focussing on hate, violence and despair, we become ‘wired’ to feel these emotions more readily and this in turn colours the way we see others and the world.
Now, it just so happens that our media is negative in the extreme. We are continually bombarded with stories and images of violence, hate, prejudice, suffering and cruelty. Not to say these things don’t exist in the world, because sadly they do. But our unrelenting focus on them is actually distorting our brains and perpetuating and intensifying these conditions in the world. I can’t stand to watch the news, because having studied press and broadcasting, I know how it is gathered, created and structured to be as negative, hard-hitting and emotive as possible. Essentially it’s not news stories they are selling, but negative feelings - which, it has to be said, a dysfunctional part of many people actually laps up.
It’s not just the news media, either. Television, films and literature have become ever more horrific and gratuitously violent. Nowadays television dramas, at least in the UK, are prided on being ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ and filled with miserable, psychologically-deficient characters whose sole lot in life is to receive and inflict suffering and violence. Our screens are routinely filled with scenes of graphic torture and brutality. I’m not even going to touch upon the new genre we have called ‘torture porn’, something which actually makes me despair of the human race.
The prevalence of this kind of material is very disturbing in the effects it can have on people. Whereas most people are unlikely to go on a killing spree after watching something of this nature, some people do, even if it is only a very small minority. But consuming such media input unquestionably has an effect on everyone, whether they become gun-toting psychopaths or not.
Experts have pointed out that the ever-increasing amount of violence in the media has a desensitising effect on human beings. Violence is almost unconsciously seen as commonplace and almost ‘acceptable’. The effect of this is, in general, a growing lack of empathy for the suffering of others. I believe this desensitising effect is causing a hardening and deadening of people’s hearts, as well as most likely an ever-increasing distortion in their mental filtration system as discussed earlier.
Again, this comes down to the simple truth that become what we focus on. It seems the human mind is very much like a computer: if you input garbage, you get garbage back out. But if you ensure that the input is of a sufficiently high quality, you are guaranteed to get a far higher quality output.
Is it true to say that the media is responsible for exacerbating the problems of the world by virtue of the fact it’s so overridingly negative? I certainly believe so and I think something has to be done about it. The enormity and extremity of the negativity that bombards us from all quarters has got to be toned down and balanced with some positivity and inspiration, which people definitely do respond to. Most people are too unconscious to realise what’s going on, so someone really needs to do it for them. What a different it would surely make if people were exposed to a decrease in graphic and gratuitous violence in films and television and an increase in news coverage of stories of optimism, hope and examples of progress in the world, of which their unquestionably is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating we simply delude ourselves into believing bad things don’t exist, because clearly they do. But it’s vital we don’t get sucked into the extremely powerful - and curiously enticing - black holes that the media loves to spin for us. Action that arises from a state of peace and optimism is always infinitely more effective than action that is undertaken from a mindset of negativity, fear and reactivity.
The media is really letting us down. Sure, you might argue that it’s what people evidently want to consume, because for some reason negative headlines sell more copies than positive ones. Eckhart Tolle notes that the entire media industry is really just selling ‘food’ to our pain bodies, the accumulated energy of past pain within us that thrives on negativity in order to sustain itself. If most people are not self-aware enough to see what’s happening, then the change will have to start from the top down instead of the ground up. We need someone at the top to take responsibility for what the masses are being fed and to start sprinkling in more positivity and toning down the excessive negativity and violence we’re all subjected to in just about every art form and media outlet.
The result? Well, let’s go back to the aforementioned study of Buddhist meditators. When we focus on positivity and higher attributes of kindness and love, it physiologically changes us and it makes us happier, more at peace, kinder and more loving. And that is the only thing that will ever change the world and alleviate the needless suffering mankind inflicts on itself, animals and the planet. At the moment we’re stuck in a feedback loop almost; negativity happens, we get stuck focussing on it, and then more negativity springs from that.
We have to break the loop! And, as always, the change starts with you. Yes, you. Here. Now!
Focus on what it is you want to see in the world. If you want to see more love and compassion, then spend some time each day focussing on those qualities, even if it just means silently repeating those words to yourself and noticing the change in your body. The change starts with us. Let’s do it! It really is up to us.