The current news is challenging us. It seems that every day bad things are happening, and that every month disasters are striking. We live in a constant state of Orange Alert — the U.S. Homeland Security designation for a high threat level. That this level of challenge is stressful goes without saying.
When I was in elementary school, we were required to follow “current events,” to stay up on the news of the day so we could become informed members of society. Doing that today can be a full-time job and keep you on twitter all day and night. Then you have to parse the real news from the fake news, identify the spin to see what the facts are, and find out if there’s any “there” there.
To say nothing of trying to fix what is wrong in the world.
How do you find real happiness within this disaster?
You have to understand what life is, what you are, what the world is. You can learn this by paying attention, by deep study, by practice, by learning from someone who seems to know and using your discernment. Each person’s path is unique, and because we have what we call free will, you can make decisions all along the way of your attempt to understand and do something about what is going on around you.
I was walking my dog around a nearby lake this week. It was spectacularly beautiful outside. But I was also listening to the radio through my earphones. The news report was about a mass shooting. What I was looking at was a gorgeous early autumn morning. I used the same phone that was providing me the news analysis to take a photo of the lake. I later wrote a poem about the experience:
The world is the world.
You are divine.
Life is the process of figuring that out.
I will leave the poetic critique to masters of literature or metaphysics, but from the perspective of advice, these lines summarize how you can find real happiness and live deeply engaged in life.
“The world is the world” means that it has its own path. It literally spins and orbits at a scale that is utterly beyond our ability to influence. We are each a speck on the earth and even all together, though our species influences the world, we have limited influence when a hurricane forms, when an asteroid strikes, or when angry individuals shoot into crowds or blow themselves up.
Within our own orbits, though — the people we know; the street we live on; our societal networks, like voting — within that orbit, we do have influence. The way we live is the biggest part of our influence. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises that whatever a great one does, others follow. One part of the deep study I mentioned earlier is to figure out your orbit. If you are the Secretary of State, your orbit is national diplomatic circles. If you are a stay-home mom in Brooklyn, it will be no less important, but your orbit will be predominantly more local.
You can determine your orbit through a practice of saying “what can I do about this?” Often there is nothing we can do about things we’re aware of. And yet, we are encouraged to care and to do something anyway. What do we do, then? We become upset.
News is not our friend in this regard. Not “current events” news — knowing what’ going on in the world — but the news media in all its forms, from cable to FaceBook. The news apparatus has a dual agenda: 1) describe current events and 2) keep you engaged with its media channel. Regarding the first part of its agenda — describing current events — it avoids “good” news, because that isn’t as gripping and doesn’t compete well against “bad” news. In my New York Times, stories of accomplishments and interest are in the inside sections of the paper, while the drama is front page. So we don’t get a balance of information about life. To do the second part, keeping you engaged, news focuses on things that shock and strike a survival-level chord. Then it keeps playing out the stories in emotional ways.
An example? When a disturbed man shoots people at a concert, it’s actual import in most people’s lives is minimal. Our compassion is appropriately triggered; our anger about guns, mental health care, etc. gains a statistic. But of what value is the story of the lives of those injured or killed to our lives? It makes us aware that they were people, of course, but do we need the news to tell us that? To me, it feels like I’m crashing the mourning processes of other peoples’ families. Imagining reporters with cameras and microphones barging into their grief to bring us those stories makes me want to send an apology note to them.
To help yourself stay untriggered by endless bad news, focus on what matters. Ask yourself: is this in my orbit? How can I make a difference in this? Then do that and let the rest pass out of your orbit.
In yoga, there are a pair of ideas that refer to your orbit and to being active within it. Karma is the challenges that you are actually going to have in your orbit. In the activity of the great big universe, it is your personal piece of life’s motivations. Take that on whole-heartedly. Whether it’s your city council race or your troubled teen or your low self-esteem issue. Work to deal with your challenges. The second idea is dharma, or the life circumstances in which you deal with your karma. Some of us are on a big stage and others on a small stage facing the challenges in our orbit. When a singer uses a Grammy Awards speech to help influence things, it is exactly like a soldier charging into the discomfort of battle or an activist marching or a me telling my niece the meaning of the word “slavery” while standing at the Lincoln Memorial. We can act within our orbit.
We can work to expand our orbit, where possible, if our discernment tells us that it’s a fruitful use of our time and effort. The internet has given us an obvious possibility of expanded orbit, but it has also amplified the noise and confusion and competition. Is the action we take in our small orbit as valuable as the one we take in the noisy realm of the internet? I leave that answer to your discernment. That is part of the figuring out what your life is about.
If you do your best to work on what is in your orbit, you are engaged in right living. Feeling bad about the rest tends to make us ineffective, unhealthy, and unhappy. Happiness comes from taking your work on and not getting attached to outcomes that are beyond your control.
John Lennon provided a nice insight about trying to do things within your life in his song, “Beautiful Boy”:
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Instead of worry, frustration, overwhelm from thinking you need to do something about everything, practice to find perspective (for instance, meditate), and you will start to see the world in all its variety. Then your work will feel valuable and you will see your purpose within it.
[This essay first appeared on Peter’s Podcast.]