I recently read about a therapeutic technique whereby people are encouraged to repeat certain helpful messages to themselves each time they use their MetroCard to enter the NYC subway system. Since people use the subway at least two times per day in NYC, the thinking goes, swiping one’s MetroCard can be used as a reminder, an occasion to engage in a brief exercise of positive and creative thinking.
Analogously, every wisdom tradition includes techniques designed to help people regularly re-focus their thoughts on things that uplift the spirit, discipline the mind and reinforce deeper truths about human life. Catholics caressing rosary beads and Buddhists preparing tea are such examples; each time these activities are engaged in, the practitioner (ideally) does so with a heightened consciousness, an open heart and purposeful intention. At the risk of sounding flip, I see value in using the repeated occurrence of “celebrity sex scandals” in a similar way. Let me explain.
re-thinking the phenomenon of gossip
In Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar makes an argument for the idea that evolution has equipped us with involuntary instincts to gossip – that gossip accords us fitness benefits, has survival value and is built into the hardware of who we are. Just as chimps groom each other, humans gossip: both serve to cement social ties and are evolutionarily advantageous. Interesting idea and maybe so. My point is that even if Dunbar is correct, it is still the case that we (humans) need not be completely determined by our genes. As the saying goes, DNA is not destiny.
mindfulness: a creative response to gossip and sensationalism
The essence of mindfulness is to tune into our automatic emotional responses and subjective experiences, while de-focusing our minds and letting thoughts sort of come and go without becoming attached to them. The physiological experience is one of slowing down, reconnecting to the body and shifting into conscious and rhythmic breathing. Such a practice allows us to create space between stimulus and response, giving us the power to exercise choice in how we respond to information, situations and events.
What I am recommending is that you shift into a state of mindfulness when you encounter media stories about a celebrity sex scandal. Lord knows this will accord you ample opportunities to practice mindfulness! (i.e. Ashton Kutcher, Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse James, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, David Wu, Eliot Spitzer and others).
taking responsibility for the activity of our minds
Modern life requires that we process boatloads of information – data that comes at us relentlessly and at lightning speeds with ever-present bells and whistles. Unfortunately, we often forget that we have CHOICES and OPTIONS in how we can respond and relate to incoming information. Regarding media sex scandals, we can exercise our genetic tendencies (craving for gossip), or we can notice that impulse and then decide to do something different.
The point of using or relating to celebrity sex scandals in a new way is designed to RE-sensitize ourselves (as opposed to becoming more and more desensitized) to two things: (a) how easily we can be distracted from our own lives by other people’s dramas; and (b) how hurtful human beings (each of us) can be to other people.
Thus, once you’ve slowed down and created some space between stimulus and response, turn your mind toward a more personal line of questioning:
- “Has someone betrayed me in my life, and have I gotten sufficient closure on that situation?”
- “Have I prioritized my own gratification (sexual or otherwise) at my partner’s expense lately?”
- “Are my partner and I as close as we need to be, or are we going through the motions to some extent?”
- “Do my partner and I need to sit down and discuss our relationship?”
- “To what extent am I avoiding closeness altogether due to the fear of getting hurt?”
find the lessons
Even if infidelity is not an issue in our lives, it’s usually the case that we could stand to do some serious reflection on the ways in which WE are participating in OUR relationships and OUR lives, as opposed to wasting our limited supply of attention on other people’s mishigash.
Instead of simply rubbernecking or becoming even more desensitized to the perniciousness of a celebrity-saturated media culture, start using sex scandals (simply because there are so damn many of them!) as a reminder to check in with yourself and your own attitudes, assumptions and behaviors around sex, intimacy, communication and honesty in your own relationships.
When we prioritize learning and growth in our approach to life then everything around us can be grist for the mill, lessons from which we can deepen our own commitment to living well. Not in obsessive and overly ambitious ways, but in simple and steady ways. Ordinary experience itself can be our greatest teacher when we practice mindfulness and when we take responsibility for how we process (and what we do with) the information the world throws at us each and every day.