The other day I was leading a group for multiple DWI offenders. One of them, a middle-aged man who was particularly angered by the bracelet he was being forced to wear on his ankle, the legal routines that filled his life, and the fact that he had to go to two A.A. meetings a week interrupted the group process with a rant on how he was being brainwashed.
I turned to face him directly, more amused and disbelieving than annoyed or angered. “And before this you were…” I opened my hands, motioning for him to fill in the blanks.
“I was sure as hell nobody’s puppet the way I am now,” he said indignantly.
“Really? So, all the times you picked up a drink and drove, knowing you could get slammed with one more DWI and put in prison, no one had you in his pocket? You were a totally free agent? And all the things you bought when you didn’t have the money and found yourself with debt you couldn’t pay, you weren’t brainwashed?”
He became quiet, but an interesting discussion ensued about the media, about fear, about the brainwashing that saturates us nearly every minute of every day. Most advertising is based on fear. The fear of not belonging, dying, pestilence, catastrophes, terrorist pandemics, war, drought, flood, erectile dysfunction, menopause, arthritis, driving an ugly car…the fears being drummed into our unconscious minds are innumerable.
Some people are so afraid, they go numb. This is particularly true where some traumatic episode has interfered with their lives. They drive too fast, drink too much, laugh too loud, get far too irritated too easily or remain blithely passive when they should be responding. Their thinking gets short-circuited. The cultural milieu does little to support their recoveries and in fact does a great deal to inhibit their healing. The culture—represented by the media—floods them yet further with messages promoting anxiety, infecting them again and again with their unique brand of viral fear that keeps them numb and buying. If you’re tired and can’t sleep, buy one of our pills. If you’re unable to be intimate with your partner, buy a new car to change your image. If your relationships are falling apart, don’t waste any time thinking about the reasons for it, come to our Happy Hour and meet someone totally new.
And on it goes.
What Should We Do?
1. Start with awareness. If we wake up and see the media’s message for what it is, we can become less susceptible, less automatic in our responses and hopefully more thoughtful. When an ad comes on or you see a product being promoted on a show or in a movie, remind yourself who and what put it there and why they’re spending so much money to do that. Awareness limits the impact of the messages that bombard us. If a sentence in an advertisement starts with “could,” “would” or “should” we can safely assume there’s an incoming fear missile. “Could it happen here?” “Could there be a bomb on New Year’s Eve?” “Should you get the vaccine now?” “Would you know what to do if…” Grammar is an extension of intent. Listen to what’s being said critically.
We can then remind ourselves that the way products and services are presented (as image, as icon, as identity or extension of self) is illusory and speaks to our fears and inadequacies more than our good judgment. They will never satisfy us in the way we are told they will. Be conscious of the truth and you will recognize the lies.
2. Do the obvious. We can limit the amount of time we (and particularly our children) spend with television, i-pods, game-boys or cyber-tennis and make a conscious effort to spend more time with one another. I do not for a second imagine that Americans will all start taking up Buddhist meditation, but having a few minutes a day without having our senses assaulted might be a good idea. The other day I met a friend at a place called the Hyatt Tamaya. It is a resort of sublime beauty, filled with roaring fires in handmade kivas, Native American artwork, sensual flute music and captivating views from every angle. I had to wait for her a while and sat near one of the fires when a man and his wife sat across from me. Presumably they’d come to the hotel together, but she sat in one corner of the couch reading a book and he sat in a chair with earphones blasting percussive music I could hear from more than 10 feet away. Why bother spending $300 a night to tune out the place you’re paying a fortune to be in doing what you do at home?
3. Ask yourself: What drives you? And spend some time with that question before you answer it. Think about what motivates you to buy, what you buy and when you buy.
4. Spend time doing things that are diametrically opposite to what is promoted in the media, such as being still, being with your family without electronic accessories, pray, walk, think, read. Live slowly, breath deeply, linger.
5. Be present. Don’t pursue anything. Especially happiness. It’s a waste of time and will only serve to make you frustrated. The only place you can really have what you long for is where you are right now with exactly what you’ve got.
6. Find someone to really talk to—a religious leader, a friend, a therapist, a doctor—anyone who knows how to actively listen without judging and who can be a true set of eyes with a perspective on things that get you out of the delusion maelstrom we call daily life. Make sure you don’t just find someone who’s going to agree with you. Get the reality check you need.