The Sweet Fruits of a Media Fast

by Lisa Martinovic´

[Note to Readers:  I wrote this piece in the aftermath of the Bush v Gore election.  The names have changed, but the principles are true as ever.]

Normally, I keep my habit under control. I don’t start using till after noon; I never pull all-nighters any more. And I don’t touch the hard stuff at all, don’t even own a TV. Nothing stronger than NPR for me, no, sir. Except in the face of extraordinary circumstances, of course. Though I have strong ascetic tendencies, I’m still an American–an urban American in the 21st century where Information is King, Celebrity Gossip has become the fifth basic food group, and woe unto ye who opt out of the media loop. For many of us, life without a steady IV drip of information (as opposed to knowledge, the acquisition of which is far too time consuming) risks some form of death — from losing an IT job to the public humiliation suffered by those who don’t catch the latest oblique reference to Survivor trivia. Worse still, we face the nightmare of being alone with self.

So I, too, operate under the lash of these fears, especially during Times of Crisis. And when a schoolyard massacre is unfolding, or the Senate is deciding to put a right-wing Christian fundamentalist in charge of everybody’s civil liberties, or the Nasdaq is free-falling with all the speed and none of the grace of a skydiver, all bets are off. In these instances, I feel duty-bound to be an informed citizen and so give myself permission to consume as much media as my eyes, ears and brain can tolerate. And then some.

Naturally, the last Presidential Election presented the opportunity—nay, demanded—that we indulge the ultimate in media gluttony. Like most everyone else, I spent weeks on end devouring round-the-clock media play-by-plays, speculation and all-out giddiness. At first, it was like getting to eat all the peanut M&Ms I wanted, oh boy! As the weeks wore on I developed the symptoms of a sugar-addled child on Halloween: wild-eyed, shaky and impossible to put to sleep. And not only was my brain rattling with up-to-the-minute county by county vote counts and legislative edicts, worse still happened when my head hit the pillow every night with the interminable intro music for Talk of the Nation repeating like a cruel mantra as I tried to sleep. And I know I wasn’t alone.

Because all of America was blanketed in relentless coverage, suddenly everyone’s an expert. Trouble is, our expertise was formulated in someone else’s brain. I listened to hundreds of talk shows wherein callers parroted the same analysis as that put forth by the “authority” featured in the previous hour. Suddenly we all know why direct popular vote will never determine the presidency; next, everyone’s discussing the rumors about Jeb Bush and Katharine Harris. The lifeguard at the pool is saying the same thing as the receptionist in the doctor’s office and they both sound like 500 urgent E-mails telling me which petition I must sign. And I open my mouth and out comes Daniel Schorr. It was as if we were all plugged into the same brain, a brain that holds within it opposing viewpoints, but only presents variations on the same two perspectives. Sadly, this dynamic holds true for coverage of most news, from trade summit imbroglios and energy policy debates to watershed events like the Iran-Contra hearings.

In the case of E2K (the election), within a couple of weeks of media saturation, my brain was topped off with information overload. I could feel it usurping valuable creative space in my head, “empty” space that the mind needs to roam around in, find new paths, true North. I experienced the very visceral sensation of my brain getting fuller and fatter, while my authentic thoughts were crowded out by the pontifications of pundits and analyses of academicians. I yearned to escape the clutches of NPR and Dan Rather . . . and Ricky Martin while we’re at it. And I knew exactly what I needed: a Media Fast.

I’d done this before, in conjunction with my spiritual practice: No newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, web-surfing, videos or films; even novels and music must be eschewed. For several weeks. If you’re like most Americans, hooked on information and entertainment (and their evil spawn), this is a daunting if not terrifying prospect. It certainly was for me, as I embarked on my initial 25 day fast.

The first few days were disorienting and more than a little disturbing as I discovered just how much space in my head was consumed and circumscribed by external input, and what a profound effect all of it has on my mental and emotional states. In its absence, I was hurled into withdrawal. I became a prickly ball of anxious tension and raw nerve endings all screaming “feed me, we’re starving!” But by the end of the first week I had settled into a new calm, had organically come to reframe my experience: whereas initially my apartment and car felt empty without all that noise, now everything felt spacious. And so it was again on my post-election Media Fast. Only this time I could hardly wait to begin.

Though I knew what to expect and was psychically prepared in a way I hadn’t been for earlier fasts, still the transition was rough. I had, after all, been even more thoroughly steeped in media than usual. Dinner time is always the hardest for me, those one to two hours preparing my meal, eating it, and then cleaning up as I listen to All Things Considered, KPFA’s Flashpoints, and for dessert Fresh Air. Without all that to keep me company, the kitchen feels so vast I can almost hear echoes of my knife chop chop chopping vegetables for the soup. But after a few days of edginess, I settle into a groove. And it’s my groove, not Shania Twain’s or Garrison Keilor’s or Terry-Gross-first-the-news.

The most profound effect of the Media Fast is that it frees up space in my mind — space that’s long been colonized by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Hearst, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Four or five days into the fast, even the mental residue from those sources feel like so much irritating static — interference that comes between me and my authentic self or, if you will, between me and God. And without that racket I become a clear channel for intuitive wisdom, my artistic Muse, and the synchronistic lessons of Universal Mind.

Without fail, each Media Fast brings me trenchant new insights to leverage areas where I’ve been emotionally stuck, juicy ideas for essays and poems, glistening lines and metaphors you can chew on, and a palpable opening of my heart. I cry often and easily… and not out of sadness. Without the constant barrage of media (which to some extent demands that we wall ourselves off emotionally), I am once again sensate, able to be touched by the small heroics of everyday life, able to feel awe at the color and texture of an unusual strand of seaweed. When I am in this state, life is no longer hardening me; instead she is having a gentling effect. The whole of life is more spacious, less hurried, when my energetic field is not cluttered with the grinding assault of mediated forces demanding my attention.

The Media Fast also supports my efforts to be fully present in each moment. Life in the new millennium is so fast paced, exacting and mercurial that practices such as multitasking are very seductive, offering, as they do, the illusion that we’re making the most efficient use of our time. I now understand multitasking to be like listening to two radio stations at once: neither signal is wholly registered with my mind. Similarly, if I am eating breakfast and reading the morning paper simultaneously, my omelet is not fully appreciated, nor my news completely digested. Not coincidentally, during the Media Fast I am less susceptible to overeating because I am aware of when I’m full, and guess what? Just sitting there eating (when I’m not truly hungry) is pretty boring if I don’t have something else to occupy my mind.

During my most recent fast I had a small epiphany. I got into my car, keyed the ignition, and without thinking reached for the radio. I was instantly struck by the depth of my habituation. Ultimately, of course, I have no objection to turning on the radio or TV or VCR. My concern lies with the issue of volition: Am I doing this consciously or am I on auto-pilot? I believe that we are fully realized human beings only commensurate with our awareness in each moment, with our ability to make conscious choices.

And how conscious can we be barreling down the freeway, cell phone ringing, Rush Limbaugh screaming, coffee spilling, mind planning, brakes screeching . . .? How sane and grounded are our choices made from such a place? The Media Fast offers an opportunity to slow down, become quiet, and reflect. About five days into the fast I felt a deep sense of peace; my agitation having abated, I could rest into stillness. And regret that I couldn’t stay there forever. But I am a product of the modern world and part of my life’s work is to study it, and from its wreckage make art that I hope will leave the world enriched in some small measure.

By week’s end, I had become protective as a mother bear of the sanctity of my impressionable psyche. Stray media incursions — a television ad overheard, a boombox blast — felt like nothing short of a defilement of my sacred mind. I had begun a new essay, made major progress on long stalled poems and finished a painting. Perhaps most importantly, my heart opened so wide I wanted nothing more than to share with others the medicine of the Media Fast.

My invitation to you is this: Whether you’re a blocked poet, a harried soccer Mom, or a software engineer, give the Media Fast a chance to work its magic on you. Creative types, prepare for the gifts of an unleashed Muse. Those of you who don’t think of yourself as creative, be open to surprise.

And when we all conclude our fasts and come down off the mountain, maybe each of us will have something original to contribute.