In high school and college, I spent hours every day playing my guitars and writing songs. Music was the main outlet I had for the angst and depression I felt in my late teens and early twenties. In grad school, I began to emerge from those dark days, and as I increasingly found myself in the company of people who were really psychologically healthy, I noticed my music changing.

One day I was jamming with a good friend. He would play me one of his tunes and I’d improvise on that for a while, and then I’d show him one of mine and we’d play that for a bit. At some point, I started playing one of the old songs from my troubled period. The best I can remember is that the words had something to do with losing hope. He liked the tune, so I showed him the chords and taught him the words so we could sing it together. Only, as I started playing and singing it, he didn’t join in. He stopped me after a moment and said, “Sorry, man… I’m not singing that.”

I really didn’t understand it. “Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s all about losing hope and how life sucks. I don’t want to say that.”

“Oh,” I was a bit bewildered. “Okay, let’s try something else.” And we moved on. I was a little bit offended. I didn’t always relate to the subject matter of his songs, but I didn’t mind singing them. It wasn’t like you had to believe what you were saying – it was just a song. And what about all the popular songs that we sing along to because they’re catchy? Lots of them are about topics we might not care for, but they’re still good songs.

Well, I let it go and didn’t think about it again for a long time. But years later, I had become more acutely tuned in to my thoughts and words, and I had experienced in a more definite way the way my words affected my experience. One day, I remembered that event and thought, “Wow. Good for him.”

You Are What You “Eat”

Have you ever used an affirmation? The idea is that by repeating key words, we can reprogram our mind, shift our emotions, heal our body, and even change the circumstances of our life. When done right, they really can work. I wouldn’t place all my eggs in the affirmations basket when I want something in my life to be different, but they have their place. What’s arguably more valuable than the actual practice of repeating an affirmation is what they demonstrate: the thoughts we choose can have a huge impact on our life. Apart from whatever objective ways they might affect our lives, the subjective impact of our thoughts is that they color our experience in a way that makes the objective circumstances almost irrelevant.

For instance, if you think life sucks, it doesn’t matter whether you have delicious food, warm clothes, people who love you, a winning lottery ticket, and blue skies – life still sucks. And if you think life is an utter gift, you could be in rags and have no limbs, and yet you’d see beauty and grace in everything.

It’s difficult for most people to remember to repeat an affirmation all day long, or to choose to focus on a positive idea as often as possible. But it’s quite easy for us to sing a song all day long … say, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” or The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s quite easy for us to listen to ranting on talk radio. It’s quite easy for us to read a daily newspaper that is filled with more negativity than positivity, and barely register that we are making choices that degrade our experience.

If we want our life to go a certain way – happy, healthy, long, etc. – we need to pay attention not only to what good things we’re doing to ensure this, but also to what destructive things we’re doing to sabotage it. We all know “you are what you eat” – that what you feed your body affects the quality of your health. In the same way, the thoughts we cultivate, the way we speak, the media we consume, the people and social institutions we associate with are all part of what we’re feeding our consciousness. So, it should be no surprise that they affect the quality of our experience.

When my friend refused to sing the depressing song I had written, it’s because he was tuned into – and respectful of – the effect our words (especially repeated ones) have on our consciousness. We can easily learn to perceive the qualitative differences between certain words, thoughts, songs, movies, and organizations. When we bring our awareness to their influence on us, it becomes clear that the majority of news articles, movies, radio shows, and television programs are relatively degrading to our consciousness (and, therefore, to our entire being). According to a study by the UCLA Center for Communications Policy, sixty-one percent of television programs contain some violence!

A common rationale we use for reading, listening to and repeating tragic stories is the necessity of staying informed. In actuality, there is very little utility in keeping up with misfortune and deadly events. This habit speaks more of our collective addiction to conflict and drama.

If our consumption of negative media and ideas is not purposeful, it is destructive. It is like eating a rich dessert (but considerably less satisfying): if we choose to consume it, we should stay conscious the whole time and we should stop the moment we have had enough. If we are five sentences into descriptions of dismembered bodies and we have pretty much gotten the picture, it’s time to put the article down. Usually the headlines are more than enough.

When we consume violent media, its impact on us is determined partly by our perspective and our psychological health. Sometimes we resonate strongly and persistently with the pain we witness, and other times we are able to remain detached and let it pass through us without being excessively influenced by it. Until we develop our sensitivity, however, we usually can’t perceive how it hurts us. If we are interested in whole health, we need whole honesty with ourselves about our reasons for consuming unhealthy media and surrounding ourselves with people and organizations that propagate negativity.

As with diet, I’m not suggesting that we must always make the best possible choice; I’m only advising that we be as conscious and truthful with ourselves as we can be. More important that banishing any destructive influences from our lives is staying aware and honest about the nature of our relationship with these influences. We’re usually better off experiencing the effect of a given influence fully and consciously, rather than being affected by it unconsciously. I recommend, in the presence of questionable media and conversation, you feel what happens in your body – as willingly and completely as possible. If you find yourself getting tense or tight, or feeling not at ease, listen to your body. Then let these feelings go, and consider altering your consumption.

Luckily, there is a world of beautiful, uplifting, positive, healthful stuff out there. If you feel a need to read timely media, check out Yes Magazine, Goodnewsnetwork.org, Dailygood.org, or other sites and publications dedicated to positivity. Surround yourself with positive people, listen to music that makes you feel good, check out some beautiful art, read some Rumi or other lovely poetry. And watch how it changes your life.