July 20, 2013

Television: Being Mindful of the Mindless. ~ C.W. Smith

Sick to death of my computer monitor, I looked into the flat black screen of my powered-down television set.

My mind relaxed; my thoughts scattered. I found that serene space I never seem to attain during meditation—the state I enter into accidentally when I shower or when strangers talk to me about their children.

I watched the TV, my dormant conduit to visual mass media, as it did nothing. The farrago of incoherent thoughts led eventually to a coherent question:

Why does anyone pay for cable these days?

Coherence declined again. I imagined a conversation between a NetFlix-oriented viewer (that’s me) and a steadfast cable subscriber. My pro-cable personality, a Sam Elliott-looking dude with a commendable mustache, defended cable by explaining that he hated looking for something to watch.

“After a hard day of being a tough guy with a great mustache, I just want everything to stop,” he said, possibly wearing a cowboy hat on his living room sofa. “I want to push a button and drown out the noise in my head. Doesn’t matter what’s on.”

In-my-head Sam Elliott had a point. How many nights had I turned on the television with the aim of surrendering my awareness to NetFlix, only to stall out on the menu screen?

I spend an embarrassing amount of time debating the greatest of modern American existential questions—what am I in the mood to watch?

If my stated goal is to tune myself out to a audio/visual fiction feed, why do I spend hours of my time flipping through rows of cover art and plot synopses? The question spawned another via parthenogenesis: If I’m ashamed of going zombie on a menu screen, how is it I’m alright with disappearing in the feeds themselves?

I retreated from my fugue state, blinked, and contrasted the concept of mindfulness with watching television with a bag of pita chips in my lap. Or, for when I’m feeling health conscious, a bowl of unsalted, unbuttered airpop popcorn whose flavorless kernels crawl between my teeth, lie in wait, and ambush my toothbrush come shuteye time.

When I take in audio/visual content from the face of my flickering parallelogram, I’m not mindful. I’m slightly more discerning about how I veg out than imaginary-Sam Elliott, but the end result is the same. (Being that the real Sam Elliott was in Roadhouse, I doubt he can stomach TV at all anymore.)

As of late, I think these thoughts aplenty. I’m a half-assed meditator. One of the immediate repercussions of my as-of-yet irregular and undisciplined practice has been a reduced interest in television.

I’m a novice at mindfulness, but I’ve already become too aware of the goings-on inside my brainbasket for the TV-tune out to occur as easily as it once did. The result is, when I do watch TV, I’m watching differently.

Now that I’m paying attention, I’m not sure they’re even trying. Sitcoms are the worst offenders. I see no difference between The Big Bang Theory and Yo Gabba Gabba. The latter is the better of the two—no laugh track. Laugh tracks are those signs in front of closed-off roads that say, “Road Closed.”

Tuned-out persons can’t be trusted to laugh for themselves.

Shows I previously enjoyed—Dexter for example—appear unnervingly artificial. I can’t listen to the dialog because I’m thinking about the look in an actor’s eye that says, “This is hour eight of a twelve hour shoot… I hope to God they don’t ask me to renew for another year.”

The more I watch myself watching TV, the more I appreciate how bizarre it is. While the added insight is hindering my ability to immerse myself in flat flickering boxes, it’s also enriching the experience.

Once you step outside the trained TV/mind dynamic, TV is fucking weird.

The best example of this shift occurred last year, on a treadmill in Southwest Virginia. On Saturdays, I woke up early to run off a portion of Friday night’s wine intake at the local YMCA. Each week, my runs coincided with an unfathomably bizarre children’s program.

The program appeared to follow the exploits of a musical ensemble of Smurf/hippie hybrids. Because the wall-mounted TVs were muted, I was spared the musical numbers. All I had to go on was the visual feed. After two weeks of sweating to the mysterious program, a post-commercial name check identified the program as The Doodlebops.

Week after week, I studied silently the Doodlebops’ arcane, at times terrifying world. The Doodlebops themselves were capable of projecting sound waves using fuzzy, wireless instruments and enormous gloved digits—suggesting that their kind possess immense psychokinetic abilities.

I surmised that if the Doodlebops weren’t extraterrestrial in origin, they were the result of a failed experiment. Likely one involving a down-and-out television executive and a potent psychedelic.

However, the most troubling observation that arose from any silent Saturday Doodlebop study came from the crowd shots. As the ‘Bops danced and waved their inconsequential instruments about, the cameras panned over the faces of squealing children—and parents biting back anxiety attacks amid squealing children—in an especially cruel capitalist hell dimension.

Contemplating the plight of the camera crew and film editors whose job it was to capture the children’s delight, while omitting the surrounding adults’ despair, deepened my capacity for human compassion.

I learned more struggling to make sense of the Doodlebops’ nonsense world than from twenty years of passive television consumption—including the DIY shows and other “smart” stuff. I didn’t tune out; between the treadmill and the sheer psychedelic madness onscreen, I couldn’t.

My TV gets little use lately, but with this awareness kick I’m on, I find myself thinking about it. Actually thinking about the box itself and the interplay between mind and screen.

For better and for worse, television has enabled us to create fleshed out, if two-dimensional, worlds within worlds. The ironic cost of expanding reality in this way may be a partial deadening of awareness in our immediate reality, but maybe it’s a stepping stone to something more fulfilling…

A practice we don’t have to deaden ourselves to enjoy.


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Assistant Ed: Ben Neal/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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