Sunday, July 21, 2013

Karmic Television

I said goodbye to my television a couple of weeks ago – a big old tube model that I’ve been carrying around from place to place since I first moved out on my own. It was a rather unceremonious ending for such a long-term relationship, I suppose, but it was also quite a long time in coming. I’ve been downsizing in general over the past couple of years and this was just one more step. And so it was that I woke up one Saturday morning with a little voice inside my head saying: “Oh yeah, you’ve been meaning to get rid of this haven’t you.” Off we went to Goodwill.


The thing about owning a television is that, whether or not it’s actually on, it tends to dictate what goes on around it. Whether it resides in your living room, family room, kitchen, or bedroom, it demands that people gather around it, and it insists that it be watched. When it happens to reside in the living room or family room, though, it has a way of becoming a veritable shrine to entertainment – complete with libraries of recorded films and shows that exist to be played over and over again.


Think about it. Think about how one of the first things you do when you move into a new space is figure out where the television is going to go. Once you’ve got that figured out you know exactly where the couch is going to go, then the coffee table, then the chairs and lamps, etc. Yes, our televisions structure our lives with their very existence; but think about what happens when they actually get turned on – how they dictate the various rituals that we engage in each day of the week: the football, the reality shows, the situation comedies, the dramas, the talk shows, the stories… We tune in, turn on, and drop out… of awareness. And God help you and your partner if you have a television in your bedroom!


Come to think of it, our televisions are a lot like our karma, our habit energy, our physical and mental “formations” that both dictate the structure of our lives and flesh out the various details. We’re born into this human place with a television in our corner and a few rudimentary “shows” that we watch over and over again: “The I’m Hungry Show”, “The I’m Tired Show”, and “The I Don’t Like This and I’m Pissed About It Show.” As we grow we add more shows – more nuanced and varied and personal, yes, but “shows” nonetheless. We compile entire entertainment centers worth of karmic formations and we play them over and over again. We tune in, turn on, and drop out… of awareness.


Sadly, we can spend our entire lives sitting in front of our televisions, allowing nary a moment to pass by when we’re not watching one of our shows. We’re bored so we turn on a show that entertains us. We’re stressed so we turn on a show that distracts us. We’re angry so we turn on a show in which the bad guys (others) are dispatched and the good guys (us) prevail. We’re in bed with our partner and since “The Sex Show” has become wearisome, and the “Who Are You, Really? Show” has grown tiresome, we turn on a show that allows us to feign togetherness even as we remain light years apart – from each other and ourselves.       


So, Buddhism is the Awakened Way, but what are we actually waking up to? “The truth,” one might respond, with an eye toward the intrinsic nature of reality. “The way things are,” one might respond, with an eye toward the world “out there.” “The nature of the self,” one might respond, with an eye toward the world “in here.” Each of these responses is true in its own way. The last one, however, is the response most in keeping with this particular post. For it is only after we pause the show that we’re playing and tune in, turn on, and drop out of our karmic conditioning that true awareness can arise.


But what we are talking about here is not a “Buddhist truth.” What we’re talking about is a truth that transcends whatever labels we might try to attach to it. Christians talk about getting out of the way so that God might have room to work in our lives. I think this is just another way of saying that we should turn off the karmic formations of the self so that we might awaken to the Truth. Others speak of silencing the “small self” so that the “big Self” might become known. There are many ways to describe this process.


Please reflect for a moment on what your living room might be like without a television dictating how your furniture should be arranged, or whether you even have furniture at all. What new activities will be possible there with the spaciousness that arises? And when your mind ceases its relentless replaying of all of the stories that it has collected over the years, what new awareness will arise within the spaciousness that you find?


Let me close with one of my favorite songs from John Prine’s eponymous first album:


Spanish Pipedream


She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol

And I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal.

Well she pressed her chest against me

About the time the jukebox broke

Yeah, she gave me a peck on the back of the neck

And these are the words she spoke:


Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper,

Go to the country, build you a home.

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,

Try and find Jesus on your own.


Well, I sat there at the table and I acted real naive

For I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve.

Well, she danced around the bar room and she did the hoochie-coo

Yeah, she sang her song all night long, telling me what to do:


Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper,

Go to the country, build you a home.

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,

Try and find Jesus on your own.


Well, I was young and hungry and about to leave that place

When just as I was leaving, well she looked me in the face

I said, "You must know the answer."

She said, "No but I'll give it a try."

And to this very day we've been living our way,

And here is the reason why:


We blew up our T.V., threw away our paper,

Went to the country, built us a home.

Had a lot of children, fed 'em on peaches.

They all found Jesus on their own.



Spanish Pipedream, from the album John Prine – John Prine, Atlantic Records, 1971.


Image Credits

Hunagarian television by Takkk via:

Entertainment center image by Scan Design via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Unbearable Stuckness Of Being (Sometimes)

Missouri is often referred to as The Cave State for its many caves and grottoes formed by groundwater percolating through the limestone bluffs and hillsides. As such, in my youth I came to be a bit of a spelunker – not as much as was my friend, Mike, mind you, who seemed to have some special inside knowledge with respect to cavern whereabouts, but close. I’ll never forget the last excursion we went on together. Yes, it was the last one because, to tell you the truth, I don’t much like being stuck.

We were actually in a very well-known cavern, one known for having a “back door” up amongst the rolling hills far beyond the yawning main entrance. This time, however, we were off in a side passageway that we were hoping might have a similar, but as-yet-undiscovered, back entrance – perhaps a sinkhole at the bottom of a nondescript hollow or something. For some reason that I can no longer recall, I led the way. Maybe we flipped a coin, or maybe I was the stockier of the two of us and we figured it best to determine right away our ease of passage. At any rate, I got down on all fours and headed in, soon to transition to an elbow crawl, and then to an inch-by-inch, worm-like slither, with one arm reaching out in front and the other pushing off of whatever it could push off of behind – moving only as far as the combined effort of my clawing toes, and wriggling midsection, and pushing and pulling hands could muster over the course of a single exhalation. And then I’d have to stop and rest…, and breathe.

This continued for a good twenty-five meters, as I recall, reason enough to make us think that we might be successful. Dead end passages, in our experience anyway, usually petered out pretty quickly. And after a time I even began to see raccoon tracks in the silt up ahead of me! And maybe the passageway would get wider in just a little bit...

Now, unlike one might think, the realization that such a passageway has become too tight is not something that gradually arises as the struggle to move forward becomes more and more labored. No, it arrives like a flash of lightning coursing through your dimly lit consciousness the very first time you come to realize that the need for your lungs to expand as you inhale indeed surpasses the available space in which to do so. Mind you, the space deficit need not be much – in fact, it could be infinitesimal – but as long as it exists at all, the specter of getting stuck will hover over every misty breath you take thereafter.

And so we labored onward. Exhaling and wriggling, then resting…, exhaling and wriggling, then resting…, we hoped upon hope that we were getting near the end. But then there came a point at which my flashlight no longer disappeared into darkness. No, it shone its light right back to me, reflected off of a solid wall of mud sealing closed the passageway – washed there, no doubt, through the very sinkhole entrance that we had hoped to find. Yes, those raccoon tracks could have been a thousand years old for all I knew.

“Mike?” My voice sounded strange. For ages his struggles behind me had been a wordless echo of my own.

“Yeah?” All was silent now, save for our breathing.

“We’re gonna have to turn back,” I said as calmly as I could.

“You’re shittin’ me,” he replied after pausing long enough for the nature of our predicament to sink in.


“You’re sure?”

“Well…, I’m looking at a wall of mud,” I replied. “I mean…, I could try to dig it out, but who knows how deep it is. And, anyway, there’s nowhere to put it if I do.”

“Shit,” I heard him mutter, which, of course, is what I’d already been thinking.

“So…, can you back up?”

Mike was quiet for a moment, and in that moment I breathed as deeply as I could – feeling my shoulders and my abdomen push tighter and tighter against the cave walls until I’d taken in as close as I could get to a full inhalation. It was a moment filled with umpteen what-ifs: What if he says that he can’t? What if somewhere along the long crawl back he finds that he can’t maneuver backwards in the same way that he could maneuver forward? What if he panics and passes out, or dies? What if I panic? And so it was that I began to panic; and it was as if the very beating of my heart squeezed tightly against the cave walls. “Easy…, easy…, easy…,” I said to myself. “Don’t even begin to go down that road. Don’t even start to freak out.”

“Well, I guess I don’t have any choice,” Mike finally said.

No, we didn’t have any choice.

Sometimes we don’t have any choice but to keep on living, do we? No…, as soon as I write these words, I realize that they aren’t true. All too often people choose not to go on living; and I’m pretty sure that when they do the feeling of being stuck is first and foremost in their minds. We can become stuck in a body that only causes more and more pain as time goes on, or stuck with a mind that will never again work with the lightness, the agility, and the memories with which it once worked. We can become stuck in a world of grades and achievement in which our best never seems to be good enough, or stuck in a violent world in which life is as cheap as a bag of potato chips that someone else wants to take from us. We can become stuck in a world of abuse or shame or loneliness, or stuck in a world in which the very substance that makes everything bearable makes everything even more unbearable in the end. Or maybe we’re just stuck in a world that is devoid of any real feeling whatsoever – a world that is cold and gray, dead and distant, and ringing with the incessantly hollow ring of meaninglessness. But even when circumstances are not as dire as these we can still feel stuck –  in a career, a relationship, a financial situation, a place…

There exists an oft-quoted truism: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. What this means is that life itself will inevitably unfold with some measure of the pain of existence itself: birth, sickness, aging, and death. How we react to this pain, on the other hand, will determine the extent to which we suffer. Consider the Buddhist teachings pertaining to dukkha, for instance (various sources, 2010).

Now consider again the stuckness that we so often experience in life – that panicky, trapped feeling filled with dread and foreboding, and seemingly devoid of options. This stuckness can feel as real as being trapped twenty-five meters down a dark passageway so suffocatingly tight that we can almost scream with whatever breath might be available to us. And yet these walls that confine us are not walls of stone at all. This tightness in our chest and in our mind is merely the cavern of our own delusion. Breathe… Watch what is happening… Sift that which is untrue from that which is true… Sift what “should be” from that which simply is… Our stuckness is only as real as we allow it to be… Crawl in the direction of truth and as you do the light will shine brighter and brighter until at last there is nothing at all to confine you.



Various Sources (2010) Dukkha. (Access to Insight, Ed.). Access to Insight.


Image Credits

Devil’s Cave passageway by Pudelek (Marcin Szala) via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank