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


  1. The "shrine to entertainment" is spot-on. We are in the process of dismantling our apartment while we prepare for a move. We decided to sell the couch instead of move it, so it ended up being the first thing to go. With it gone, the room was vastly nicer and the arrangement of things much more sensible. But it had to be there, because that's where the TV was! We hardly use ours, but it's still very much like a shrine with many things oriented towards it, just like cathedrals are built facing east. Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks for reading, Samsara! And thanks for relating your experience of the "shrine"!


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