In my book, Digital
Dharma, I look at the seven core spiritual communications
challenges encoded by the different technologies of the Infosphere, and relate
them to the "stages of consciousness" described by the world's esoteric
traditions, the work of philosophers such as Ken Wilber, and the "spiral
dynamics" model of Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, and Claire Graves. An earlier
excerpt on Reality Sandwich discussed our
fascination with the "codes of reality." This one looks at our addiction to
television, and connects it to the hunger of the heart center for authentic
connection with "the other," and in failing to meet this goal, its retreat into
either hard-heartedness or the self-medication of consumption.
At the fourth level of the digital dharma path comes the discovery
that every wave we send out ripples across other waves, creating a hologram of
interrelating life stories; that the "other" we see actually reflects a part of
ourselves. Fourth level values are held at the heart chakra, the center that
radiates our desire to fully love and be loved. The pivot point between the
body and the mind, this center's work is to integrate the reality of life's
limitations with our dreams of a world of unconditional love. The heart
intuitively yearns for connection at the deepest levels of experience. Its
greatest desire is to reveal our dreams, joy and sadness, beauty and light to
naturally desires to open to every one and everything. Yet, as the Buddha tells
us, the world we live in is one of suffering, wounding and limitation. While
mystics of all faiths tell us that it is the blows of life that awaken the
heart, for most of us, openly receiving all of this can easily overwhelm. This
chakra's core challenge at each and every second is to remain open and fully
compassionate to whatever comes its way; and its deepest shadow behaviors are
rooted in its attempt to sidestep the inconsolable grief when it looses again
and again, the objects of its attachment. It may "close down" in self-defense,
and reject true intimacy in favor of the defensive strategies of intolerance
and cynicism. Or it may react with hypersensitive clinging codependence and
the "victim syndrome," always meeting the needs of others, one's never-healed
"inner child," or one's aggrieved identity group. More often, it is a combination
of these responses: guilt for all the world's victims, especially oneself,
mixed together with addiction to material consumption, the acting out of grand
dramas, all made possible by a lack of discernment and self-discipline.
Out in the
Infosphere, these are the same polarities held for us by the medium of
television: the caring openness of the lover and the false self of the
actor/actress archetypes; the utopian hope for community and the ever-present
shadow of dysfunctional family wounding. TV is both a tool of addictive consumption,
and the harbinger of the enlightened global village. It reflects both a new
compassionate consciousness — a projection of the world's desire for
reconciliation and understanding — as well as all of its materialism,
over-stimulation, arrogance, greed and self-pity.
starts by transferring our needs for loving connection into over-consumption,
and pleasure in the humiliation of others — sometimes the self-important and
self-deluded, but often the hapless, helpless and weak. Seen through this
filter, it is no surprise that critics have called TV a "plug-in
drug" that "colonizes" our minds with lies and seduction. However, let us
not forget that television is also the medium through which a generation
discovered – and continues to discover — the humanity of all "the others" who
share Spaceship Earth.
Marshall McLuhan believed that the
fuzzy pictures of early television drew viewers into their electronic reality
not so much by stimulating sight, but above all, the emotionally powerful sense
of touch. The viewer, he wrote, is constantly "filling in the spaces" in
the flickering mosaic mesh, interacting with the picture tube in a creative
dialog with the medium's vague and blurry images.
This "tactile" participation in completing the television image cuts two
ways: we know on some level that the people we "see" on-screen are in fact our
own mind-projections. But we also sense that we are engaging with an artificial
world. Television, like many of our contemporary relationships, seems forever
to be drawing us in to a half-full glass, yet leaving us thirsty for real
of the close-up — originally necessitated by its small, low-resolution image — stimulates the fourth center's always-primed emotional energy receptors,
creating instant empathy with its on-screen characters. TV's critics argue that
the small screen is no substitute for the "big-picture" of real life.
But let's not forget that the close-up is by its nature subversive of
establishment power and pretense. It reveals the human face behind the false
front of the politician, and "de-deifies" world leaders.
not objective facts or reason, but in-close, emotional involvement. Television
is best when it touches the emotional body, relying on the more feminine forms
of expression, such as narratives and self-disclosure.
Leonard Shlain, in the Alphabet Versus the Goddess, tells us that it was
primarily the flickering electronic hearth of television that derailed
centuries of masculine linear text, bringing the return of the more feminine
mode of image pattern-recognition, and with it, massive changes in social
Television has always challenged the establishment by directly appealing to its
audience's fourth chakra intelligence, and its self-reflective awareness that
there is "more between the lines."
earliest critics and promoters saw it as an extension of centralized knowledge,
artistry and political power, television was almost immediately recognized as a
visitor that would bring the outside world in all of its diversity into the
viewer's home. And indeed, it was television's right brain orientation that
first brought us face-to-face (and heart-to-heart) with the world's and our own
community's "foreigners." Despite a predominance of cowboys and Indians,
violent crime shows and cartoons, TV also introduced the boomer generation to
outsiders of differing classes, gender, color, language, tribes and nations.
The movements that nurtured the first generation of the new culture — the Civil
Rights, feminist, peace and the environmental and holistic health movements of
the 1960's — had their roots in television's way of seeing the world.
compassionate stories is what drives the best television programming. Previously disenfranchised people — the poor
and homeless, even endangered species like whales and dolphins — have all found
a place in TV's all-embracing portrait of the global family. Throughout the
1970's and 1980's, Sesame Street
and the early versions of Star Trek embodied television's
heart-softening magic, connecting us with other families, neighborhoods,
cultures and even distant galaxies. Captains James Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard
taught us overcome intolerance and injustice without violence; Mister Rogers
was there to guide families into the dark corners of their childhood closets,
and a generation raised on Lassie and Flipper, began to insist on
This medium not
only brings the ugliness of war "home;" it tends to humanize the "enemy." In
the 70's, television coverage of the Vietnam War helped turn the tide of public
opinion against this otherwise remote conflict. This subversion of military
victories by TV's coverage of its consequences on "regular citizens" continues
today. The horrific images of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu
Ghraid Prison shown on television in the summer of 2004 did more to turn
the world against the Iraq
war than dozens of street protests.
In the Balkans, television
is now reuniting people separated by the (radio-driven) ethnic wars of the
1990's. Nashe Maalo, a children's program in Macedonia,
is bringing together Albanians, Turks, Roma, and Serbs. Encouraged by UNICEF,
Children's Television Workshop created Rruga Sesam (Albanian language) and Ulica Sezam (Serbian
language) in 2004. The programs, in addition to teaching literacy and numbers,
include locally produced live actions segments developed in collaboration with
both ethnic Albanian and Serbian content advisors that emphasize respect and
emotional hook however, has its downside. It can ignite compassion, but also
seduce and beguile. "At its very best," Christian essayist, David Dark tells
us, "television can function as a kind of Trojan Horse that ambushes our
minds with the lives of individuals and cultures to whom we might not otherwise
be inclined to connect ourselves." It encourages us, he says, to cultivate
the quality of empathy. Yet, at the same time, it taps our most base emotions,
"driving us to base our identity on what we able to purchase, hijacking our
hopes with the emptiest of slogans and scenarios, and wasting our sympathies on
tales that are devastatingly shallow and sentimental."
Why is this? I
believe that television is reflecting the heart's challenge of responding to a
world of limitation: of the frightened ego and its ever-present personal and
global "pain body."
Yes, it offers us real emotional connection with the fellow inhabitants of our
small planet, showcasing liberal values of tolerance and self-esteem; but it
also enables us to avoid experiencing all of the consequences of our actions
(and inaction) — the suffering we
ourselves cause other humans, other species, and our environment. Clear television
viewing demands that we look deeply into all of the pain we hold in our own
energy field and in all of mass consciousness. It asks the heart to break open
in compassion. But for most of us, this is too much to ask. Without a strong
grounding in the lower chakras and without the connections to the divine self
held by the higher centers, the ego-mind turns away from all the painful data
TV brings from the outside world, and quite naturally searches for some kind of
Reeling from the overpowering
experience of true grief, psychologists tell us that many people respond by
either hardening their hearts, retreating to other levels of consciousness, or
translating the uncomfortable message to something less scary. Television
reflects all three of these defense strategies: cynicism, avoidance, and
self-numbing addiction. Television's shadow side destroys our peace and
tranquility because we demand it! We empower this industry to use all of its
artistic power to cover the possibility of confronting global grief with
attention grabbing, but essentially empty, mini-dramas. We self-medicate, but
of course, the cure is worse than the disease.
At its worst,
contemporary TV programming perpetuates a kind of addictive emotionalism; the
medium's potential for opening the heart has been subverted by its
glorification of desire. Soap operas and reality shows offer psychological
gratification at bargain closeout prices. Politics becomes spectacle; news
becomes fashion reporting, and "media relations" passes for leadership. Instead
of promoting real compassion, which requires a truly vulnerable heart center,
and can only come when one has faced one's own pain, television offers a chance
to feel only pity or distain for the parade of losers brought to our screens,
leaving us in spiritual depression.
shadow reflects addictive personal consciousness played out in public space: a
nightmare place where the self is defined wholly by want, wish and the capacity
to consume; where avarice, gluttony and lust are disguised as infomercials and
the pretend intimacy of the tell-it-all talk show. For many, stuffing ourselves
with junk media and junk food has become an obsession that no diet can cure.
Commercial television's world is a place where nothing interferes with desire:
a perfect consumer society, a dream world where, in A.P. reporter Erin
Texeira's words, "black and white kids play softball together, where biracial
families email photos online and where Asians and blacks dance in the same
nightclub," (all) united by a shared love for consumer products.
proliferation of new cable and satellite channels has multiplied the number of
programs both inspiring and disappointing. On the plus side, Oprah
continues to promote feminine values of service and sharing. The Discovery
Channel airs numerous documentaries on the health of the planet; even the
conservative Fox network agreed to carry Morgan Spurlock's "Thirty Days," a
"reality" series featuring such empathetic situations as a homophobic military
man living with a gay roommate in San Francisco, and a southern Christian
staying with a Muslim family — for thirty days.
But for the most part, it's more of the same self-absorption and "junk food for
the wounded heart." Women's channels promise to fill the inner void with
fantasies. Food channels offer extreme close-ups of sensuous vegetables — "food
porn" — for a society that has forgotten its connection to the soil. Men get
twenty-four-hour soft-core sex, "extreme sports" and sensationalism disguised
as news, while the young get heartless cartoon programs delivering post-modern
"slacker" cynicism and juvenile dirty jokes.
Living in Full Fourth-level
How can we cope
with such a diet? I suggest that we embrace small doses of television as our
opportunity to see the other as self. The embarrassing excesses of
"reality" television, the advertisements promising us security
through consumption, and the parade of shallow, escapist comedies, can become
the lenses through which we see humanity struggle with its denied and repressed
responsibility for suffering in the world. We can use the medium spiritually,
to better perceive reality, as it is, warts and all. We can hold the broken
heart of humanity in compassion, but not become stuck in our own well-worn
melodramas. The flickering, incomplete mosaic can be the portal to loving
mindfulness, a state where, in the words of Buddhist eco-philosopher
Richard Grossinger, "instead of wanting to cache and horde, we want to share.
Instead of trying to liberate only ourselves, we mean to set everyone and
Perceiving that we
are indeed "all one family" is the challenge of the new Millennium.
The global proliferation of cable and satellite TV has projected this challenge
onto tens of millions of glowing screens. By revealing that which we have
pushed out of our field of vision, television can become the doorway to social
and spiritual transformation. Instead of a "hundred-channel universe," might
this technology enable each of us to become a channel of a hundred universes,
appreciating the beauty and the imperfections in all of Creation? Letting each
retrace line remind us that we can begin again, that we can forgive those that
hurt us, that we can forgive ourselves?
So let us tread
gently into fourth-level digital dharma, imagining that we are walking behind
all those enlightened souls that preceded us, and all those that will follow.
Start your journey with an examination of what you fondly consider to be your
"heart-centered" relationships. The question is: are they wrapped in
codependence and attachment? Are you living the archetype of the radiant Lover,
or avoiding vulnerability by treating love as a mental exercise? Are you
grounded in spirit or full of emotions and self-pity? Or do you "love" so much
that you're incapacitated by the world's pain? The following visualizations and
meditation exercise are invitations to step into the compassionate vibration of
fourth-level digital dharma.
Watch commercials as tales of longing. Ask
yourself, "What unfulfilled need is this message appealing to?" Allow in to
your very being the true experience of the broken heart of humanity. From your
heart center, emanate love to all victims of commercial exploitation, and to
all beings in general.
Use TV to discover your heart's hidden
desires, lost memories. When you feel a deep emotional response, turn down
the volume and stay with the feeling in your body. Let it become stronger.
Where is it located? What is its color or sound? Ask your heart center to
embrace the feeling completely. Stay with the experience for a few minutes. Ask
your higher self to take you to the time you first felt this way. Watch the
story as it plays out on your inner TV monitor. If it is painful, send
forgiveness to all involved. If it is a happy moment, thank all present for
giving you this gift.
Clear the Infosphere. Visualize yourself
joining together with others to form a field of Universal Love around all TV
satellites. Envision Spaceship Earth being displayed on everyone's TV set all
around the world. Radiate love, compassion and forgiveness to the hearts of all
Excerpted from Digital Dharma: A Users Guide to Expanding
Consciousness in the Infosphere, ©2007 Quest Books.
Anodea Judith, Eastern Body Western Mind:
Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to Self, Berkeley: Celestial
Arts (1996), p.278-79; See also Donna Seaman's
Booklist review of Ken Wilber's Boomeritis. Boston:
Shambahla (2002), at http://archive.ala.org/booklist/v98/je1/31wilber.html.
the chakra archetypes, see Ambika Wauters, Chakras and their Archetypes:
Uniting Energy Awareness and Spiritual Growth, Freedom, CA: The Crossing
Press (1997), p.91.
"The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan", Playboy Magazine, March
Steven D. Stark, Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that
Made Us Who We Are Today. New York:
Free Press (1997), p.31.
Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word
and Image. New York:
Viking-Penguin (1998), p.408-409.
Duane Elgin, Awakening Earth: Exploring The Evolution of Human
Culture & Consciousness. New York: William Morrow (1993),
 Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural
Creatives. New York: Harmony
Arie Farnam, "TV Show Helps Macedonia
Heal," The Christian Science Monitor
Online, October 9, 2003.
http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1009/p06s01-woeu.html. On Sesame Street,
see http://www.participate.net/sesamestreet/kosovo; this program was featured on Independent
Lens on many public television stations in October 2006, http://www.itvs.org/pressroom/pressRelease.htm?pressId=329.
Another version of Sesame Street created in South Africa features a puppet character with HIV/AIDS.
David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse. Grand Rapids:
Brazos Press (2002), p.43.
 On "the
pain body," see Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. Novato
CA: New World Library (1999), and A New
Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose. New York:
Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information. New
York: Random House (1992), p.183. Erin Texeira,
"Racial Unrealties," Associated Press report, published in The Capital Times (Madison WI), February 17 2005. E1. Detroit News carried same
story online at www.detnews.com/2005/nation/0502/17/A09-91078.htm.
On "Thirty Days," see http://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/originals/30days/main.html.
Bill Buford, "TV Dinners: The rise of food television," New Yorker, October 2, 2006. 42. In mid-2006, New
York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed, "As the administration has gotten more hypermasculine and martial (when
will Dick Cheney order us to change all our clocks to military time?), prime
time is getting more feminine and seductive." "From McBeal to McDreamy,"
May 17, 2006.
Richard Grossinger, On the Integration of Nature: Post 9/11 Biopolitical
Notes, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books (2005), p.209.