“Watching television [is] an act of delegating the work of thinking to an external system, almost a way of outsourcing mental noise.”
Even when compared to other first-world problems, addiction to entertainment may not seem all that serious. It isn’t as newsworthy as alcoholism and drug addiction, and certainly not as destructive on the face of it, but entertainment addiction is a ‘silent killer,’ so to speak. It is more or less socially acceptable, and even seen as a mark of success in its sneakier manifestations (e.g. stock tickers and multitasking), so it is possible to get into a deep pit of addiction to entertainment in modern society without yourself or anyone else even noticing.
To clarify a little bit; when we speak of entertainment addiction it is not necessarily limited to the obvious forms of it, such as soap operas and videogames, but has to do with a general craving for external stimuli. It may manifest as needing to turn on the television just to watch whatever is on, picking up a magazine, surfing the internet, reaching for the BlackBerry, or even picking up the phone and calling someone just to talk about nothing.
The root of it
In essence, what we are talking about is an addiction to thinking. A habit that constantly requires more and more content for the mind to process and feed on, whether it be a news bulletin, loud music, a video game, a fast car, or whatever else that stimulates the senses. Try sitting still for 15 minutes in the middle of the day and you know what I’m talking about — most of us are so used to constant input that it becomes difficult to break the pattern. The more we feed it the more it grows, and what we call normal in today’s society is already a state of considerable addiction.
All of this is due to the ego, which is a construct of thought. It is a thought form, or rather a bundle of thought forms – one that people identify themselves with. When people identify with form, which is inherently subject to impermanence, they become anxious, trying to secure themselves by adding more forms to the bundle they identify with. Celebrities are seen as having great security and comfort because of all the forms we associate them with, whereas the so-called nobodies in society are thought of as not having much security at all.
Because the ego is constantly looking for more and more forms to consume and add to itself, the ego-identified mind becomes a very noisy place to be in. There is a constant flow of compulsive thinking, usually repetitive thinking with a very low signal-to-noise ratio; thinking that is not at all creative, but feeds on itself in an infinite loop of self-obsessed mental noise that few people would consciously choose to have in their minds.
And this is one aspect of why people have a craving for entertainment: the content of their compulsive thinking is so unpleasant, that they would rather have their mental noise quota filled by derived thoughts that they get from an external source. Like treading water to avoid becoming submerged, we attempt to stay on the surface level of thinking to avoid having to face the unquestioned thoughts and beliefs that have been pushed down and repressed over the years. And so we tune into a shallow version of life in the form of a soap opera, for example, to keep our minds occupied and distracted.
Watching television then becomes an act of delegating the work of thinking to an external system, almost a way of outsourcing mental noise. And if you look at the compulsion when it arises, it may seem that what you want to escape is boredom. But boredom is little more than an uneasy state of wanting desperately to escape your thoughts.
A world of distractions
The fast pace of living we may have associated with Wall Street and ambitious business people is now becoming more and more a part of everyday affairs in the modern world, and it’s even become a sort of status symbol to have your daily schedule fully packed with activities from dawn to dusk. Running around in a business suit is the new image of a life well lived in our culture, and there is even a malady known as a ‘BlackBerry thumb,’ a condition of repetitive strain injury from the use of this popular icon of stress and success.
And while we may justify the noise of the world as being serious business, it is often little more than entertainment in disguise. A teenager who fills his unoccupied spots of attention with a mobile gaming device becomes an adult who fills his unoccupied spots of attention with a mobile communication device. The latter looks more important, but the underlying compulsion is still the same need to escape from boredom. Which in turn is wanting to run away from the content of your mind.
If you were to suddenly lose the ability to understand languages, you’d probably be amazed at the relentless barrage of noise our senses are subjected to on a daily basis. Everywhere you look there is something trying to capture your attention, and our options for filling up the few spaces left that are free of distractions are nearly endless. The ‘Attention Economy’, a recent term that is used to describe attention as a scarce resource to be harvested for monetary value, is a reminder of the values of the world and just how insane they can be.
What to do about it
To find a solution to this, it helps to be aware of what is the root cause of the problem. And as we know, this, like everything else, is first and foremost an inner issue. While it may be helpful to make changes on the external level, like for example to deprive yourself of entertainment or somehow remove yourself from modern society, it is important to approach this from the inside-out for the possibility of real transformation.
First of all, do not repress, resist, or deny the craving for entertainment when it arises. The only way of ever going beyond it is to face it fully, allowing boredom to arise and simply observing what it feels like. If you start to feel bored, try sitting with it for a few minutes before doing anything to relieve it. When you’ve broken the compulsive rhythm of jumping from one thing to the next, it doesn’t really matter all that much if you end up picking up that suspense novel or not, or if you turn on the television. What we need to be concerned with is the compulsion, and not really the entertainment as such.
When the inner craving lessens, your external habit of entertainment consumption will go away by itself. You may still enjoy reading, watching movies and so on, but the compulsion will have gone out of it. And because the craving is no longer there, entertainment becomes much more enjoyable. You will most likely not consume nearly as much of it when the craving has disappeared, but it is by no means necessary to reject it entirely. Renouncing entertainment to some degree will help speed up the transformation, and a part of the practice of facing boredom is a certain amount of abstinence from entertainment. But the key issue here, and the root of the problem, is the inner attachment. Eating ice cream is not necessarily an issue, but having a psychological attachment to eating ice cream is. And I suppose that although I meant it as a metaphor, the ice cream is really a form of entertainment when consumed for the sensory pleasure alone.
But I digress. What it comes down to is the same thing as always, namely to discover the inner realm of stillness. Addiction to entertainment is an aspect of being lost in thought, and any method of slowing down and finding stillness will help you overcome the addiction. There are of course many different pointers and methods for this, but of particular use with regards to entertainment is to simply sit with the craving when it arises. Feel the compulsion on an energy level, how it can feel as a ball of tightness and agitation in your stomach perhaps, and allow it to play itself out. Observing your breath is also helpful here, because it points your attention inward to stillness. And even more so when you have your attention on some form of entertainment, when watching TV for example, observing your breath can be a powerful way of anchoring yourself in stillness. When you are rooted within and part of your attention is quiet and unoccupied, it is possible to enjoy entertainment without becoming lost in it.
Ultimately this is about the same fundamental issue we are always talking about, and as always the answer is simply to become still. You will be able to live in this world without being a prisoner of entertainment and distraction, and won’t have to go live in a cave for the privilege.
Source: ‘Entertainment Addiction’, from Everyday Wonderland, a “weblog on the subject of spiritual awakening, creativity, enthusiasm, inspiration, and generally everything having to do with the higher levels of human consciousness.” Seemingly inactive since 2008, it holds just over a year’s worth of insightful, introspective and spiritually grounded articles.