TV as Spiritual Practice

TV has a bad rap.  That’s not a new thing, when I was young and liked watching TV probably more than average my parents were concerned about it.  I have since found out that it was particularly my Dad that was worried about it and when I went on to train to be an actor he realised that maybe there was some wisdom at play – I had started studying acting young!  When I wrote this poem in my 20’s my mum thought it was pretty funny:

 

My Televisual Youth – a taste of things to come

Oh lovely TV set

You’re so warm and crumbly

Like a moist current bun

Just baked by my mum

Filling my tum

With a wholesome satisfaction

Playdays or World in Action

It’s all the same to me

From my extra surrogate parent

That is the TV

 

Even the generation before my parents talked about the TV as the ‘goggle-box’ and said you’d get square eyes if you watched too much.  In ‘alternative’ circles TV is often considered a very poor activity and if you say you don’t have a TV you’re celebrated!  I should know: I don’t have a TV – but… I do watch a fair amount of TV programs online.

Now I can understand disparaging TV for the amount of advertising shown and the way that breaks up the programs (although we’ve all gotta pay the bills right?), I also have to say I don’t really get the huge flood of ‘reality’ shows there are going.  Some have a kind of story arc I can understand, and Big Brother originally had a kind of psychological experiment cachet about it but now?  Still going?  Really?  All that said, some people love it and just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

What I want to offer here is a different perspective on fictional TV – dramas, comedy, series, films, the whole bit, because I think they are often underappreciated.  The reason I think this is because I consider TV as a form of theatre.  If you went and watched a play each evening, you would be considered fortunate indeed and pretty high-brow.  If you watch TV each evening it’s generally considered low-brow, if perhaps not unusual.  One of the things that I think is underappreciated is that many of the best theatrical writers today are writing for TV, some of them exclusively.  Equally, many of the finest actors around are now working in television.  It has been an increasing trend in the last 5 years or so that even actors who previously only worked in film have started working on TV series’.  Some of the writing in TV series’ is really powerful, deeply human, and very moving if you invest yourself in the story, engage with the characters and really allow yourself to be involved.  David Mamet whose background as a writer is in theatre is one of the creators of ‘The Unit’, an American military action drama (which I have loved watching!).  Tim Roth, one of the finest British actors of his generation (in my opinion) and successful film actor including working on cutting-edge pieces like the film version of Tom Stppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are dead’ is now the star in ‘Lie to Me’ a drama series drawing on Paul Ekman’s psychological research.  It is an excellent series, brilliantly written, characterised, acted and directed.  This is some of the best contemporary story-telling going on. 

I think the problem with TV is not the medium itself but how we use it.  All too often I think that TV just serves as a background noise in the house to ensure there isn’t silence.  It can be a way not to spend time ‘in my own company’ and not to sit with thoughts and feelings on the inside.  To quote from ‘The Invitation’ by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

The negative use of TV in my opinion is a way of ensuring I never have to answer this question.

This doesn’t mean I’m against using TV for escapism.  It can be wonderful to immerse myself in another world and someone else’s cares, concerns, joys and adventures for an hour or two – so long as I don’t do this all the time and lose touch with myself.  What I would propose is that by committing more fully, and escaping more deeply into the stories within your favourite TV you can find a path to a fuller and deeper relationship with yourself. 

There is a technical term from theatre ‘Suspension of disbelief.’  This is something that as performers you have to work for.  You have to create a world on the stage that is so inviting and immersing that the audience commit to suspending their disbelief for the duration of the play.  They commit internally to believing in the world you have created on the stage so that the story lives as a theatrical truth for a while and has the power to move people emotionally rather than just being a body of lies.  In the theatre however, numerous ritual ties have been made to support suspension of disbelief before the play even begins: you have paid for a ticket, you have come together with lots of other people at a special time, many people dress up to go to the theatre, it’s often a treat so you’re invested in enjoying it, you come together in a special room and everyone makes an implicit agreement to be quiet while you all watch, at the end people know to clap their hands to show appreciation… when you think about it, going to the theatre is a highly ritualised act.  From the point of view of the illusion of the story, TV today is better equipped than theatre ever has been.  It is on set’s that are indistinguishable from day-to-day life and with the production budgets, lighting, and special effects it’s completely believable.  But the ritual isn’t there.  The TV gets thoughtlessly switched on and off, ignored, talked over, and spotting continuity errors seems for some people to virtually be a sport… really it doesn’t stand much of a chance!  There is no commitment to suspension of disbelief.  When you’re creating a play you’ve got to do a good enough job to support people in suspension of disbelief, but in TV they’ve done the work.  If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but if you like watching something then do the artists who have put the work in to create this whole other world a favour and commit to the experience: Suspend your disbelief.  Once you do this I genuinely believe that magic can happen.  You can be transported to other worlds, but you can also vicariously experience emotions that you otherwise might leave buried. 

In therapeutic work we talk about ‘catharsis.’  This is when someone has an experience of fully being in an emotion in a way that releases something for them – often something connected to a traumatic or difficult past experience.  This kind of cathartic release can be very healing and can free up energy and attention in a way that no amount of talking about a life occurrence ever will.  Not a lot of people know that the word Cathartic has it’s origins in classical Greek theatre.  The ancient Greeks considered theatre to be a potentially healing experience and catharsis was when someone was able to allow themselves to feel something when they saw a character feeling it, that they couldn’t feel on their own.  I can certainly identify with some emotions felling almost too big for everyday life – if I am engaged and invested in a story about God’s, Goddesses, Hero’s and Heroines, then the context for the emotions is larger and it can feel safe to experience big emotions.  Sometimes it is less painful to connect with a character’s grief than it is to connect with my own, but that doesn’t mean the tears I shed for the character are not also an emotional release for me.  When my mother died, not long afterwards I saw a film called ‘The Family Stone.’  It is a beautiful film, very funny in places and the mother in the film (played wonderfully by Diane Keaton) really reminded me of my mum.  It helped me to connect with my grief when I was at home, in my own space and snuggled up in a comfy jumper – the perfect environment!  My experience with grief is that it can surface at any moment, and in response to the strangest things so it was a real relief to let some of my grief come, and to shed some tears after that film.  It was much gentler for me to have those feelings in that moment than for them to suddenly surface while I was at the office or in the supermarket (both of which have happened).

The picture I’m trying to paint here is of Television as a true artistic medium, much like stage productions.  For us to find the real benefit of it we need to engage with it more consciously.  What TV requires of us is a commitment to suspension of disbelief.  What TV offers us is the potential to really connect with that which is human within us and potentially to have a healing cathartic release of emotion.

So, “The Rev’s” recommendation for spiritual and emotional exercise for today: curl up in front of your favourite TV program and immerse yourself in the world of the characters.  Make a ritual of it, put on your favourite jumper, get a glass of your favourite drink (whatever floats your boat), and maybe some chocolate or ice-cream, switch off the phone, and get comfy.  Spiritual practices don’t have to be hard work!  You never know what you might learn about yourself or what healing may happen as you sink into the world of the characte´╗┐rs...