Monday, April 7, 2014

Mindful Entertainment: Watching the Car Wreck of the Contemporary World Vicariously

Keeping up with current events and learning about the world’s affairs is like watching a car wreck. It’s a hideous thing to look at (war, poverty, injustice); but for some- like myself- they cant help but to look. The engrossing chaos of the contemporary world is like a vicarious roller coaster ride- the plot twists and contradictions provide the curling turns and the death-defying drops. But many are content to not give it the least bit of attention. They are happy to just know about what they feel directly affects them. Things like their gossip, finances, and the smorgasbord of mindless entertainment- designed to turn ones attention away from the current and into fantasy, all reinforce their choice of willful ignorance.

What may seem like a selfish decision to look away from the current world (especially to a naive me) is actually a form of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is best defined by an example- a psychological experiment to be more specific. In the 70s, researches were investigating the effects of punishment on dogs. They came up with the arguably sadistic but nonetheless important scientific decision to test the effects of continuous punishment. They set out to do this with dogs and electric shocks. The dogs were placed one at time on one of two adjacent metal platforms, from which they were confined to by bars. These metal platforms were connected to electrodes which would give a shock to whoever was in contact with them. The researches then continued to shock the dogs causing them to move from one platform to the other. Much to the dog’s dismay, both platforms were electrified- there was no escape. The dogs from then on stopped trying to move and laid on the platform to be repeatedly shocked. The dogs refused to move because they seemed to know it would not help them. But the incredible part comes when the researches removed the bars- allowing the dogs to move from off both platforms. One expects the dogs to leap from the platforms to safety, but the opposite happens. The dogs continue to stay and receive shocks although they are free to leave. The dogs had learned to be helpless- thus the term learned helplessness.

Confronted with the calamity of the modern world, most people are unable to figure a out a way to fix things. This is akin to the dogs not finding a way off the platforms. Like the dogs, they learn to take the shocks- which for them means numbing themselves to current events. Unfortunately, when the opportunity for a genuine plan to help the situation arises, these people will be blind to it- unable to seize the chance. Sad as that may be, it is expected and should not be thought of with contempt.

I say this because for myself- one who can’t help look away from the car wreck of current affairs- my gazing is passive. Instead of learning to look away with passionate disinterest, I have learned to look toward with dispassionate interest. That is, while others are passionately involved in the small scope of their immediate interests, I have become a detached observer. I’m not looking to find a way to help the situation with my gazing. I look because I am engaging vicariously or virtually with it. It’s as if I am finding entertainment in it. If this is the case, how is this any different from mindless entertainment. Is this the opposite? Is what I engage in a mindful form of entertainment?

Wait… the common conception of entertainment is that it must be mindless by definition. So what do I mean when I say gazing at the car wreck (vicariously) is a kind of mindful entertainment? It seems like I’m contradicting myself. But am I? Appearances may be deceiving- especially at first glance.

Can entertainment be mindful of current events rather then unconcerned with it? Let’s first ask a easier question. Does all entertainment have to be fantasy? This is obviously not the case. Reality TV (although much of it is scripted) shows that people can be entertained by the idea of watching something real as opposed to something made up. But what about the kind of topic entertained; does it have to be trivial instead of crucial? This I believe gets more to the hear of the matter. Most want to entertain shallows content, which does not affect them too much.

Can entertainment of crucial topics be engaging in a way as not to cause dread and helplessness but of hope and/or vicarious entertainment?  Is there a way to make entertainment about vital topics without shying away from their unpleasant aspects? I believe I have been doing this some how. I find mindfulness in all the entertainment I watch. I find myself following alternative media because I find it entertaining in the mindful way I am describing here. However I am not sure how exactly it happens for me.

I would like to envisage a time when people can trade mindless for mindful entertainment. I think it would help us by reversing the learned helplessness via a redirecting of attention toward the world- now with the guise of vicarious entertainment rather than frustration. The key difference is one can look at the worlds problems like a car wreck- telling yourself its OK to watch although there is no apparent fix. There is no reason to run from the world because it is chaotic when one can learn to become entertained by it and learn to experience it vicariously. This way, we can be at the forefront of the world’s issues and notice when we have a chance for a true fix, like jumping off an electrified platform when bars holding one in are removed.  

We should learn to watch the car wreck of the modern world with vicarious eyes looking for entertainment. Although at first it may seem disrespectful to find entertainment value in a car wreck, when all things are considered, it is a better option that not looking at all. If we learn to become detached observes, content to keep up with the unfolding of current events, we become more aware which eventually leads to change. Ignorance on the other hand will never lead to change.