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Reality TV and the Fifth Precept

A reader wrote in:

I just got through reading about the five precepts. Whew. There are some tough ideas in there to try to put into practice. If the idea of not watching my favorite reality television show causes me great suffering, shouldn’t I watch it? I say this half-joking. I don’t think that there is anything redeeming about reality television. It’s negative and preys on people’s misfortune. I guess that I am drawn by the outrageous suffering – an ugly human trait. I find that it makes me feel better about my own problems. I view it like junk food for your brain. I figure a bag once a week isn’t so bad. But, maybe I should reconsider. 

Have a great week!


My response:

The original question, I suspect, is referencing my quote of Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Fifth Precept.


About the only “reality show” I watch is “Life Below Zero,” about several groups of people living in northern Alaska. Each week, they have some kind of real, non-manufactured challenge to work around. They usually master the situation, but sometimes, nature gets the upper hand. This is a show about people overcoming hardships and making a life where people really aren’t meant to be. Granted, there is always a cameraman there, so the “danger” of some of the situations may be exaggerated a little, but the overall tone of the show is uplifting. I’d recommend it. 

I’m not here to push my favorite shows on you, but there is a big difference between something like Life below Zero and the Kardashians

I’m not about to slam TV in general; I watch plenty of shows. But the ones that are purely negative, and you know which ones I mean if you watch them, are bad for you. Right mindfulness, Right concentration, several other steps of the Path could apply to this situation. You think about the strife and discord on those shows, and before long, you start worrying and dwelling on that stuff, and it spills over into your own life. As Thich Nhat Hanh said in that original post, it’s a kind of toxin.

Why does negative TV, like the shows you describe, make you feel better by seeing that other people have worse lives than you do? We all have issues and problems in our day-to-day lives, and there’s no way around that for any of us, celebrities and the wealthy included. In many ways it’s the same thing as watching a train wreck or a traffic accident on the side of the road— it’s hard to not watch sometimes.

To put a positive spin on the issue, seeing other people’s suffering gives us a sense of community and togetherness; it reinforces the idea that we’re all in this together. Also, we tend not to appreciate what we really have unless we have some frame of reference for comparison, and both positive and negative frames are needed. It’s not psychologically or spiritually healthy to actually take joy in their suffering, but in a way it feels good to know that our lives aren’t any worse than those people on TV.

As you point out in your note, you know that’s not good. And from the Buddhist point of view, it’s definitely wrong. The goal for any Buddhist should be to eliminate suffering wherever possible, not be entertained by it. You probably can’t really do anything to help those people on TV (and their problems were most likely recorded months ago anyway), but there’s plenty of other more wholesome, more healthy activities you could be doing instead of TV— or even more positive shows to watchif TV is important to you.

It’s hard to avoid experiencing negativity in the modern world, but there’s no reason you should make a conscious effort to invite it into your life. Work to make your own life, and the lives of those around you, better.

What do you think? Post your comments on the site below. Got any GOOD and POSITIVE shows to recommend?

1 comment to Reality TV and the Fifth Precept

  • zed

    Surprisingly, I was pulled in by an unlikely show called Total Divas, about female wrestlers and what happens to them behind the scenes. What I’ve noticed most is that many of their personal issues are based on grasping desires. One woman has a marriage that isn’t working out so she’s angry and frustrated because she wants things to be as they’ve always been. Another is making herself sick by not eating because, despite being gorgeous, she thinks she’s too fat for a magazine photo session. Yet another is attracted to one of her co-workers but the feelings are not reciprocated. And last but not least, one woman’s concerned family takes it upon themselves to speak privately with her not-good-enough husband-to-be, a scenario of miscommunication that nearly ends their romance and divides her family.

    I think its quite interesting to meditate on these celebrities’ personal problems, see where they went wrong, and discuss with others how they might resolve them (even if the answer is, more often than not, by letting go of impossible desires). While the problems of celebrities are often laughable compared to our own, there is certainly something to learn from them. Only by seeing the problem can one create a solution.

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