The Buddha’s TV Remote and the Nature of Desire

By Matthew Joyce

Imagine you are watching television with the Buddha. There he is with that big fat belly and his feet propped up in his favorite Lazy-Boy chair. You’re sitting next to him on the couch and you’ve got the TV remote in your hand. You change channels one after another.

“You’ve been watching TV for a while now and you can’t pick a channel,” says the Buddha. “All you have to show for your efforts is an empty bag of chips and a wet ring around your glass on the coffee table.”

“There’s nothing on,” you reply.

“Why don’t you turn it off,” suggests the Buddha. “We can talk, take a walk, or meditate. Do something fulfilling that will lead to contentment.”

The Buddha’s advice is echoed by many of the world’s great spiritual teachers who tell us that striving to satisfy your desires is an unending cycle that leads to suffering. No matter what we wish to have, obtain, or be, the result is the same. Whenever we seek to satisfy our appetites, they are only temporarily satiated. All too soon we hunger for something else. To follow your desires is to participate in an unending chase that can never lead to fulfillment.

The key to contentment is the end of desire.

The Buddha says that the way to break this unceasing cycle is to stop participating in it. When you accept circumstances as they are without striving to change them, you cease suffering. This is sage advice and it is as true today as it was thousands of years ago when it was first given.

But it is also advice that can be easily misconstrued.

After all, surely the Buddha wouldn’t tell you that your desire to mediate was a bad thing; or your desire to give alms to the poor, to follow your dharma, or to provide a worthy service to others. Those are worthwhile endeavors, right?

To say that all desire is a bad thing is a bit like saying that watching TV isn’t good for you because all TV shows are bad. Obviously they are not. Sitcoms, soap operas, and horror movies may be a waste of time for people who like to watch sports or documentaries, but the value you place on the show is subjective and dependent upon your interests.

So if all desire isn’t a bad thing, then what gives with the Buddha’s advice?

The answer has to do with context. The Buddha’s advice was spot on in the context of your conversation with him. You were looking for something, and the activity you were pursuing wasn’t yielding what you were seeking. In other words, the pursuit of your desires was leading you away from the contentment in life that you were truly seeking.

But what if you were seeking something else?

What if you were seeking to fulfill some of the basic fundamentals of life? To live a human life is to want. You want food when you are hungry; you want sleep when you are tired; and you want companionship to share in life’s toils, joys, and sorrows. Buddhism has no prohibitions about satisfying these needs.

Neither does it suggest that we all become ascetics and stop participating in our material culture. After all, most of the world’s economy depends upon people making, selling, and buying stuff from other people.

While there is little question that modern material consumerism has negative consequences, that’s not to say that desire itself is a negative thing.

In fact, desire plays a very important role in life and in individual accomplishments, growth, and spirituality.

Desire is the catalyst for self-change.

Desire is the driving force that impels us to change the circumstances of our lives. Be they life-altering decisions about careers, relationships, etc. or seemingly inconsequential choices about what to watch on TV.

Desire is the flash that attracts your attention to something new, the magnet that helps you maintain your focus, and the fuel that enables you to improve your life.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting a nicer home, car, clothes, etc. if they contribute to your feelings of inner harmony and contentment. In fact, such acquisitions can be a positive means for improving the quality of your life.

But such desires can also be a trap.

It depends on how you view them. If you pursue your desires with the expectation that external changes will generate internal feelings, then you fall right into the endless cycle the Buddha was talking about. However if your process works the other way—with your inner feelings driving the external life changes—then you’ll be using your desires to positive effect.

How to Work from the Inside Out

The trick to working from the inside out is to shift your attention from wanting to draw something toward you, such as the nicer home, car, or clothes, and then defining yourself based on those things, and instead to work on expressing or sharing something meaningful about yourself.

Each of us has inner desires that we seek to express. Some are about creative expression. Others are about life purpose, life partners, or life events. As we identify with those desires and share them with the world, the world reacts by sending back to us the fruits of our expressions.

So as we actively express ourselves in a career we love, we in turn receive the financial abundance to buy the nicer home, car, and clothes. As we express our loving nature in our relationships with others, we in turn experience their love and companionship in return.

So the next time you feel compelled to make some changes (big or small) in your life, don’t let yourself be held back by any impositions about the propriety of desire. Go ahead and use your inner remote control to express your desires.

If you want more of a particular life experience, keep yourself tuned to that “channel.” If you want something else, change to that instead. Channel surf through life as much you like to discover what it is you’re looking for. But do so in the context of expressing your own inner joy and fulfillment, rather than merely channeling surfing through life in the hope that you’ll be satisfied by “whatever is on.”

Oh, one last thing.

While I want to encourage you to pursue your inner desires, I do suggest that you clean up that chip bag and wipe down the coffee table. I’m sure the Buddha would appreciate it.

Next Step

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2 Responses to Desire

  1. Mindy Angus says:

    Thanks for the invaluable reminder Matthew. For no matter how many diverse programs I can channel surf through on my remote, it’s truly the program running within myself (sans commercials) that makes the most sense to be tuned in to..

  2. Vic Contoski says:

    Dear Matthew:

    Spot-on, again! I hope you are considering putting your essays into a book.


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