As a Man Thinketh: Effects of the Media

by Sarah Belle Dougherty

The world is awash in visual and auditory stimuli: television, films, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements clamor for attention, and we give them a great deal of our time. Generally we believe that what we see and hear, particularly for entertainment, has no actual effect on us; that whatever goes on in our minds and emotions is a private experience which does not impinge upon others. Counselors commonly recommend using fantasies as a harmless means of fulfilling desires which should not or may not be acted out. Here thoughts and feelings are considered abstractions with no objective reality or consequences in themselves. Only what we do and say, what can be perceived through the physical senses, is considered real.

Mankind, however, exists primarily in a psychological, not a physical, world. The physical world exists undeniably, but we know it only through our mental interpretations of sense impressions. While we exist in several spheres -- physical, psychic, psychological, and spiritual -- our main sphere of activity is our feelings, thoughts, desires: the psychological universe which we experience directly. From the theosophical point of view, the building blocks or "atoms" of the psychological world are thoughts and feelings, which are not abstractions but elemental living beings with their own rudimentary consciousness. Physically imperceptible, these relatively unevolved entities or energies are just as real and influential as electricity, light, or magnetism but directly affect us psychologically rather than physically.

In the course of our life, we are each aware of continually drawing on and adding to our individual consciousness. But humanity as a whole also exists in a global field of consciousness, each person drawing on and contributing to this great sea of human thought as well as to the vortices and currents within it formed by the psychological effluence of particular cities, nations, and other groupings of people. The films and television we watch, what we read and hear, involve thoughts and feelings which are drawn from the psychological atmosphere of the earth and which return to it stamped with the results of their stay with us. When a particular thought or feeling occupies our attention, we either strengthen it so it is easier for others to pick up in its circulation through the thought-atmosphere, or weaken it so it is not so energetic and easily available. We color it by our positive, negative, or neutral use of it, and so bear a responsibility both to the entity that is manifesting as that thought and to the rest of humanity to whom we automatically make it available in that form.

We have, of course, a responsibility to ourselves as well. Our future self is the direct result of our psycho-spiritual life, which directs the growth of our character. We constantly impress our being with what we allow our consciousness to focus on. Thought and imagination are powerful tools in human evolution. We have not yet begun to understand the profound effect that our imagination has on our spiritual development, for as Katherine Tingley remarks:

I hold that the imagination has a wonderful and creative power. I hold that if we let it soar in the world of spiritual and creative thought . . . it can create what truly seem to be miraculous things. . . .
Visualize! Visualize! You touch a mystic law when you create in imagination the picture of mighty things, for you open a door to new powers within yourself. Something in the way of potent energies is awakened and called into life and strength both without you and within. If you aspire, visualize your aspirations. Make a mind-picture of your spiritual ideals, a picture of the spiritual life as you know it to be, and carry that picture with you day by day. Cherish it as a companion. Carry it with you for breakfast, dinner and supper, and before you know it a new life has been born. Before you know it the ideal has become the real and you have taken your place as a creator, truly, in the great, divine scheme of life. -- Theosophy: the Path of the Mystic, pp. 46-7

The transforming power of imagination when serving either our spiritual impulses or our lower aspirations and desires may not be widely accepted, though the effects of deliberate visualization and imaging are being recognized. Intense focusing of consciousness and the mental picturing of certain results are beginning to be used in many situations, from healing to seeking particular opportunities or circumstances in life. All our thoughts and feelings also have effects, though not as dramatic as when we put our conscious will strongly behind them.

Once we acknowledge the power of thought to influence directly even the physical world, it is obvious that it is not enough for a person to be responsible outwardly while behaving irresponsibly in his thoughts. "As he thinketh in his heart," says the Proverb, "so is he." The Hebrew word translated as heart is nephesh, meaning our lower, animal nature, so that the phrase actually means, As a person thinks in his lower nature, that he is or becomes (cf G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, p. 200). While we may feel we are indulging in harmless escape or fantasy, we are actually dealing in causal realms. We will feel the effects in our being by the kind of person we cause ourself to become, and eventually will also receive back from the environment the consequences of all our psychological output, not just that from our "serious" moments.

Because the media affect directly the content and tone of our consciousness, they exert a powerful influence on individuals and society. Our auric atmosphere and the psychological atmosphere of the earth are filled with the thoughts, images, and impulses we allow into our psyches. The various mass media induce psychological energies and impulses which are magnified and reinforced by the hundreds, or even millions, of people who share them. If the content of the media was mainly positive and uplifting, this might be a distinct benefit, but the largest segment of the market goes toward satisfying the demand of the lower human appetites, as a peek at the local video store, supermarket book and magazine racks, or the evening's television amply attest. Advertising, too, so ubiquitous as to be scarcely noticed, usually plays on the lowest common denominator of its audience. We are accustomed to being manipulated, to being bombarded with appeals to our selfishness and insecurities, and to having our appetites stimulated to want ever more and more.

Impersonal, institutionalized flattery, unrealistic claims, illusions of violence and sensuality, and glorified selfishness have become so commonplace that they do not shock or disturb many of us. When we experience violence and immorality through film or print, we excuse it as harmless because it is only a portrayal. But, as Jesus said, to not commit adultery is insufficient; we must reject it in our minds and hearts for "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). By our indulgence in such spectacles vicariously through technological illusions, we participate in that psychological reality as if we were witnessing those events in person. And moving from illusion to reality becomes increasingly easy with familiarity, especially when traditional moral standards have little hold on society.

Certainly our consciousness has been coarsened by the onslaught of the petty and degrading to which we subject it. By their content the various media contribute significantly to the psychological smog that hangs over our civilization, polluting our thought-atmosphere and eating away at our collective inner health and well-being. This atmosphere creates and reinforces further demand, which will never be satisfied since it is based in human appetites. The Roman circuses, for example, began as innocent entertainment, only to degenerate over time into terrible excesses of brutality, torture, killings, and sex acts as it pandered to jaded viewers. Such events are commonplace now in popular fiction and film. Can we long maintain our ethical sensitivities when we surround ourselves with such material?

What can we do if we do not like the current trends? Censorship by some authority is not the answer; rather, we need to cultivate a more realistic perception of what is healthy and what is damaging to ourselves and others. Such shifts of popular viewpoint have had an effect with physical problems: the connection of heart disease with diet, for example, has altered the eating patterns of many people and the proliferation of AIDS is changing popular attitudes toward casual sex. Again, the obvious results of pollution and unwise industrial activity are beginning to affect people's opinions and way of life. These, however, are diseases of our physical body and environment, and changes have come only after irrefutable evidence of deadly consequences. Will we recognize the psychological malaise that infects our society and trace its causes to the actions of human consciousness? Or will we continue to believe that only that which is perceived by our physical senses is real?

Negativity feeds on itself; we must be willing at some point to discipline our own consciousness as a contribution to our health and that of humanity. The cesspool of mankind's consciousness can be purified -- but not by adding ever more destructive material or by rationalizing material that panders to the lowest in us as harmless entertainment which has no objective consequences. The media, neutral in themselves, become constructive or destructive by our use of them. Our own reactions to the various media show the tremendous power of their products to elicit either nobility or meanness. While it is easy to indulge our negative aspects, which can be so powerful, we owe it to ourselves and to our fellowmen to minimize the hold of the lesser self over our consciousness and to nurture the wonderful, worthy aspects of ourselves by thinking toward the greatness in every human being. For the quality and content of our individual consciousness is our most important contribution to human and planetary evolution.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1989; copyright © by Theosophical University Press)

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