January 24, 2010 § 4 Comments
Much has been written about how the film Avatar was made–how it took five years and thousands of people and $300 million. Much has been written about how enchanting it looks. Vatican Radio said “really never before have such surprising images been seen.” L’Osservatore Romanos, the newspaper of the Holy See, commented: “So much stupefying, enchanting technology, but few genuine emotions…” Others beside these Vatican sources commented on the pantheism of the story–a faith that equates God with nature–taking issue with the suggestion that communion with “Eywa,” the “All Mother” of Creation, the humming hub of energy that is the sum of everything thing, is the highest divinity.
But I have been thinking about how the film follows such a deep groove in the culture and maybe even in most individual’s brains, certainly mine. Gurdjieff told his students that the aim of his work was not to add anything new but to recover something had been lost. Gurdjieff meant wholeness, unity– in a much more subtle, inward way than what James Cameron is dazzling the world with. But the visually mind-blowing Avatar can take a person back, as they say. It made me remember how it felt to be a child. The protagonist of the film, a 22nd century ex-Marine named Jake Scully, is sent on a mission to a moon called Pandora. His consciousness is slipped into the nine-foot-tall blue alien body,or avatar, so he can spy on the Na’Vi, the beautiful, lithe, blue natives of Pandora who look like a re-imagined indigo version of the first aboriginal people. Jake is meant to help his corporate and military masters get rid of the Na’Vi, who are living on top of a rich deposit of “Unobtainium,” an invaluable mineral back on ruined Earth. But Jake (whose original body was paralyzed from the waist down thanks to war) falls in love with a Na’Vi princess and learns a new way to be.
Biologists have written articles in The New York Times about the way Avatar captures “the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.” Watching it made me remember imaginary games I played in childhood that involved climbing trees and (in winter) jumping from couches to chairs in the living room, pretending I bounding gazelle-like through a vast, impossibly beautiful jungle, my black panther consort padding by my side. Watching the swooping, gorgeous scenes of Cameron’s movie, it all came rushing back, the yearning and exuberant certainty I felt at five or six-years-old that I could be far more capable and graceful and alive than my mother and the container of my life allowed me to be. Somehow I new there had to be more to me that what was called on in school each day. There was a capacity to be quicker, wilder…anyway, I practiced pretending that I could listen and even feel the intelligence of the whole of the jungle.
My days as a girl in tune with the jungle came crashing down the day my mother intentionally bleached the navy blue shorts I would not stop wearing winter or summer when I was pretending to be a kind of girl Mowgli. It was a horrible, clarifying moment for me, seeing those shorts all mottled purple and white. It was like tearing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. I went from having a connection to the whole of Nature to being an ordinary kid shivering in a laundry room on a January day.
Many, many decades later, however, I sat down on a sitting cushion with other friends who are interested in coming to a greater unity. These days, the unity I wish for is an inner unity and the divinity I aspire to know is greater than Nature. As I quieted down and sought to come to a greater awareness, I realized that remembering who we really does mean forgetting the small creature we usually take ourselves to be. It means going back, back behind all the proliferating thoughts and biases, returning to consciousness…and that primordial mystery.
January 15, 2010 § 2 Comments
It has always intrigued me that the computer world applies words traditionally meant to point towards sacred realities– “icon” and “avatar”–in weird but apt ways. An icon, for example, is a small image that can be clicked on to become a gateway to a much larger reality–a two-dimensional technological version of the way an Byzantine icon can lead an Orthodox Christian who contemplates it to an appreciation of the greater reality it represents. Similarly, an avatar is a picture vehicle or a cartoon personification for a real person while a traditional avatar was a Hindu deity incarnated in human form–the way Lord Krishna appeared to Arjuna on the battlefield. Who first thought of using these terms? What computer geek (s) with a love of comparative religion chose those words instead of the cute common word “cookie” or the made-up word “google”? It seems to suggest that at least some of the time, computing and software design attracts people who have some of the same questions and hopes that animate spiritual search–i.e. the exchange of energy. Certainly, this is true of technologist and gift economy entrepreneur Nipun Mehta, whom Parabola interviewed last year.
James Cameron’s film “Avatar” is a gorgeous digitally animated and live action fantasy exploration of what it could be like to be human and inhabit a greater reality. Regardless of how they may judge the story Cameron tells, almost everyone who has seen the film has been bowled over by the way Cameron (working with a crew of thousands) has reimagined nature. In the New Yorker, David Denby writes: “As Cameron surges through the picture plane, brushing past tree branches, coursing alongside foaming-mouthed creatures, we may be overcome by an uncanny sense of emerging, becoming, transcending–a sustained mood of elation produced by vaulting into space.” Set on Pandora, an Eden-like planet, and among the tribal clan, the Na’vi, who sense and worship the connections among all living beings. As Denby describes them: “In their easy command of nature, they are meant to evoke aboriginal people everywhere. They have spiritual powers and, despite their elementary weapons–bows and arrows–real powers, too. From each one’s head emerges a long braid ending in tendrils that are alive with nerves. When the Na’vi plug their braids into similar neural cords that that hang from the heads of crested, horselike animals and giant birds, they achieve zahelu“….the Na’vi can merge with the animals and govern their behavior with their own thoughts (in some other reports I’ve read, this is the way the Na’vi merge with one another as well). In the film, a shadowy mega corporation grow tall blue avatars by incorporating a few peoples’ DNA–among them Jake, a paralyzed ex-marine. When Jake slips into his avatar body he can suddenly run and jump againg–even before he goes flying on a kind of huge, colorful pterodactyl–we feel the soaring joy of movement.
Another writer calls Avatar “a long apologia for pantheism–a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.” That columnist claims that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religioun of choice for a generation now…It’s the metaphysics woven through Disney cartoons like The Lion King and Pocahontas. dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.’”
Hmmmmm. So many interesting questions bubble up. I remember so vividly experiencing meditation for the first time–that experience of coming down out of my thoughts and reconnecting with sensory awareness–and with feelings and thoughts before they hardened into ideas. That was like slipping into an avatar and visiting a gorgeous new world, a connected world. But now, decades on, I can also see how easy it is to take that realm for Reality…when perhaps there is a higher heaven? How crucial it is to get out of the cage of the ego and rediscover the body…yet there is even more….
January 6, 2010 § 5 Comments
Happy New Year! May you be happy and peaceful. May all of your good intentions and highest wishes come to fruition. “The ‘Causes of Existence’ mean not only the physical causes known to science, but the metaphysical causes, the chief of which is the desire to exist,” writes H. P. Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society. “This desire for a sentient life shows itself in everything, from an atom to a sun….According to esoteric teaching, the real cause of that supposed desire, and of all existence, remains forever hidden….”
“A ‘sentient life’ is impossible without sensation, and sensation is impossible without consciousness–the capacity to relate self and other,” writes Richard Smoley in The Dice Game of Shiva. “So the root of all existence is the primordial distinction between self and other.” Even hydrogen and oxygen atoms are conscious in this sense know how to “recognize” each other so they can bond and become water. When did this “selfing” all begin? Smoley quotes the creation hymn of the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world: “‘Whence this creation has arisen–perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not–the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows–or perhaps he does not know.”
The drive to be, to affirm or define ourselves in relation to the world around us–there is no getting to the beginning or the end of it. At this dark, cold, still time of year, this time of resolutions and affirming new beginnings, the yearning to get down to the serious business of being the “real” self, clearing away all the distractions and obstacles that stand in the way really stands out. It suffuses many inspiring and useful blogs like “Zen Habits.” Yet there is always another yearning that is harder to articulate, to return to the source, to be free of the isolation of the ego and connected with the whole of life.
Even as a little girl I can recall yearning to reveal the “real” me (at five years old I pictured her as a cross between a cartoon superhero and Mowgli from Disney’s version of Jungle Book, strong yet connected to nature). It’s harder to remember exactly when I noticed the opposite wish–to go beyond myself. It appeared first as wondering, looking up at the night sky and wondering when it all began and what was it for.
It would be really lovely to be able to divide a life into “selfing” and “unselfing.” In a way this is the truth, since I no longer daydream about flying into my classroom like super girl or demonstrating my power to communicate with animals to the amazement of my friends. These days, the dominant wish has to do with wishing to be connected with others and with the whole of life. But in reality the experience is mixed–on the very deepest level there is affirming, denying, reconciling. There is no escaping life as long as we are alive.
For humans, it is even more complicated. In the words of Madame de Salzmann: “We participate in life with both a divine nature and an animal nature. Man is double; he is not one. And as such, he is only a promise of man until he can live with both natures present in himself and not withdraw into one of the other….A conscious man is he who is always vigilant, always watchful, who remembers himself in both directions and has his two natures always confronted.”
What can this mean?