Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Just Like The Movies

[Originally posted at, April 14, 2016]

"It is normal for a man, whilst sailing and observing the shore, to think that the shore is moving instead of the boat but, should he look carefully, he will find that it is the boat that is doing the actual moving: in the same way as this, it is because man observes everything from a mistaken viewpoint of his body and mind that he comes to the conclusion that they are eternal however, should he learn to observe them correctly, as a result of penetrating truth, he will discover that no form whatsoever attaches itself substantially to anything."
-Dogen, Genjo-Koan

"Yeah, It was but a moment
Yeah, Wonder where it all went"
-Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Just Like In The Movies

When I was four or five years old, at a friend's birthday party, I saw my first movie. It was magnificent! There were whirs and noises, a light at the front, and on top, two spinning wheels. It wasn't until an adult tapped me on the shoulder and directed my attention to the screen behind me where three ducklings were swimming after their mother into the sunset that I understood my mistake: I'd been watching the projector the whole time.

I sometimes wonder what Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese monk credited as the person behind our specific Zen sect would think about the movies. Having read a lot of his work lately, I imagine it might go something like this:

"A person might say, "that movie was so realistic," while another says "it's only a movie" and that movies have nothing to do with real life. Such people are chumps. Ha! I pity the fools. Movies are not like reality, and movies are not like not-reality. A person in real life watches a movie, and a person also watches a movie in real life. People are real; movies are real; real life is real. Thus, while watching a movie is real life, real life is also watching the movie. It is also true that people are not real, movies are not real, and real life is not real."

Imaginary-Dogen raises a good point, but I'm not going there for now. I'm also not going to talk about the differences between life and movies, such as life's tendency to leave in the boring, difficult parts instead of condensing them into an inspiring montage set to an ass-kicking rock song. Instead, I'm going to talk about a couple things a think movies can teach us.

1. Nothing in a movie is real.  At the same time, everything we see and experience is due to countless people, many of whom we don't actually see.

The characters are actors pretending to be someone they aren't, delivering lines that another person wrote, wearing costumes someone else designed, sometimes enhanced with computer technology that means they are often performing with things that are not actually in front of the camera with them.

But is that so different from real life? We wear clothes other people made. We travel in vehicles that were invented, designed, and built by multitudes of others. The people we see are products of their parents genetics, mixed with their social upbringing. Even some of our most cherished ideas and favorite spoken lines and many of those things we learned with others.

We think we're the stars of our own story, but there is much more than what we see in front of us.

2. Commitment

Even though movies are not real, the people making them treat them as if they are. Even if movies are simple entertainment, movie workers devote themselves to as though it were the most serious thing on Earth. Good actors, good writers, good directors, good make-up or special effects artists...all of them devote 100% to their work even if the thing they are working on is--in their opinion--stupid, pointless, boring, or unbelievable. Robert Downey Jr. doesn't look at the camera and go: "Look at me! I'm a-pretendin' to be a Super Hero!" Whether they are saving the world from aliens, involving themselves in the world's most improbable love story, growing space-potatoes on Mars, none of them are winking at the audience going, "Can you believe this here bullshit?"

But maybe my five year old self had the best lesson of all: Look at the projector, not the projection.

When things happen to us in our lives, our brains interpret those things, come up with a story about them, and very often we act on the story instead of the thing that actually happened. We forget about our brain's involvement.

Sometimes it's valuable to look at that brain and notice those stories.

When I find myself getting frustrated doing my taxes, instead of thinking the problem is the tax forms or the computer or the son-of-a-bitch government, I can take a look at that frustration. Maybe I'll notice that frustration is hiding something else--the fear of not having enough, the fear of doing things wrong, the fear of being asked for more than I believe I can afford to give.

When I find myself frustrated with the demands of monastery life, instead of thinking the problem is the schedule or the monks or my own inability to find out what people want and to deliver it to them perfectly, I can take a look at that. Maybe I'll notice that frustration is hiding something else--the fear of not having enough, the fear of doing things wrong, the fear of being asked for more than I believe I can afford to give.

Maybe I'll notice that whether I'm dealing with taxes, other people, or situations I feel beyond my control--even if they seem vastly different for one another--there are some common themes in my brain.

This doesn't need to just apply to external things like people and situations. Sometimes even my own internal reactions and behavior are based on a story that I am too distracted to notice.

For example, during an awkward moment at breakfast, instead of wondering whether the self-deprecating joke that springs to my lips is funny enough, maybe I could notice instead what combination of feeling and circumstance leads me to feeling the need to make a joke in the first place.

I can only write for myself, but what I notice when I look, is that often behind my actions, there is an impulse or plan.

When I look behind that plan or impulse, I find a thought or a belief about myself or about the way the world is or should be.

If I look behind that, then I frequently notice a feeling, often one that is barely perceptible.

And behind that?

Well. That's the question, isn't it? I don't know if I can give an answer--after all, I promised earlier to only write about my self.

Our lives are not about our stories. The beginning, middle, and end is not nearly as important as the thing that is happening right now, right in front of us. Right here, in our personal theatre of the mind.

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