art by kage2mugi
The new Pixar Movie, Luca, ends with a note that it was the first Pixar film animated in their slippers in their homes during the pandemic. And then it got dropped onto Disney+ rather than given a wide theatrical release. Because of this, it might slip under the notice of many… under the water, one might even say. (Alright, I hereby promise this won’t be entirely full of fish puns!) Though I noted its release, I also didn’t know all too much about it and took a bit of time before getting around to watching it.
I’m very happy I did.
Spoilers ahead! Continue reading
There was one bit in Soul that got a big “NOPETY NOPE!” from me: ”Okay, first stop is the Excitable Pavilion. You four. In you go! You five, you’ll be aloof. And you two, why not.”
It’s played off for a joke, as in ha-ha kids these days, so aloof and detached and acting cool. But, in a movie that is working to create, and illustrate, so many fine things, what this creates is not fine at all. That we come into this world with a personality or traits already stamped upon our head, already fixed in place?
We are not fixed objects, set in stone. We are not destined to be a certain way. Nor are we only a certain way either! We contain multitudes, and we have the capacity to generate, and be, all sorts of ways.
A huge part of what self-cultivation is about is unlearning all that and recognizing our freedom and choice in creating who we want to be. It’s all about the art of being. And the art of the ongoing freedom to choose who we are being, in any moment, under any circumstances.
That’s what gives us power and passion and joy and connection and fulfillment and excitement and compassion and our humanity and oh-so-delicious peace of mind.
There’s plenty to take from soul. But in chasing a (what I consider to be) easy and cheezy joke, they put something out there that’s detrimental and perhaps* even downright harmful.
There are no permanent labels stamped onto our foreheads. Neither we, nor what we call our personality, are a carved statue.** We can always get in touch with our Great Before souls, touch our spark, and (re)create ourselves and who we are being.
* For a couple of reasons, beyond the way it can keep us from seeking that self-cultivation to alter those ways of behaviour and being that are counterproductive and possibly harmful in our own lives. For one, it can prevent us from treating others with dignity or possibility, writing people off as incorrigible or destined to be a thief (or whatever) and fostering stereotypes and biases. For two, relatedly, we can, inadvertently, hem people in and prevent their growth and exploration and their own self-cultivation. Especially with our kids, hemming them into only the narrow path of life that we see possible.
** As one of the greatest mentors once put it: “Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter.” Happy May the 4th Be With You!
We are not worthy by accomplishing some external dream. There is no milestone to clear.
We are worthy of love and belong just by being alive.
By being present to ourselves and to others, we grant ourselves that freedom and security and love.
By being present to the world around us, we grant ourselves exhilaration and beauty and wonder.
And inside of all that we can engage with life, living every minute of it with gusto, delight, and with our whole hearts.
(Also, congrats to Soul and to Pixar for winning the 2021 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature!)
Floating along on our ongoing Soul Expedition, let’s talk about fish.*
It’s that moment when Joe attains all he ever wanted, after a killer performance, and he stands on the pedestal of all he’s ever envisioned… and… now what?
It’s important to get here that the movie isn’t saying that interests, or goals, or hopes and desires aren’t worth having, or that they’re foolish, or even that they’re bad. What it is saying is what we’ve covered in the previous weeks about if/then statements, and about attachment, which can be summed up neatly in this way:
When we think that the achievement will solve our life.
Not that it won’t be amazing – it probably will! But it won’t solve everything. Because there’s no milestone in life when we “make it”. As in, BAM! We’re done and solved and forever good, we made it. And even if it did, it’d be precarious, ready to fall apart at the next shifting circumstance.
Interestingly, this is one case where art imitates life, for this happened to the film’s composer, Trent Reznor, after his first big Nine Inch Nails concerts. Which were great, and amazing, and then… he had to come back and do it all again. Where he got that there were diminishing returns.
Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong, or worthless, or that it feels rotten, or that things immediately cease to be fun or exciting or that we stop loving the thing we’re doing. Reznor certainly loves it and keeps doing it!
And that’s it: We can love it, remembering all the while that it will not, and is not, everything.
Joe’s disappointment after the big moment isn’t because it’s done, it’s because of his (unintentional, and impossible) expectation that wasn’t met.
The beauty for all of us in letting go of the if/then constructs and any attachments, and in returning ourselves to a state of being present, is that we can experience that love and joy unfettered, and ongoingly.
* Which is a reference to a story by Anthony de Mello, but also makes a nice side reference to David Foster Wallace’s amazing “This is Water” commencement address.
Still on the Soul train, let’s speak today about attachment, the middle path, and the perils of obsession.
The peril of when we get so deep into it, so obsessed to it, so attached to it, such that we, counterintuitively, lose touch with ourselves and even that very thing which we love. We become no longer connected to what makes us passionate, what lights us up. We become, instead, entombed by it.
This is what happened to Anton Ego, the character from (another Pixar film) Ratatouille, where he became so subsumed by his “love” of food to the point where it became his identity. And inside of that identity the very enjoyment of food was lost.
Soul makes this pretty explicit with the vast sea of Lost Souls, over which hovers the airs of those in the Zone. In the zone is being passionate and free and excited and joyous and, importantly, hyper-present.* But it can be a short journey down to the sea when we become attached to something – an outcome, a social result, a status symbol, the experience, a feeling – or to make it integral to our sense of who we are.
And in that sea, the joy, the freedom, the passion, all is washed away. We still do the thing, but the attachment, again, counterintuitively, kaiboshes that which we want.
Let go of the attachment, and we can float up towards the Zone once more.**
And when we practice mindfulness and paddle down the middle path (river?), we both ease our entry into the zone while ensuring that we do not lose ourselves, either to flighty dispersion out of the Zone or into the swampy sea of attachment and Lost Souls.
* That is one of the most interesting facets of being in the zone, and also one of the more “surefire” ways of knowing that we were in the zone – time getting all warbly and losing the sense of time. In those moments where I have been the most present, whether in wonder or creativity or even battling it out with foam weapons while being suspended from under the Thunderdome, it’s always been fascinating to resurface and realize that time felt very different, and even to not have complete memories of what happened. Myself (as a being, as my authentic self, and not as my calculating self or identity), time, the universe, were all “one”.
** Of course, the film undercuts itself by going for the cheap joke of the day trader who, upon being reconnected, rebels and shoves everything off his desk, which isn’t necessarily wrong as it is cliché and thus, at least to me, renders it trite and thus diminishes the impact of what they were exploring and illustrating.
Continuing our Soul journey, perhaps the most central theme and exploration of the film, the one that also drives all the other insights (including the If/When/Then construct from last week) available within, is its meditation on the simple beauty of being present.
And of the reminder that our life is happening now. Not someday, not when we get that thing, not once we overcome that, nor if/when those milestones we put out in front of us happen (if they ever happen). When our eyes are forever towards the horizon (or forever inward, or forever trying to win, or forever attached to being right), we can end up absent from our own life.
This is also not our practice life. The starting line for when we can ‘really’ start living is not approaching us. We’ve already crossed it.
It is happening, right now. This is the experience of life. This is what it is like. This is what it is filled with. We’re already there.
To quote the title of a book by Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” Life is life, and it keeps on life-ing.
Equally important is what we bring to it. Yes, this is the experience of life, but experience itself doesn’t spring fully formed, whole cloth, from the ethers of reality. It does not impose itself on us. There is no fixedness to it. We get to create. We get to drive who we are being, and who we are being shifts what and how we experience.
Which includes experiencing wonder, peace, happiness, fulfillment, joy, fun, amazement, contentment, love, appreciation, and more. And sadness and pain and more, for sure. But those are not to be shunned or considered bad; they can be some of the most healing and honouring ways of being. And through that whole range of experiences, we are fully alive.
No surprise that it is very much like Jazz (and, thus, Jazzing). There’s no beginning, no end, and we play with what comes towards us, weaving it into our lives. And as a bonus, being present always frees us to be our most creative, to be a grander artist. *
This is what Joe gets during his epiphany (with the beautiful music to go with it). All these moments he wasn’t present for, all these moments he’d buried under his obsession of “how it had to be” or “when it would turn out.” There’s nowhere to get to, and nothing to get. There is now. And now. And now.
And at the end, it’s great to note that Joe doesn’t say he’s going to enjoy every minute of his life… but that he’s going to LIVE every moment of it. Big difference.
We don’t listen to a song just for the ending. We’re in it all the way, in every moment, for every note, for every rise and fall, enjoying the journey to its fullest, all until the next song starts.
* Both in creating our lives, but also in any artistic/creative/imaginative endeavour. When we lock ourselves up in ‘gotta’ and ‘haveta’ and ego and significance and etc that puts the biggest crimp in our creative flow.
As promised in my review, there’s lots I want to delve into within Soul! It is a rich source, with many avenues to explore, and with many ways to look at it, approaching the film from different angles and lenses to tease out a whole host of openings and opportunities for realizations and insights.
I’m going to start with this angle: A meditation on the traps known as “If only…/then” & “When…/then”
Their structure is right there in their names:
“If only I could X / then Y.”
“When I can X / then Y.”
“When I have X / then Y.”
It’s a familiar construct/trap, and we can see a bunch of them in Joe: “When I have the gig, then I’ll be fulfilled.” “If only people would give me the chance, then I can be powerful.” “When I’ve made it, then my Mom will be proud of me.” “If only I can fulfill my purpose, then my life will be complete.”
And yeah, it sounds both seductive and true. These type of grand, momentous, goal based Xs really can shift things, for sure. And they may even prove to be great motivators!
The thing is, however, that in the meantime they also effectively shut a part of our lives down. They cut us off from possibility and experience. Through them we are adamantly saying that we can’t get Y until that X condition is met… and so long as X is not met, we’re denied the power/pleasure/ freedom/self-expression/power/peace of mind that could come of Y.
Further, we’ve laid ourselves a double whammy, for we’ve set a single path, a single X, to get there. Out of all the possibilities in life, we’ve said “this is the one,” which means that we have one path for success, and an infinite number of failure paths.
Even if we have 4 or even 10 X paths to get Y, that’s still a whole lot of few paths to success compared to all the other ways it can get there. We are so good at kaiboshing something that could lead us to something great just because it doesn’t fit what we think it should look like…
And that’s the double trouble (well, I guess by now we’re up to a quadruple trouble), for what we want out of the Y isn’t often Y itself, but the ways of being and experiencing that come along with it. We don’t need X, and we don’t even need Y. Note above I said “could come of Y?” Exactly. What we’re often really looking for Z, and those ultimate pleasures/freedoms/self-expressions/fulfilments/joys/peace of minds.
The invitation from Soul (and self-cultivation in general) is to see how our various If/When/Then constructs can be a hindrance and a trap to us, and how they (unintentionally) cut us off from that which we truly want.
Welllll… this is a long-delayed review! I watched Soul back when it premiered back last xmas, watched it again soon thereafter, and have been wanting to write about it since then. Soul is engaging, nifty, clever, and has a lovely philosophical core. It’s top rate Pixar. So let’s dive in!
Spoilers Ahead…. Continue reading
Oh wow, there’s something I really like about this piece of concept art! If it looks like a monument, it is of a fashion: it’s from the early days of what would eventually become Disney’s California Adventure. This sculptural spire would have been the centerpiece of what was then still being developed as “Westcot”, a west coast version of EPCOT. Interestingly, it’s the second version of the park’s centerpiece, the original being a large globe similar to EPCOT, albeit one planned to be enveloped in a second lattice work globe twice as big and embedded with a gazillion lights. That received some push back from the local community, and thus this spire was born, something to still maintain an impressive monumentality from within the park while reducing its visual impact from without.
There are other sketches that show the spire at the front of a landscape-like building, but while they’re neat I prefer this one above. It feels both more approachable and more impressive on its own, with the fountains and walkways and the stonehenge-like segmented slabs that surround it.
In the end, of course, it was never built, and the saga that leads us up to the park that is there today is a whole fascinating story of its own.