July 27, 2010

Movie Review: A Buddhist Take on Inception.

It’s All About Letting Go of Attachment.

It may just be the movie of the year. And it’s all about letting go of attachment to perfect, but fake unrealities…and rejoining that precious, fragile, fleeting state of mind known as the present moment—real life.

While he is messing around in other people’s psyches, Cobb, the main character, is dealing with his own attachment to the past.

His wife Mal is a samskara—an imprint in the mind created from past experience that keeps us from fully experiencing the present.  She haunts Cobb wherever he goes, but she is really just an illusion.  It isn’t really his wife that is haunting him, but his memory of her.  Haven’t you ever unproductively reacted to a situation based on your conditioning from the past, as opposed to what’s in front of you?  Haven’t you overreacted to something a partner has done based not on that particular person, but a previous partner?

(or grosser still, one of your parents?)

So Cobb travels deeper and deeper into his psyche, and he gets by with a little help from his friend—Ariadna.  The metaphor of an elevator as deepening levels of subconscious is very powerful.  In a workshop with Buddhist teacher Fleet Maull, he guided us through a meditation in which we imagined an elevator in our chest and we felt our reaction to something, shedding layers of defense and denial, until we steadily breathed our way into the raw bottom floor in our gut of experiencing suffering from a vulnerable, unresourced state.

We sat with it, then slowly returned to our fully resourced, empowered state of mind.

At the deepest level, Ariadna discovers Cobb’s deeply rooted samskara that he doesn’t want to let go of.  And letting go isn’t easy.  As you get deeper into someone’s psyche, manifestations of their subconscious attack to maintain the status quo—in Inception they do so with guns and violence. While the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment, the demon Mara attacks him with all sorts of arrows and tempations.

Getting beyond external defenses can indeed feel like a war.

If going down an elevator and fighting people with guns is an adequate comparison to deepening personal spiritual practice, what does it mean to plant an idea in someone else’s mind, as the story’s protagonists are so intent on doing?  We plant ideas in each other’s minds all the time.  Any time I listen to someone’s suggestion or become impacted by their passionate, ignorant, aggressive or, occasionally, enlightened actions, you might say they are implanting ideas in my mind.

And while defenses are lowered, ideas can be planted very potently.  This is what makes a guru so powerful.  In Inception, the idea is not implanted for the good of its recipient, but for other motives (namely, Cobb’s desire to return home and Saito’s desire to crumble his opponent’s business). That is often the case in everyday life as well.

As with the old school of Buddhist idealism, you ultimately don’t know what is reality and what is merely in the mind.  Or rather, you don’t know if there is any reality independent of the mind.  So, Inception joins the Matrix, Dark City and other movies that create an intriguing sci-fi representation of an age-old philosophical question.

The main flaw of the movie, for me, was its exposition.  If I didn’t have an iPhone on which to look up the rapidly introduced characters, plot structure and sci-fi convetions, I might have been lost.  For me, the movie recovered with a clever concept making an analogy for dealing with human emotions that resonatied with my heart a couple times.

I enjoyed the ride.

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