Destroy All Monsters: Mindfulness In STAR WARS

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Sign-In to Vote
Destroy All Monsters: Mindfulness In STAR WARS

The first conversation about the Force in the Star Wars saga (chronologically, anyway) is about mindfulness. In their first scene together in The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan has "a bad feeling about this" and Qui-Gon does not, and they talk about it. In so doing, Qui-Gon/George Lucas clarifies something about the Force that went assumed in the three films of the original trilogy: the Force, and Star Wars in general, is about the strength of being attuned to right now.

Mindfulness is all the rage this year. (Poor choice of words, I know.) Big companies are seeing mindfulness training as a means to cut through the (self-inflicted) noise of smartphones and technology-dependent workflows. While the image of your VP going to a yoga class might seem particularly amusing, the idea behind it is a good one, even if it's hardly anything new.

(Here's a plug from which I earn nothing: I'm a member of the Open Heart Project, a free online meditation group. If you want to learn more about meditation as a route to mindfulness, this is a great place to start.)

The intentional placing of one's attention where one wants it to be is one of the goals of meditation. This process is becoming a more and more useful skill in just about any walk of life (been to a movie theatre lately where some jacktard had his phone out, too far away to do anything about?). You can learn about it in any number of ways, but since this is ScreenAnarchy and we're us, let's talk about learning it by way of Star Wars.

If, like many fairy tales, the Star Wars saga is overall a rubric for how to be a moral young person in a chaotic world (here represented by the question of following the light side vs. the dark side of the Force), the argument basically works like this: strength and power are found by being present in the moment you're in. This is mindfulness. In Star Wars and, I'd argue, in real life, it's a path which - if followed correctly - will lead you to unlock your richest, most authentic self.

In the prequel trilogy this is referred to as the "Living Force," which for the Jedi is the sensitivity to both the moment you are in right now, and also to the beings that share this moment with you. An awareness of the Living Force is the route to compassion, for example; only by focusing on the moment can one be aware of the immediate presence of others - their happiness, their suffering, their anger and their courage.

At the start of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon cautions Obi-Wan against centering on his anxieties. He instructs his student to keep his concentration "here and now where it belongs." When Obi-Wan argues that Yoda has told him to be mindful of the future, Qui-Gon gives an important correction: "But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the Living Force."

The push/pull between our awareness of life as we are living it, and our extrapolation of what might happen in the future, is what generates anxiety. (Everyone with a mood disorder, raise your hand! Meditation is, of course, great for this.) The Jedi have us foxed in this regard, in that their awareness of the Force gives them specific knowledge of the future that we prognosticating humanoids can only dream of. (Which, of course, doesn't stop those of us with an anxiety disorder from being pretty damn sure we know how things are going to go down.)

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin visits Yoda to discuss his premonitions of Padme's premature death. In spite of any earlier lessons he might have given Obi-Wan about being mindful of the future, Yoda strongly warns Anakin about the dangers of focusing too much on one's expectations of the future. He's not wrong: it's Anakin's subsequent attempt to control the outcome of his own premonition that leads him to attempt to harness the power of the dark side of the Force, fall to evil, and become Darth Vader. And a half-robot, to boot.

This idea of control, even before Anakin seeks it, is an illusion. Characters in Star Wars are repeatedly taught to let go of their need for control. Obi-Wan instructs Luke, twice, in Star Wars to let go of his conscious self, first by placing the blast helmet over Luke's eyes, and later by abandoning his targeting computer when attacking the Death Star.

These are both simple metaphors for a larger, if altogether more unnerving, point: there ain't no targeting computer. None of us have control. Better to learn how to live fruitfully in spite of this, rather than clutching at greater and greater (false) power in an attempt to overcome it.

The best scene in the entire prequel trilogy is the one between Palpatine and Anakin at the opera, where Palpatine subtly - and with many layers of meaning - tempts Anakin with control that does not actually exist. Yoda himself says as much in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke, like his father, is ready to make a brash decision because of a single vision of the future.

"Always in motion is the future," Yoda says, and illustrates the danger of removing oneself from the present to dwell upon potential outcomes of events that have not yet taken place. We know it as the many-worlds hypothesis - that each decision creates a "version" of the future - and it leads us, perhaps, to a false view of how the world works, because it suggests that life is somehow akin to a video game which, if played correctly at every decision point, will lead to a positive outcome. GamerGate twerps notwithstanding, I can't imagine any of us truly believe that it's that simple.

Star Wars even plays around the fringes of this idea, with its persistent talk of "destiny," but it's important to note that destiny is one notion that the saga as a whole outright refutes. Darth Vader, notably, is quick to talk of destiny when trying to lure Luke to the dark side - as though everything that has happened to Luke has been an inevitable slide down a series of events that were pre-ordained by the Force before his birth.

It's important, then, that it is ultimately the most present, mindful thing a human being can do - make a decision - that completes Luke's journey to becoming a Jedi Knight (and saves his father's soul, in the process). When Luke is hammering away at Vader's saber in the final moments of Return of the Jedi, only to stop and cast his lightsaber aside, he is doing something that takes place repeatedly in meditation practice: he is noticing the present moment, and changing where he places his attention.

From an emotional response that seems certain to drive him to the dark side of the Force, he steps back, sees the similarities between his father and himself, and feels compassion for Vader/Anakin. It's the quintessential moment in the Star Wars saga; or at least, Luke's journey within it.

Anakin, we have seen, has already failed at just such a moment, decades earlier; his fall to the dark side is a sketch of a person committing further and further atrocities because he has already committed lesser ones, and presumes it's too late to stop. (Yes: Anakin Skywalker is the frog in the boiling pot of water.) He is persistently unwilling to be mindful - trapped in the accumulated momentum of his past, or the paranoid anxiety of his future. For all his (enormous) power in the Force, Anakin is an absolutely terrible Jedi. His final downfall in Revenge of the Sith, in fact, is yet another failure of mindfulness: overwhelmed with the dark side of the Force and seeing a false version of the future, he attacks Obi-Wan from low ground on Mustafar, and is cut into pieces for it.

Fast forwarding to this year, many fans have complained about the speed and facility with which Rey, in The Force Awakens, outmatches Kylo Ren in their final lightsaber duel. It would be worth watching that scene again to see just how it's constructed.

Finn, who has no knowledge of the Force (that we know of), successfully holds off Kylo Ren for 47 seconds before he is cut down. Rey picks up the lightsaber, already demonstrating at least some (untrained) ability with the Force. Kylo Ren proceeds to kick the crap out of her for 43 seconds, forcing her backwards the entire time, until she is literally standing at the edge of a cliff.

Then she closes her eyes.

There is no Obi-Wan-esque voiceover this time around, but the effect is similar to that which we saw in Star Wars: we can presume Kylo's mention of "the Force" has triggered the memory of Maz's counsel in the castle on Takodana, and Rey is doing exactly what she advised her to do: open herself to the Living Force. Then, and only then, does she accumulate enough skill with the lightsaber to defeat Kylo Ren, a powerful, but snot-nosed, dark side user obsessed with his long-dead maternal grandfather. Hardly a bastion of mindfulness.

One of the things I love about The Force Awakens is how it pushes the quintessential binary within the metaphor of the Force. We've known about the dark side since early in Star Wars, but in The Force Awakens, the light side of the Force is given name for the first time.

The metaphor has always been right there - the Jedi's weapon of choice are a bunch of jumbo glowsticks, after all - but when Rey turns inwards and places her attention on the Force, we see another argument for what mindfulness can, and should be: literally a light, in moments of chaos, confusion and fear. Light to guide oneself and guide others; and upon which to place one's attention when all other tools have failed.

"Always remember, your focus determines your reality," Qui-Gon tells Anakin in The Phantom Menace, and it's one of the most important lessons in the Star Wars saga. Anakin, poor sucker, doesn't learn it - he is undone by the reality wrought by where he chooses to place his focus. Luke and Rey - the true heroes of the Star Wars saga - learn to do better. They hear the light calling to them.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

Sign-In to Vote
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
mindfulnessStar WarsThe Force AwakensThe Phantom MenaceJ.J. AbramsLawrence KasdanMichael ArndtGeorge LucasHarrison FordMark HamillCarrie FisherAdam DriverActionAdventureFantasy

More about Star Wars: The Force Awakens

More about Destroy All Monsters (Matt Brown)

GuyApril 6, 2016 10:23 AM

A good article. I like it. Let me add this: I was always intrigued about the opposition between Stars Wars and Dragon Ball (seriously). In Star Wars, as explained above, one must learn to control anger and see control as temptation. However, in Dragon Ball, it seems necessary for the main characters (e.g. Goku) to embrace anger to become more powerful (Super Sayian) and defeat their enemies (Frieza, Cell, etc.). What does it say about cultural differences?

Matt BrownApril 6, 2016 3:12 PM

I'm not sure, but it's a good insight. Western culture certainly seems to think giving in to anger is a bad thing - or at best, a guilty pleasure (see: the Hulk). But the Western culture I'm talking about seems to be cribbing from loosely-understood Eastern philosophies, so... ???

Todd BrownApril 6, 2016 3:36 PM

That's a core tenet of Zen as well. All emotions - even 'positive' ones are suspect because they cloud judgement.

thewinchesterApril 6, 2016 5:58 PM

Great article, sir! I recently edited a documentary about Mindfulness, and yet by applying it to Star Wars (one of my favorite things on this earth), I now truly can understand it on a practical level.

Or to put it another way, it's helped me take my first steps in a larger world.

Jo GillibrandApril 7, 2016 6:47 AM

Nice insights into the Ways of Mindfulness 😜. Thank you!