(Note: Warning- a few movie spoilers appear in this post. You may want to watch the film before reading this.)
Not to sound morose, but I have been thinking about death a lot lately. Perhaps I should clarify this. I am not fantasizing about death or anything disturbing like that. Rather, I have been stuck in an existential quagmire, pondering about mortality in general. I attribute much of this to the death and carnage brought on by the pandemic. Stories of such are inescapable in today's times. On a more personal level, I have lost several loved ones in the last month. It is only natural that going through this makes us ask "what's it all about"?
To make sense of it all, I often read and write. This is how I process the world around me and try to make sense of it all. As I sat in our living room the other night reading David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, (check it out if you haven't), my wife asked me if I wanted to watch Disney Pixar's Soul with her. I don't consider myself a big animation fan, but I figured it would give it a shot. Besides, I needed something lighter to give my mind a break. Lighter it was not.... Outstanding it was.
I ended up liking the film so much, I watched it twice in two days. It was deep but also uplifting. As a mindfulness teacher, I noticed that there are some good reminders from it that we can use as we move out of the dumpster fire we commonly refer to as 2020 and into a new year. While I could gush about the animation, music, and the overall brilliance of the film, what follows is not a review of the film. It is a synopsis of some of the mindfulness lessons contained in Soul, and how we can use them to enhance our lives moving into 2021.
The story centers around Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher who is an aspiring jazz musician. After finally landing the gig of this life, he falls into a manhole. Initially, as he is passing away, he is headed for the Great Beyond. However, he is able to escape and ends up in the Great Before, where unborn souls are prepared for life on Earth. For the majority of the film, he teeters back and forth between Earth and the Great Before. The film centers around Joe's journey with 22, a cynical soul who has not found her spark for life. As the storyline unfolds, Joe and 22 both undergo deep transformations as they try to discover what their life purpose ("spark") is all about.
Mindfulness lessons from Soul as we move into 2021:
There are no "little things" in life.
Joe is so fixated on “making it” as a jazz musician, his myopia causes him to miss out on the seemingly “little things” happening around him. This type of tunnel vision blinds us towards the present moment, IE, “life.” As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t so little.” Towards the end of the film, Joe realizes this. Part of Joe’s realization comes from 22’s sense of wonder and awe from “ordinary things” like star gazing, the act of walking, and the appreciation of a simple, small maple seed. Over three decades ago, Ferris Bueller taught us, "Live moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." His wise words stand the test of times.
The new car smell
After Joe has the piano performance of his life, he realizes that it is not all what he thought it would be. How many times have we done this with major events and milestones in our lives? Perhaps it was when we graduated from college. Or landed that first "real job." Or maybe when we finished running a marathon. Or when we met our "perfect mate." Or when we got recognized for great work on our job.... Like the smell of a new car, it all eventually wears off. No matter what the achievement or accomplishment, we are the same person once it is completed. We always go back to ourselves. The “culture of achievement” that permeates our modern-day society often makes it difficult for us to see this. Having goals and the motivation to achieve them is a good thing. However, it is not healthy to have our entire identity wrapped into our accomplishments. At the end of our lives, we will remember good times spent with loved ones, not how many hours we logged at the office.
Waiting outside of the club for a taxi after his great piano performance, Joe tries to tell the bandleader, Dorthea Williams, about everything seeming the same. Her response, “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing called the ocean. “The ocean?” says the older fish. “That’s what you’re in right now.” “This?” says the young fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”
Dorthea’s fish story reminds me of the late David Foster Wallace’s opening lines, “This is Water,” from his commencement speech at Kenyon College: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way and says, “Moring boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell of is water?”
The moral of these fish tales, you ask? Be mindful and self-aware of what is happening around you. When our default mode is switched to autopilot, we miss out on life.
How can you have mindfulness lessons in a movie without meditation, conscious breathing, and visualization? Fret not. Thanks to Moonwind, a hippie sign twirler who moonlights as a rescuer of lost souls, these mindfulness practices are included in the story....These types of practices can help us live more fulfilled lives. There are great, free resources available if you want to give them a try. My person favorite is Insight Timer Meditation app. It is a good place to start.
We have all heard or experienced the state of being in “the zone.” Often it is referred to as being in a state of “flow.” This is a psychological or mental state when our mind and body work together in graceful unison with seemingly little effort during an act, performance, or task. I am sure you have memories of when you executed a stellar performance when everything went perfectly smooth, and it seemed like time had stood still for you to reach this peak state of near perfection. It could have been a basketball game. Or a dance performance. Or painting a work of art....In the film, Moonwind hangs out in the zone, and Joe was able to reach the zone through his piano playing.... When we practice mindfulness and use meditation as the anchor for this practice, we can sometimes experience these states of flow. It is paradoxical, because often the harder we try to tap into the zone, the more elusive it is to reach.
The interbeing of NYC
Much of the story takes place in New York City. It is amazing how life-like the city looks in the film. Pre-pandemic, I would visit New York several times a year. The hustle and bustle of the Big Apple does not seem like the kind of place a mindfulness teacher would want to frequent. I see it differently. The innumerable sights and sounds of NYC always offers my senses something different to soak up. I can walk around for hours down streets I have been down hundreds of times and always see, hear, and smell something I have not experienced in previous visits. Doing so makes me feel alive. Being on these crowded streets among large groups of diverse people always gives me energy and makes me feel connected. Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn calls this feeling of being connected to others "interbeing." This concept of interbeing is best illustrated in the film when 22 bumped into someone on the subway for the first time and ended up enjoying it....The streets of New York makes me recall a quote by Ramana Maharshi: “Question: How should we treat others? Answer: There are no others".… While I look forward to returning to NYC when the virus is behind us, the beauty of interbeing is that we can experience its magic anywhere. It is all about connecting with each other. We are wired for such connection.
The Present Moment is Life.
The movie concludes with Joe being given a second chance to live his life on Earth. When he is asked how he is going to spend the rest of his life, he responds by saying, “I’m not sure, but I’m going to live every minute of it.” By saying this, Joe realizes that real life only happens in the present moment, because the past is dead, and the future is just fantasy. It is beneficial when we learn from the past and plan for the future. Doing so teaches us how to be fully alive in the present.
This year has been difficult for most of us. In fact, it would be an extreme understatement to say that 2020 sucked. It is important to hold our expectations for 2021 at a realistic level. It is not like everything is going to magically get better when we flip the calendar over to 2021 on January the first. Instead of making all of those ridiculous resolutions we rarely attain, why don't we take a clue from Soul and just try to live every minute of every day with gratitude, awareness, and appreciation?
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com