Monday, June 24, 2019

The Movie of Life: Understanding Advaita through Film

In the old days a movie theatre used to be known as a “bioscope”. From the perspective of Advaita, this is a beautiful word, loaded with meaning. “Bioscope” is a combination of the Greek words “bíos” = life and “skopéō” = I look at. So, when I’m at the cinema, I am looking at life. Now, according to Advaita, you are always at the cinema, namely, the cinema of Consciousness, witnessing the movie of life. Thus, ever since Ramana Maharshi, film has been a beloved metaphor among Advaita teachers.

The peaceful screen

Especially the relation between screen and film is frequently used to clarify the relation between Consciousness and the phenomena appearing in Consciousness. Just as the screen is not dependent on the main character appearing in the movie, so Consciousness is not dependent on the person we are so intimately aware of. In other words: C
onsciousness isn’t personal, because the person is just one of the countless objects appearing in Consciousness. Consciousness is trans-personal, the Universal Self underlying everything and everyone.

All our thoughts, feelings and sensory experiences appear in Consciousness, but do not touch it. Consciousness remains unmoved, just as a movie screen remains unaffected by the film appearing on it. It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is – war movie, romcom, slasher movie, porn flick, historical epic, psychological thriller – the screen in itself remains the same: empty, colorless, spotless, receptive to all images. In the same way, Consciousness can host all possible experiences, thoughts and feelings, but is not affected by them.

There can be intense sadness, but the Consciousness perceiving this is not sad. There may be happiness, but the perceiving Consciousness is not happy. There may be confusion, but the Consciousness witnessing this confusion is not confused; it is rather absolutely clear. Whatever appears in Consciousness, the latter always remains the same: pure, empty, light, spacious, boundless, open to all possible phenomena. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.5.1) puts it: Consciousness – the Self, the Atman-Brahman – is “the one who is beyond hunger and thirst, beyond sorrow and delusion, beyond old age and death.” Thus, Ramana Maharshi used to say that E
nlightenment is like realizing you are the movie screen and not what appears on the screen:

The burning house from Lynch's Lost Highway.
"So many pictures pass over the cinema screen: fire burns away everything; water drenches all; but the screen remains unaffected. The scenes are only phenomena which pass away leaving the screen as it was. Similarly, the world phenomena simply pass on before the sage (jnani), leaving him unaffected." (Maharshi 1955: 457)

The self-aware screen

From the viewpoint of Advaita, however, the comparison of Consciousness with a movie screen is not entirely perfect. After all, this analogy leaves a number of separations intact, namely, between the screen, the projected film images, the projector and the popcorn-eating audience. To make the film metaphor better suited for Advaita, we should add that all these elements are one. That is to say, Consciousness is like a television or computer screen that produces the film appearing on it and is simultaneously its own audience, i.e. the screen perceives itself. Rupert Spira in particular uses this metaphor of “the self-aware screen” to great effect. His book Being Aware of Being Aware is almost entirely built around this metaphor:

“Knowing or being aware is in the same relationship to all knowledge and experience as an aware screen would be to a movie. Unlike a conventional television screen that is being watched by someone sitting on a sofa, the aware screen of pure knowing […] is watching the movie of experience that is playing upon it… However, just as the screen tends to be overlooked during a movie due to our fascination with the drama, so […] awareness itself usually remains unnoticed due to the exclusive focus of our attention on the objects of experience… Just as the screen never appears as an object in a movie, although it is fully evident throughout it, so knowing or being aware never appears as an object of knowledge or experience and yet shines clearly within all knowledge or experience.” (Spira 2017: 15-17) 

Identifying with the main character
As the quote from Spira indicates, the medium of film is also suitable to explain the Advaitic view on ignorance (avidya) and how it works, i.e. the mechanism of superimposition (adhyasa). Ignorance, according to Advaita, consists in the fact that we, as Consciousness, confuse ourselves with what appears in Consciousness, especially the person whose fortunes and travails we experience from within. Superimposition means that we project the properties of the perceiving Consciousness – such as immutability – onto the perceived person, with the result that we suffer: after all, body and mind change constantly, eventually they deteriorate and in the end they die…

George Costanza realizing
his essential nature as the
popcorn eating witness
of the movie of life...
Something very similar to superimposition happens with a good film: we sympathize with the main character to such a degree that we feel what he or she feels. We become excited when the main character is in danger, we get angry when he or she is treated unfairly, we feel romantic when he or she falls in love, and so on. In this way, we temporarily forget who we really are, the popcorn-eating viewer slumping on the couch. Likewise, in ignorance, we forget what we really are, the witness (sakshin), as we confuse ourselves with the fascinating life we are witnessing. And so we suffer: we see the ups and downs of the main character in the movie of life as our own ups and downs. Enlightenment, to repeat, is the liberating insight that we are not – or not just – that character, but first and foremost Consciousness, the spotless white screen on which (and to which) the film of life appears.

Point-of-view shot
It is a legitimate question, however, why film should be better suited to clarify the nature of ignorance than, say, theatre. After all, with a theatre play you can also sympathize with the protagonist to such a degree that you forget you are only a spectator. In addition to the film metaphor, therefore, Advaita teachers also sometimes use the comparison of Consciousness with a cosmic theatre that writes its own plays, creates its own decors and actors, and is its own audience as well. Ramesh Balsekar, for example, says: “Consciousness has produced this play. Consciousness has written the script. Consciousness is playing all the characters. And Consciousness is witnessing the play. It’s a one man show.” (Balsekar 2006: 245)

Nevertheless, film has a great advantage when it comes to understanding how ignorance works. Film has the extra dimension of camera work, which allows the director to play with the perspective from which a scene is shot. This playing with camera perspective can make empathic identification with a movie character almost irresistible. This holds in particular for the so-called point-of-view (POV) shot, where the camera takes the position of one of the characters: the viewer sees what the character sees. The hero runs through a city centre in a wild chase, grabs his gun and finally shoots the bad guy; with a POV shot, you see the scene almost literally through the eyes of the hero. Remaining an impassioned spectator is then nearly impossible.

With POV shots, you are irresistibly pulled into the character from whose perspective you see the scene unfold. In the light of Advaita, we could say that Consciousness is the most brilliant film director who uses only POV shots. Thus, we continuously see the film of life from the main character’s perspective – and we not only see it, we also experience smelling, hearing, feeling, thinking and willing from that individualized perspective. In that sense, conscious experience is the ultimate POV shot, including all sensory and psychic modalities. This makes for a very compelling movie, vastly more so than anything Hollywood can hope to produce. Complete dis-identification with the main character in the film of life, then, is almost impossible.

But not completely impossible. Overcoming ignorance becomes possible to the degree we see through the illusion of identification with the main character in the movie of life. And seeing how POV shots function in film is a great help in this. Just as a POV shot is in the film you are watching and is not your perspective on the film, so the individual perspective of experience is not a perspective on experience but in it. The perspective of experience seems to be the perspective of the perceiving Consciousness, but in reality the perspective is ingrained in the experience which is neutrally perceived by Consciousness.

In short, the perspective is in the observed, not in the observer. The observer himself is without perspective or – what amounts to the same thing – the observer perceives everything from “God’s point of view”. For Advaita, after all, God is Consciousness, Atman is Brahman. In Brahman’s cinema there is only one spectator, watching an endless film with countless main characters.

Embracing the movie of life
The film metaphor, however, must not be misunderstood. Its meaning is not that we are merely screen and spectator in one, that is to say, pure Consciousness, as if we have nothing to do with what appears in Consciousness, the movie of life. As if we have to give up all identification with the main character and every involvement with the other characters in that movie. Sometimes Advaita seems to advocate such cold detachment, but ultimately that’s not what Advaita is about.

To make film an even more suitable metaphor for Advaita, then, we also need to eliminate the duality between film on the one hand and the screen-spectator on the other. That is to say: what appears in Consciousness is ultimately not separate from Consciousness itself. So, instead of a conventional film screen on which the images are projected from outside, it is better to compare Consciousness with a television or computer screen that itself produces the images appearing on it. In a similar way, the film of life is an expression or manifestation of Consciousness itself. As soon as this is recognized, the cold detachment that Advaita at first seems to suggest suddenly tilts into its opposite, into all-embracing love. Francis Luc
ille, the teacher of Rupert Spira, explains this dialectical turn as follows:

“It is necessary to make this distinction because we usually identify with an object, a fragment. We don’t think “I am the table, I am my clothes, I am my car”. However, we do think “I am my body and the rest is not me”. In order to remove this identification the Advaita tradition uses a two-step process. In the first step it says “You are not that which is perceived, you are the perceiver”. In this step we reject everything that is perceived as not being ourselves. We reject the table, the car, the clothes, the body, and the mind, and this leads us to the experience of pure consciousness. Then, as the universe of names and shapes reappears, it is understood to reappear in the light of consciousness, out of consciousness, as a projection of consciousness. Therefore, the second step is: “Everything is consciousness. Consciousness is the source and substance of everything.”” (Lucille 2006: 109)

When we realize “I am that Consciousness”, the cold detachment of the first and negative phase turns into the all-embracing love of the second phase, as if you suddenly find yourself embracing the entire world with your consciousness – which, in a way, is indeed the case. You realize that your essence, pure Consciousness, manifests itself in all phenomena, being “the source and substance of everything”. You literally become the Love that lets everything be. In a sense, you are again your body and mind, but to the same extent that you are the entire universe. The limited identification with the body-mind is exploded to cosmic proportions and becomes identification with reality-as-a-whole. You are no longer that singular main character in the film of life, from now on you are the film as a whole, with all its characters, dramas and changing stages – a film which you now experience as the most intimate expression of your deepest essence.

-Francis Lucille (2006), The Perfume of Silence, Truespeech Productions.
-Ramana Maharshi (1955), Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Shri Ramanashramam.

-Ramesh Balsekar (2006), Consciousness Speaks, Zen Publications.
-Rupert Spira (2017), Being Aware of Being Aware, Sahaja Productions.

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