viernes, 19 de marzo de 2010

Psychology and Religion in the film Avatar. “What eyes do not see.”

Very few people would doubt the unquestionable esthetic merit and ethical value of the naturalist-ecological vision or the emotional-sociological effects that are being produced by the cinematic phenomenon Avatar. The profound symbolism, psychological framework and religious connotations of the film deserve special consideration. Therefore, we will try to see in Avatar “what eyes do not see”, that internal and spiritualized “I see you” of James Cameron’s film.

The original concept of the word “avatar” stems from Hindu mythology and refers to the reincarnation of God in a divinity that possesses the power of Divine Light, spiritual illumination. Thus, each avatar is a manifestation of the Divine, a chosen one, a reincarnation, the descent of a deity on earth. The word or concept of “avatar” also refers to reincarnations of God in influential Masters of other religions besides Hinduism, such as when attempts are made to explain personalities such as Christ or Buddha. In the film our avatar is one that runs barefooted through Planet Pandora’s mystic forests towards the unknown.

From a psychological perspective, the film Avatar primarily represents an “initiation,” that is to say, the tale of a profound experience in which an individual finds himself in extremely hostile situations. These encounters produce a change in the protagonist’s awareness. He becomes a more conscious being, who discovers that he has an important mission or destiny to perform in the new external reality he finds himself moving in. His character and spirit progressively become modified, creating a beneficial change in his personality. The stages of the defined rites of passage are of increasing difficulty and always lead to a horizon, a goal. These experiences are physical but above all psychological, and once surpassed, result in a complete transformation of consciousness, similar to the journey that guides an individual towards a spiritual initiation. An additional viewpoint of this concept is defined as a journey of knowledge to a more expanded world view or meaning of life discovered through the path of initiation. It is a journey only for heroes.

The crisis in the transformation of consciousness of the soldier Jake Sully in Avatar, evolving from a paraplegic marine into the avatar of a new age for the Na’vi community, constitutes the basic process followed by all journeys of initiation, a necessary and painful fall into a profound crisis. 

The crisis, with its known states of rupture, fall, separation, solitude, struggle, and regression, leads to accomplishment and ascension until the attainment of ecstasy, triumph and final transcendence. Despite it all, the process at times results in the death of the hero or character. What needs to be done first is a gathering of courage in order to explore, physically and, above all, at a conscious level, the dangerous jungle of the unknown. One of the first comments that Princess Neytiri makes to Jake’s avatar clone is: “You have a strong heart. No fear… Come.” These words imply that Jake has surpassed that second test, the eradication of fear, and is in a condition to continue going further into the jungle of his own journey of initiation. Physically, that is what he does thereafter: he risks his life following Neytiri and her dangerous dashing through the jungle and the precipices that surround it.

This process of initiation is similar to the structure of other great epic episodes of universal literature. Homer’s Ulysses, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc., follow the same stages and dynamic psychology. As we know “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” Einstein dixit. When Jake’s clone is expelled from the Na’vi community, he is forced to reappear before them (and his beloved Neytiri) from a more elevated spiritual position than previously. This enables him to recuperate his lost credibility. He needs to tame Toruk (the great red Mountain Banshee); another biblical symbol of the Devil, of whom we are told represents “the last shadow.” After its domination, Jake returns before the clan of the Omitacaya, no longer with a shadow within himself, but as an illuminated spirit and pure soul. They immediately recognize and venerate him as their avatar and redeemer.

The confrontation, battle and war in Avatar inevitably emerge from the short circuit between two states of consciousness whose interaction has stained with blood the surface of our planet for at least the past twenty centuries. The first is what is known as Stage III, or the “Ego” stage, with its patriarchal and authoritative values: ego-centrics, ego-maniacs, ego-ists, megalomaniacs and narcissists. This stage is the one that conforms to the evolutionary level of consciousness of the dualistic, officially violent and historically cruel Western religions: Medieval Christianity/Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. This represents the level of consciousness, individually and globally, of the majority of our civilization, progressively more uncivilized. From a religious perspective, this level of human consciousness, “meme,” stage III, or egoist, dualist and conventional, demands the existence of a personal and anthropomorphic concept of a God as a separate and transcendent entity, that rewards the good and punishes the evil, possessing as well a will parallel to that of man. This is a concept that Einstein himself considered insultingly infantile, incomprehensible and unacceptable. This creation in the human mind, probably a consequence of fear if we at least analyze the consequences, has caused the greatest absurdity of all of human history, initiating and being the prime cause of the majority, if not all, the wars in the depth and breadth of the history of this blood stained planet.

In the terminology of the Na’vi clan, the invaders called the “sky demons” represent this state of consciousness (Stage III). These demons roam and settle as they wish at an American military base on a satellite of the planet Polyphemus named Pandora. The reason: a precious mineral valued at 20 million a kilo, known as “unobtanium”. This hidden treasure beneath the Hometree, residence to the Omitacaya clan of the Na’vi race, could represent a clear reference to the American ambition for foreign oil that motivated the war with Iraq. In order to appropriate the precious mineral, the crass and insensitive base’s head of security, Colonel Quaritch, in the barbaric style of a primitive savage always ready and desirous to carry out the cruelest and most violent actions possible, justifies himself by proposing to “… fight terror with terror.” War happens when someone has something you want and refuses to give it to you.

The civilization of Na’vi humanoids on the planet Pandora is initially presented as a primitive savage and undifferentiated tribe. It is gradually revealed that they are quite the contrary, possessing a vital religious attitude, and a much more spiritually elevated, ecological, compassionate and integrated mind-set towards life and nature. This is the Stage IV; non-dualistic, transpersonal, supra egotistic and post-conventional, proper of an individualist and global consciousness that is more evolved and ascended. Such a civilization simultaneously carries a clear evocation of Jainism, and also Buddhism, where even animals are conferred a spirit. In this light, when a hunted animal is killed by necessity Jake tells it, “Your Spirit goes with Eywa. Your body stays behind to become part of the people.” Princess Neytiri tells Jake, “A clean kill. Now you are ready.” These words make it clear that Jake has surpassed the test of purity and is eligible to proceed on his journey of initiation.

This superior state of religiousness is known as “mystic panentheism,” a term expressing that “all of Nature is alive and integrated in God, or in the Goddess,” without any dualism or separation in neither time nor space. It is necessary to clarify that “panentheism” is a concept very different from pantheism, which is pure unadulterated atheism, defending that “the totality of nature is God.” The God of panentheism is the vital energy of the universe, as well as the fountain of natural law. The religiousness of the Na’vi moves at this level, which Goethe denominated “The Religion of Nature,” and agrees with the terminology of the philosopher Spinoza to define the most elevated level possible of this religious sentiment. This level is a massive step above all the monotheistic and official religions of whichever orthodox church, all of them imprisoned and stagnated to date in the most ferocious dualism (see: Goethe, in: ”Conversations with Eckermann,” March 11, 1832). Einstein even said that this integration between body-mind-spirit constitutes the only religion possible, being the most elevated and evolved state of human spirit, as well as the only rational hope to the existing evolutionary delirium. More recently, the North American philosopher Ken Wilber has coined a parallel concept labeled “integral spirituality.” Wilber proclaims that if there is a reason for the existence of religion, or of the religions, it is to help humans evolve through their consciousness to ascend spiritually into the most elevated levels possible, attaining a non-dualistic unity, inseparable and seamless, with an immanent-transcendent Divinity. This is what has been traditionally taught by the most pacifying spiritual cosmic concepts of the non-dualistic religious attittudes, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita Vedanta, as well as by Plotinus, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Panikkar, San Juan de la Cruz, etc. The Spanish philosopher Raimon Panikkar asserts appropriately “our enemy is dualism.”

Certain concepts of Transpersonal Psychology assist in a more profound symbolic interpretation of the initial scene between Jake’s clone and the Pandora horse. At the onset the horse throws its mount, or it would perhaps be better to say, its “mount and his ego,” such as a new Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. A similar event occurs in the taming of the large bird of prey that ends up choosing Jake as the only one who will be able to bond with him for the rest of his life. Neytiri warns him that before he is allowed to mount and tame the bird “It will try to kill you.” The question being: What is it that we humans are burdened with during our entire life that attempts to psychologically and spiritually kill us? What is that beast that we must first tame, then surpass and transcend? Answer: The ego. Sometimes, the damned ego! Once the new initiatic test and rite of passage has been surpassed, the final union of man and horse, in body and mind, will give rise to the “Centaur”, or that which is the same, two beings as one now for the rest of Jake’s life, without any separation whatsoever nor remnants of dualism. Precisely, it is that level of non-dualistic or adualistic consciousness that has been labeled as “centauric” by Ken Wilber, due to its existence “beyond ego” itself, and defined by himself as “The great integration of the mind, the body and the emotions in a unity of the highest order, a ‘profound totality’.” It is that crucial moment of a psychic leap and triumph over the personal/transpersonal crisis that leads Paul of Tarsus, now more comprehensibly, to say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Comparatively, Jake Sully is no longer the former Jake, but has from that moment commenced the transfer of his entire being and personality to the Na’vi avatar that lives in him and within which he lives. Due to his purity he has been “chosen” by the mystical, white and semi- transparent, small innocuous jellyfish-like spirits of the sacred Tree of Souls.

A great problem arises in many humans, progressively with greater frequency, which is not at all evil, but indeed very hard and painful. The ascension from the violent and competitive dominant state of egocentric consciousness (Stage III) to the more benevolent, integral, compassionate and post-conventional Stage IV, demands crossing a great personal crisis. A crisis not only at a physical level but also at a psychological one as well, including experiencing a “psychological death” as a crucial rite of passage. In this sense, modern psychology has shown us that before a psychological and/or spiritual “rebirth” can occur, some type of “death” experience is necessary. Similarly, we also know, thanks to initiatic psychology and philosophy and as a parable of the New Testament, that “who desires to save his life will lose it and who loses it will gain it.” That is the same unavoidable demand, but now also more comprehensible, of the ceremony of passage and great critical test, as occurs with the hero Jake Sully in the film. All this reflects what is known in the terminology of modern Transpersonal Psychology as “the crisis of the narcissistic ego.”

With the ascent towards the awakening of a new and higher level of consciousness, which Jake Sully refers to with a subliminal, “Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up” and which the wicked space base’s head of security asks, “How does it feel to betray your own race,” that the inevitable war between the confronting states of consciousness is set. From that instant there is no turning back, the point of no return has arrived. The sudden change that evolves in the inner being of paraplegic Jake, together with the challenges the hero must meet in order to ascend from one state of consciousness to another, imbues soldier Sully, without being aware of it, with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. He says: “One life ends and another begins” and in the moment his mind and spirit are to be transferred to his clone, “It’s my Birth Day, after all.” This coincides perfectly with the assertion by Ken Wilber in defining the concept of hero (the wounded healer) as “The one that attempts to jump to the next state of consciousness.” Every initiatic journey, regardless of how much of a hero one is or believes himself to be, is a very difficult, dangerous and solitary ascension process towards its culmination. Finally, in the last scene of “Avatar” Jake achieves a complete transmigration of his spirit or soul to his avatar. Jake, being human, dies, giving his life as a savior to the Na’vi “humanoid-ity." Upon achieving total transmigration, he emerges as a symbolic form of the resurrection of Christ or the Buddhist reincarnation of a “bodhisattva.” He now no longer needs to depend on the transportation machine of his human consciousness to the Na’vi avatar, reviving independently in his cloned body upon opening his eyes in the final instant, his human body lying inert by his side, dead.

In the meantime, the botanist Dr. Grace Augustine does not manage to survive her wounds. Her soul, however, becomes integrated into the Tree of Souls – Voices of the Ancestors, which is in intimate contact with the Mother Goddess Eywa, and through which is manifested the transcendence of the spirit. It is true that divine wisdom placed by Divinity in a splendid tree (its magic always hidden) and with a great symbolic content is often found in any marvelous Paradise. On Pandora it is the Tree of Souls of the matriarchal Goddess and in the myth of the Garden of Eden it is the Tree of the patriarchal Father God (a personal God which men will interpret and will give life to as “someone” progressively more subjugating, authoritative and even revengeful). Finally, esthetically at least, the rubble and dust of the destruction of the Hometree in Avatar might remind some spectators of the rubble of the World Trade Center on the ill-fated 11th of September, 2001, and the phallic Twin Towers, until then symbols of imperialism, representing the strength and power of patriarchal money.

Jake, afterwards, binds himself with the sacred Tree of Souls in an attempt to invoke protection of the Na’vi using the intersection of the extended soul or spirit of the deceased Grace with the deity of Mother Nature. This connection is not a fallacy or imaginary. Jake announces in the film, almost before we became accustomed to the 3D glasses, “I got this!” And goodness how he got it, some Gnostics would add. The fact is demonstrated and confirmed in the film when Princess Neytiri yells excitedly and joyously to Jake: “Eywa has heard you!” as all of the wild animals of Pandora take sides with the Na’vi community in their Armageddon battle against the sky demons. Furthermore, it is there at the majestic and floating Hallelujah Mountains, in whose scenary and mountain tops “the salvation” will take place in an apocalyptic and miraculous final victory against Evil. At the luminous Tree of Souls, Neytiri states,“Our great mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.” A deified Nature a la Rousseau, although perhaps more a la Goethe or Lao Tse, in order to not fall into the famous “Pre-Trans Fallacy”, finally sides with the Good. The fairy tale, in which the blue prince conquers the dragon and kills it to liberate the princess from its claws to then marry her, is coming to an end … and they all lived happily ever after.

It seems that the anthropologic writings of Mircea Eliade has had a certain influence on the director of Avatar. In addition, in a recent interview, James Cameron declared: “I have tried to follow the Bible to the letter.” and it becomes clear that this is evidently so. One only has to be aware of the coincidence that in his revolutionary, or more accurately, “evolutionary” film, the space station of the American military is called “Hell’s Gate.” So what would one expect to come out of the gate of Hell? Well, probably the Devil, of course. In this case it is in the form of a terrifying mother ship, curiously named “Dragon” and commanded by Colonel Quaritch, together with “angelic” scout ships of fallen angels. Another feature to take into account is that “dragon” is the word that is repeatedly employed in the Bible in order to define the Devil, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (Apocalypse 12:9). In yet another reference to the Devil/Dragon in the King James Version of the Bible: “And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and, behold, a great red dragon …” (Revelation 12:3). The colors even coincide with the majestic bird of prey that the clone Jake tames, in order to transcend and leave behind “the last shadow” that could darken his spirit. The metaphor is that by mounting and taming it, Jake has conquered, although only internally and spiritually, the Devil/Evil. Now he is the avatar chosen by Providence.

Finally, Good has conquered Evil, at least on the fictitious planet Pandora. We have to begin somewhere, let us not despair. During a dramatic moment in the film, Jake the Na’vi says to Eywa at the Tree of Souls, “You chose me for something,” another known reference to Christ (symbolic son) as chosen by God. Thus he will be constituted, thanks to the mystic activity of the Natural Law (call it the Taoist wu-wei or the èlan vital of Henri Bergson) into the redeemer and savior of the “humanoid” Na’vi.

All in all, it is to be expected that the avatar Jake and the consciousness of the Na’vi will also help our humanity, in which the modern man of Huxley’s Brave New World has lost its soul, compassion, unity, and respect for the planet. Mankind, in its Faustian desire to dominate the forever invincible Nature, even at the price of destroying it (or itself) has almost terminated with all of life in general, human, animal and vegetable. With “… look into her memories, see the world we come from. There is no green there. They killed their Mother,” Avatar directs a final message towards what remains of this Western civilization, which has been transformed into little more than an accidental un-civilization. “Humanity will have what humanity deserves,” is the comment in this respect that echoes from the words by Albert Einstein from the beyond, although he would not have believed in it, at least on a personal level.

In the end, the conquered, humiliated and inhuman humans of Pandora are forced to return, justifiably conquered to “their dying planet.” It has been the “civilized” humanity of the East and West that has some time ago opened the mythical Pandora’s Box, liberating all of the evils and human disgraces: greed, unsustainable growth, egoism and uncontrolled materialism, exploitation, poverty, pollution, aging, sickness, fatigue, madness, vice, ecological tragedies, cruelty to animals, stupidity, political and inter-ethnic violence, crime, etc., etc. All except hope. Perhaps everything isn’t lost. Perhaps we still have a second chance. Perhaps we will find some crack to escape from this increasing ecological hell.
© 2010, Salvador Harguindey
Traducción al inglés: Miguel Cabezas
Salvador Harguindey MD., PhD
Director, Institute for Clinical Biology and Metabolism
Medical Oncology and Endocrinology
Transpersonal Psychology