Last week I saw the movie Avatar – in 3D at an IMAX theatre. Highly recommended. I had never before been to an IMAX theatre, nor had I ever seen a movie wearing 3D glasses – so the experience was rather over-the-top in terms of sensory stimulation – but thoroughly enjoyable, nevertheless.
Avatar has been criticized for its simplistic and not at all unique plot – which is basically a version of what Joseph Campbell named as “The Hero’s Journey” – and is in clear resonance with prior productions, such as Dances With Wolves, Matrix and Lord Of The Rings, to name just a few. But I don’t see this as a mark against Avatar; quite the contrary, in fact.
There’s a reason that these archetypal themes emerge, again and again: They resonate with something primordial and profoundly important within the human psyche, and so deserve to be expressed, again and again, in various languages. At a certain point, the realization dawns that there really is only one game in town. To my heartmind, Avatar points quite clearly, and with great charm and beauty (not to mention technological wizardry), in this direction.
Mind & Life-Force Energy
In yogic traditions – Taoism included – the relationship between mind and life-force energy is oftentimes illustrated as being similar to the relationship between a rider and his/her horse. Life-force energy (qi, ki, prana etc.) is the horse; and mind is the rider of that horse. A successful ride requires a fit rider, a fit horse, and – perhaps most importantly — a skillful relationship between the two.
Horse & Rider
Represented in Avatar are two dramatically different forms of horse-rider relationship. On the one hand are the relationships between the humans and their various military vehicles – tanks, planes, etc. The vehicles (the “horses”) are machines, made primarily of metal, glass and other synthetic materials. The relationship between the humans and these machines is one of domination/control – and what is expressed, more often than not, on their “rides,” is crude insensitivity and violence.
On the other hand are the relationships between the Na’vis (the natives of Pandora) and the various creatures that are their mounts. Here the relationship between “horse” and “rider” is defined by two living beings making an intimate energy-body and mind-to-mind connection. What is expressed, then, is more in the order of dance or play or even a kind of love-making – symbiotic communication at its finest.
A third horse/rider relationship portrayed in Avatar is the relationship between the genetically-engineered Na’vi bodies and the minds of the humans who temporarily inhabit them. This is perhaps the most interesting of the three, because of the transformation of the relationship that we’re able to witness, as the movie progresses. What begins as the mind-of-a-marine using a Na’vi body simply as camouflage, ends with a profound transformation of that mind, and hence of the horse/rider relationship. In a very real sense, it was the “horse” in this instance that transformed the “rider.” As Jake’s mind inhabited the physical terrain of the Na’vi, was infused with its beauty and subtle potency, he simply could not fail to be influenced, in a profound way, by the experience.
Breath & Qi
In relation to my qigong and meditation practice, viewing these varying horse/rider relationships caused me to wonder: can my mind “ride” breath/qi in a way that’s similar to a Na’vi riding a Toruk (one of their flying beasts) – rather than a marine operating an over-sized steel robot? Can the connection be intimate, tender, subtle and powerful, all at once?
The Tree Of Our Subtle Body
The home of the Na’vi people is the massive “Tree Of Voices,” which grows up out of ground richly endowed with a precious metal (brilliantly named “unobtanium”) that the colonizing humans are set to obtain, one way or another.
Tree imagery is a common reference, in esoteric contexts, to subtle body anatomy – with the trunk of the tree often representing the energetic core (Shushumna Nadi or Chong Meridian) of the yogic body. In Taoist practice, it is the roots of the tree – i.e. the energy centers at the base of the spine – that house the “treasures” of the lower dantian, the foundational energies of qigong practice. In Hindu and Buddhist practice, the roots of the spine house the kundalini shakti – a nondual “energy” that lies dormant at the base of the spine, until unfolded via grace and/or spiritual practice.
As practitioners, we “mine” these precious substances via our practice of qigong and meditation. Our success depends largely upon a skillful horse/rider (breath/mind) relationships; and the process, for sure, cannot be forced. A military air-strike on the central channel of the subtle body is obviously not the way to go.
Riding The Toruk
In the end, it is Jake’s capacity (in his Avatar form) to mount and ride the orange-red Toruk – a huge flying beast, reminiscent of a prehistoric dragon/snake – that saves the day for the Na’vi people. In terms of yogic imagery, this resonated with an awakening and skillful “riding” of the kundalini – the “beast” which, when tamed, can become a vehicle for the spiritual journey.
Avatar: Descent Of Spirit Into Form
Throughout the movie, the term “Avatar” is used to refer to the synthetically engineered Na’vi bodies, that the minds of humans (Jake and others) temporarily inhabit, in order to infiltrate the native Na’vi communities. This meaning of “Avatar” bears a similarity, for instance, to the cyber-space icons that one uses to represent oneself visually, in online contexts.
Yet in the final scene we witness, also, the unveiling of an “Avatar” as this word, in mystical/yogic contexts, is more traditionally understood. The word “Avatar” is derived from the Sanskrit avatara = ava (down) + tar (to cross), and carries the meaning of a descent of Spirit into form.
At the end of a long battle, Jake’s human form lies close to death, until discovered by Neytiri (Jake’s Na’vi mate, via his Avatar-body), who is able to resuscitate it. In the final scene, we witness a ritual in which Jake’s spirit leaves his human form — “dies” — then for a brief moment merges with the light of Eywa (the Na’vi god), and returns — is “resurrected” — into the form of his Na’vi Avatar.
At this point – and only at this point — has he become an Avatar in the traditional sense of this word: a conscious descent of Spirit into form. In a sense, the Na’vi are all Avatars, and now Jake has joined them, as one who has awakened a fully-conscious connection to his spiritual Source, and is able to maintain this connection continuously, while participating in the world of form.
I See You
Of the many gems offered by Avatar, perhaps my favorite is the Na’vi use of the phrase “I see you.” When one Na’vi says to another, “I see you,” they don’t mean: “I see your excellent hairdo”; nor do they mean, “I see your stylish new outfit”; nor do they mean, “I see your six-pack abs and bulging biceps.” Rather they mean: “I see you as spirit, as essence, as our shared, invisible Source.”
This was both paradoxical and perfect, in the context of a film whose major draw is its stunning visual beauty, its landscapes that truly are alive, with a full spectrum and more of magical shapes and colors. For it is in seeing through forms to their formless Source that we somehow liberate those forms to then appear in their full splendor – as emanations of Source-energy; as Avatars – playing in but never caught by the formal prescriptions of this culture or that.
The 17th-century Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius expresses something similar when he writes:
God, whose love and joy
are present everywhere,
can’t come to visit you
unless you aren’t there
What more is there to say?—other than (if you haven’t already): See this movie!