Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Little Prince, The Alchemist, and the Promptings of the Spirit

For ages, I have had a huge problem with one of the ways the universe is run. I refer specifically to separateness, or the existence of barriers of space, skin, knowledge, or emotions that exclude things from one another. This problem of barriers (often specific to those between God and man) has consumed my philosophical life, and as a result many of my blog posts concern it. This will be another. Here, I will examine two very similar works of fiction, the Little Prince and the Alchemist, and try to see what they have to say on the aforementioned subject.

We begin with the Little Prince.

 The Little Prince, a novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943, is easily a candidate for my favorite book of all time. I say this because it is, so to speak, insightfully dense: it has the most insights into spirituality or human experience per page of any book I have ever read.

The book begins with the narrator's lament of his wasted potential as an artist. He begins by describing how he, as a child,  made an odd yellow shape as a drawing.

As a quick aside, what do you see? One's initial reaction is to call it a hat, which is exactly what the "grown-ups" to whom the narrator showed it thought. In reality, it is a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, as demonstrated by his next drawing:

When they saw this clarifying sketch, the grown-ups quickly told the narrator that he should cease drawing, and focus on more "useful" subjects like geography, grammar, etc.. Though he followed their advice, he continued to show the first drawing to everyone he met on his travels, and ask them what they saw. The answer, inevitably, was a hat. 

The main story begins many years later, as the narrator crashes in the Sahara desert. There, he meets the Little Prince, a boy dressed in strangely regal attire. He asks the narrator to draw him a sheep, but he gives him the aforementioned first drawing instead. To his shock and awe, the Little Prince correctly states that it depicts an elephant-boa, and asks him again to draw him a sheep. The narrator makes a first attempt, but is rejected. Apparently, it is "too sickly". He tries again, but the Prince notices that this second drawing has horns, and is therefore not a sheep, but a ram. He tries yet again, but this time the sheep is "too old". Finally, the narrator gives up, and makes a drawing of a box, saying that the sheep is inside.

Coming as a complete surprise to the narrator, this makes the Little Prince content. This encounter has a profound effect on the narrator, making him realize that not all people are like the grown-ups. But, sadly, he realizes that he is a grown up, as explained in the following quotation: 

"My friend never explained anything to me. He thought, perhaps, that I was like himself. But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through the walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown ups. I have had to grow old."

Here the book states explicitly the issue with which I began this post: we cannot see through the walls of boxes, or into the bellies of snakes. In other words, we can't connect with people or other entities beyond the boundaries that separate us from them. However, if we are to believe this novel, apparently some people can. But how?  Luckily, the novel solves the problem. Near the end of a prolonged flashback of the Little Prince, the narrator recounts his encounter with a very wise fox, who says this:

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye"

This quotation seems to suggest that our normal way of looking at things is deficient, and is thus responsible for our inability to connect across barriers. But what alternative is there? That is to say, what does the Fox mean by "the heart"? For the answer, we must turn to our next book.

The Alchemist is a book written by Paulo Coelho, first published in 1986. While nowhere near as subtle as the Little Prince, it rivals it in the profundity of its insights, if not the quantity. It tells the story of a young Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago, who, following an omen from his dreams, travels to the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure.

The book makes many metaphysical observations, but they all revolve around a central concept: the Soul of the World. Some of these observations follow:

"Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there."

"[The] Soul of the World allowed them [the alchemists] to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated."

"Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the soul of the world, and it will one day return there."

These seem to suggest another solution to the first problem posed above, and illuminates the Fox's previous answer. If we can connect to the "Soul of the World", we can by understanding traverse the barriers that separate us from other things. But what is this soul, really? The connection to intuition in the first quotation makes me think of something probably very familiar to most readers. For to what do most Mormons attribute sudden flashes of insight? The answer is nothing less than the Holy Spirit.

By comparing the Little Prince, the Alchemist, and Mormon doctrine, I hypothesize that the promptings of the Spirit allow us to see into the mind of God, at least for a moment. By following our divine inner natures, or our hearts, we are able to experience flashes of God's insight, which connect us to other things. But the key here is that they do not come through regular perception. To have this experience we must learn to use an entirely different sense, one of pure love, which is as impossible to describe to another as sound would be to a deaf person. That's why I would never be able to tell you what I experienced through this second sight. But it is definitely achievable, and that alone gives me comfort.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mysticism in the Media: LOST, Part 2 (The Finale)

SPOILER WARNING: If you're squeamish about spoilers and you haven't watched the last episode of LOST, don't read this post until you have. 

The second half of my analysis of LOST will concern the final scene of the series' last episode, titled The End.

Many people were disappointed by the ending, saying that the series didn't end up answering many of the questions that came up over the course of its run. This is true, to an extent. But this scene is so perceptive, so beautiful and so all-encompassing in its scope that I believe it makes up for any of the show's transgressions. Knowing this, in this post I intend to analyze this scene and explore its spiritual components.

First, a quick summary of what happened. The Jack featured prominently in this final scene is the Flash-Sideways Jack, in the world where the plane never crashed. He is in the middle of a grand awakening: everyone who was on the plane in the main world is starting to remember their lives on Island. All except him. From his perspective, he is surrounded by a bunch of people he does not know, all saying that he was their friend in another world. It scares him. He insists to himself that this reality, the Flash-Sideways world, is all there is, even after he is given preliminary glimpses of his Island life. 

Just before the first video below starts, Jack was in a car (parked outside a church) with Kate, his on-Island love. She insists that if he goes inside, all his questions will be answered.

He walks inside and sees his Father's coffin, which was lost by airport customs and only recently returned. He circles around the casket, nervous to actually open it. He finally is brave enough to touch the coffin, and in a surge of relief the memories of his Island life come flooding back to him. Everyone he loved and lost, and all the adventures he had are finally restored to his mind. 

Finally beginning to understand, he opens the coffin, but it is empty. For an instant, his doubt and fear returns, until a voice from behind causes him to turn around. Jack's dead father stands there, in the flesh. Jack, shocked, asks him how he could possibly be there. Christian (Jack's father) turns the question around and in turn asks Jack "How are you here?". Jack turns his recent epiphany over in his head, still processing the data. It finally comes to him: "I died too". He remembers his as-yet-unseen death, and realizes that the Flash-Sideways world is some sort of afterlife. Feeling strangely relieved, he embraces his long-estranged father,  finally able to say that he loves him. After a long hug, he asks his father for some details as to the nature of the Flash-Sideways world. Christian affirms that it is real, just like everything Jack has ever experienced. Seeing Jack's confusion, Christian tells him that it is outside of time, so that individuals who died at different times could all meet there.  He then says that the Jack and his Island friends made the Flash-Sideways world as a place where they could find each other after their deaths, reassuring him the reason they are all there  is because they spent "the most important part of [their] life" together. Jack then suddenly recalls something Kate said in the car: that they were going to the church to "leave". After Jack tells Christian this, he confirms it, but offers "moving on" as a better expression. A nervous but increasingly happy Jack asks Christian where they are going, to which he replies "let's go find out". 

"Meanwhile", the on-Island Jack is mortally wounded by his encounter with the Island's source. He stumbles forward, knowing that he has only minutes left to live. He walks through the bamboo forest until he reaches the spot where he woke up in the very first episode. No longer able to stand, he falls down. He lays there alone, until suddenly he hears a dog's bark. The dog Vincent, who woke him up in that first episode, lies down next to the dying Jack, comforting him. With only moments left to live, Jack looks up and sees a plane pass by, letting him know for sure that his friends are safe. He smiles, and knowing that his purpose here is fulfilled, he closes his eyes and expires.

Jack and Christian step into the main area of the church, where everyone he had come to know and love in his Island-life is there, all showing their love for one another. Happily, he acknowledges Locke, his one time rival. He proceeds to hug Desmond. He then proceeds to embrace Boone, Hurley and Sawyer; Finally, he sees Kate, and takes her hand. Everyone takes their places in the church's pews. Christian then pats him on the shoulder and walks down the center aisle to the back doors, which he opens. A bright light fills begins to fill the room, enveloping all who are there. Jack, overcome with joy, excitedly enters the world to come.

Amazing, eh? Now, I had a friend who claimed that LOST was like a crossword puzzle. In a crossword puzzle there are intersecting big words and small words, and often by filling in the small words you can have enough letters in the big word's space to guess what it is. He claimed that in the end, LOST had no "big word", indicating that the various pieces of LOST didn't resolve themselves into some higher meaning. I highly disagree. In fact, I can think of at least eight (one of the numbers!) higher meanings that emerged in the final moments of LOST. Here they are:

What Happened, Happened: Just before Jack lowers Desmond into the Heart of the Island, he tells Jack of his encounter with the Flash-Sideways world, where the plane never crashed. He insists that he is going to travel there, and offers to help Jack go there as well. But Jack refuses, saying that "there are no do-overs", and "what happened, happened".   This latter phrase refers to Daniel Faraday's insistence to the survivors, once they begin jumping through time in Season 5, that they cannot change the past. But it has a deeper significance than meets the eye. By saying these things, he affirms that his life on the Island matters, and that he shouldn't try to escape from it. This is precisely Christian's sentiment in the second video above, when he says that "everything that ever happened to you was real". In short, Dave was wrong. The Island is not some easily escapable dream in someone's head: it exists, and everything that happened there means something.

Man of Faith: For the bulk of the series, Jack Shepard and John Locke stood apart as the manifestations of two opposing viewpoints. Jack was a man of science, referring to his need for evidence and his constant skepticism, while John was a man of faith. Their ideological battle continued for several seasons, ending when John Locke died. However, Jack did not remain a "man of science" for the entirety of the series. Beginning in his encounter with Jacob's lighthouse, where he discovered that his life had been guided from the very beginning, he changed, and began to be as faith-centered as you can get. This came to a head in The End, where he agreed with the Man in Black to extinguish the Source, even though he knew he had to protect it. He had faith in Jacob's plan, knowing that things would work out in the end. But this is not mere confidence; he didn't even know what the result of his actions would be. After all, he jammed a giant stone cork into a hole (the height of ridiculousness) not knowing what he was doing, why he was doing it, or how it would work. It is a leap of faith. 

But this new-found faith of Jack can also be found in the final scene. Kate told Sideways Jack that he needed to go into the church, in order to "leave". The remarkable thing is that, even though Jack had no idea what this meant, and even though he is very aware that this might be the end of the world as he knows it, he ventures inside. This faith is displayed even more when Jack expresses his wariness at "leaving" to his father. Christian  responds simply: "let's go find out". This statement, and Jack's acknowledgment of it, is the ultimate leap of faith: I don't know what's coming, but I'm confident enough that it will be a good thing that I'm eager, even excited to learn what it is. It is like they have just blown open another hatch: a new world full of possibility, wonder and hope remains inside.

Live Together, and You Won't Die Alone: In one of The End's deleted scenes, a curious Ben asks Desmond what existed in the Flash-Sideways universe. He responds with one word: love. This admittedly isn't understandable at the point where the scene would have been placed, (which is probably the reason why it was deleted) but it make all too much sense after viewing the final scene. For it doesn't portray anything but love: love between Jack and his father, love between the various romantic pairings, and love of each person in the group for everyone else. Moreover, one could easily say that the entire series had been building up to this moment thematically. After all, didn't Jack say that "if we don't live together, we're going to die alone"? The great truth is that they did live together, and that each of them will enter the next life as one, overwhelmed by the others' love for them.

Resurrection: The last episode is probably the strongest example of a tendency which I noted in the previous part of this post, that it portrays spiritual stories in a new light. The concerned story is probably very familiar to you, probably more so than any other, as it is none other than the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. For Jack, just like Christ, gave his life to save the world. I firmly believe that if Jack had not re-plugged the Source, all things would have become purely material and mortal, just like the Man in Black. There would be no such thing as a spirit or an afterlife, meaning that a) death would be the end, and b) the final scene would be impossible.  But Jack did plug the cork back in, meaning that he became the Christ-like savior of all people's immortal souls.

The last scene provides the climax for this scriptural representation. For when Jack opens his father's coffin, his Father isn't there. That phrase, repeated by an angel at Christ's tomb, and actually uttered by Jack in White Rabbit, perfectly conveys the despair any person feels at loss. We literally fear that they are no longer there, that they have ceased to exist. But both stories say that one need not worry, for from behind both Jack and Mary Magdalene the one they mourn speaks, showing us that they continued to exist after their death, that they are there.

Light: Some might consider the end of the final scene, where the Losties become engulfed in light, as a little cliche. However, if they do, they are missing the incredible significance that light has as a motif. For light is at the center of all that happens on the Island. First, it was the shining light of the Hatch that comforted John Locke in his moment of despair. But more importantly, the literal light at the Heart of the Island (known in earlier seasons as a buried electromagnetic force) is one of the main actors of the series: it healed John Locke, sent people traveling through time, and even crashed Oceanic 815 on the Island.  But even more significantly, in Across the Sea Jacob's mother states that this light contains "life, death, and rebirth". Whether we think of the first and last scenes, Aaron's  birth/Boone's death, or even the flashbacks, LOST has always been about the contrast of what is gone and what is here, of what is dead and what is alive. Thus, considering the Mother's information, perhaps we can say that the Light has been the driving force behind all of the action on the Island, making the final scene that much more meaningful.

To Remember: When Jack asks his father why the he and his friends needed each other, he gives a simple answer: "to remember, and to let go". This, to me, is the thesis of LOST. I believe that if we remember, let go, and help each other do both, we can perhaps achieve our life's purpose and end up like the Losties did.

First, what does Christian mean by "to remember"? The answer has been staring us in the face ever since the pilot, for what is a flashback if not an act of remembering? Starting when they arrive on the Island, each character spends about half of their episodes recalling the past. But this is more than mere reminiscing, for the two storylines' parallelism ensures that they are also coming to terms with the past. Whether it's Jack's obsession issues or Charlie's drug problems, remembering the past allows them to confront it and let it go.

To Let Go: The whole series has been centered around people letting go. When they come to the Island, each character has an issue which they must get rid of in order to progress. I've already mentioned Jack's and Charlie's, but we could also consider John Locke's need to prove his ability, Hurley's food problems, Sun and Jin's marital issues, Michael's relationship with Walt, and Sayid's remorse over his past as a torturer. The fantastic thing about this series, though, is that nearly all of these characters will let go of their baggage and move on. 

Moving On: "Moving on" isn't just an activity; it's a way of living. To "move on" means to be ready to forsake the past and accept the future. It involves a willingness to "leave" everything that holds you back, that  halts your progression. 

But if we think of "moving on" literally, at least for the moment, we can see that this too has been a center point of the series. For from the very beginning, the Losties have always been going somewhere. The series is centered around the various places they are trying to reach on the Island, ranging from the Hatch to the Others' Camp to the Radio Tower. But none of these are so symbolically important as the very first and last voyages, for the trip from Sydney to the Island and the trip from the Church to the next life are the capstones between which the series is built. You see, the latter is a parallel of the former. You can see it visually, as the pews of the church are like the rows of seats in a plane, and the back of both places opens up to a bright light. But more significantly, both involve leaving behind a place filled with suffering and baggage to one of freedom and peace. This is the great secret hidden in the heart of the last scene: this parallel tells us that the the place to which the Losties are "moving on" is actually a greater and more wonderful version of the Island. You can be sure that this place has all of the Island's life, wonder and adventure, and that everyone who goes there will be forever happy and peaceful. 

There you go. If you read it all the way through, I apologize for the length. It's just that I feel extremely passionate about LOST; it is my favorite TV series ever, and I believe it deserves the attention I have given it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mormon Koans

Along with meditation, among the methods that Zen uses to enlighten the student is the koan. We can roughly define a koan as a short story or anecdote meant to demonstrate the deficiency of logical thinking, so that the student learns to learn in more meaningful ways. Here are some examples:

The Turtle in the Garden
A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui's monastery and asked the teacher, "All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin. Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?" Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.

A Philosopher Asks Buddha
A philosopher asked Buddha: `Without words, without the wordless, will you you tell me truth?
'The Buddha kept silence.
The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: `With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path.'
After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.
The Buddha replied, `A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.'

Quite intentionally, these koans make absolutely no logical sense, and any attempt to understand them through conventional thought will fail. Despite this, they still have a hint of profundity behind them that you can't express in words. Thus, in order to have any hope at understanding a koan, one must abandon the thinking processes that we use in everyday life, and learn to perceive some other way. This new method of apprehension is precisely a direct insight into the nature of reality, which can only be experienced, and not conveyed.

Now, I was reading the Book of Mormon the other day, and I came across a passage that I found troubling. Probably very familiar to you, it is as follows:

"For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility." -2 Nephi 2:11

Many people might find this passage profound or even mystical. I, however, don't. To me, this scripture tells me that the world will always be bifurcated, whether between good and evil, God and Man or Self and Other. Thus, it blatantly opposes (no pun intended) the ideal of unity that I so aspire to. But this is not merely my problem. This scripture also presents an issue of inconsistency, as other scriptures blatantly contradict it. Here's an example:

"Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth" -D&C 27:13

This passage, along with countless others that speak of oneness with God and each other, presents a conundrum: if there is opposition in all things, and if that opposition is desirable, why is our ultimate goal to become one? In other words, how do you reconcile unity and conflict? There are several possible answers, but I have found that they always favor one side at the expense of the other, leaving you no better off than you were before. In my opinion, this problem defies solution because no one can solve it by using their intellect alone. By way of explanation, it is a koan. And by this I don't just mean that it's incomprehensible; it (or any other spiritual problem) also causes the insightful reader to realize that their intellect isn't up to the job of understanding God's mysteries. In other words, by trying and failing to understand the problem intellectually, you realize that the only way to figure it out is by faith, for it is faith that both the koan and the spiritual problem engender in us. By experiencing both, we stop adhering to the intellectual obstacles that stand between us and the divine, and in both we transcend them to receive a direct experience.

As a final thought, there are many more koans to be found within Mormonism. The church's position on Proposition 8 could be considered one of them, as could (my favorite) the contradiction between God's body and his infinity. But, remember this: their ultimate purpose is not to confound, it is to enlighten. It is by going through this trial of faith that we emerge better men and women, able to see things a little more like God sees them.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mysticism in the Media: Journey

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't played Journey, don't read this post until you have.

I played Journey (a video game published by thatgamecompany) last weekend, and I can honestly say that it is the most spiritual game I have ever come across.

Journey consists of two travelers (you and someone online) trying to cross a desert in order to reach a holy mountain. On this "journey", completely lacking dialogue, you encounter many things which would not make sense if I tried to describe them to you. But these things are its very strength, for omnipresent in the game is a sense of the unspeakable. The marvelous beauty that permeates the game doesn't quite make sense intellectually, but it hints at some higher meaning that can't be expressed in words. On this note, many points throughout the game give one a feeling of transcendence, by which I mean they offer a taste of something greater than or above our everyday experience. It is the only game I have ever played that instilled in me a sense of reverence, along with those of wonder and awe.

I am so enthralled with this game that I want to share it with you in its entirety. I want to show you the parts that were beautiful and transcendent to me. For that reason, here is an hour-long YouTube play-through. If you feel intimidated, don't worry; I will list the times for each part I find significant, so you can skip to them.

The first moment I really knew that this game was special happened at 2:10. As the Journeyer climbs atop a sand dune, we see an enormous mountain in the distance, topped with a bright light. It immediately conjured up cultural memories of divine mountaintops like Mount Sinai, and stirred the emotions connected with them. But more importantly, it gave me an overwhelming impression of "bigness", giving me an equally staggering realization of my own nothingness when compared with the divine.

The next significant moment actually happens in several places. The first instance occurs at 6:45 The journeyer sits meditatively in front of a stone altar, surrounded by the light the pillars around him provide. Immediately we cut to some kind of vision. He sees the outline of some kind of being, shrouded by light. It then proceeds to stylistically show him the way forward. In the next instance, at 15:30, we see it clearly for the first time: a being much like the Journeyer himself, only bigger and clothed in white. It then almost affectionately leans over him and again shows him the path ahead. This being clearly represents the divine, but it does not merely copy his shininess or his love. It also exhibits the mystery of divine, the incomprehensibility of the God so lacking in most depictions of him.

After an interim encounter at 25:50, another instance begins at 32:20. The Journeyer attempts to cross a chasm, but falls into a pit. He attempts another vision, but alas, this godly being looks away, as if disappointed. This immediately made me think of the times when I had failed in my pursuit of the virtuous and thus let down God. Needless to say, it struck a chord in me. And yet, the being still shows him the way forward: there is still hope, even if laden with suffering.

After two more visions, the next scene begins at 1:08:20. The desert has turned to ice, and the Journeyer trudges on through the snow, growing weaker by the second. He keeps going until the very last moment, even going as far as to crawl. But ultimately he cannot go on anymore, and he falls down and expires. At 1:09:30, the screen fades to white. Suddenly, you see the Journeyer again, only standing behind him are not one, but six of the divine beings. They surround him with light, and all of a sudden his scarf (what enables him to fly, and what had been cut short in a brutal blizzard) is magnificently restored. This is nothing less than resurrection, in all its connotations. Not only is the body restored to its magnificent fullness, but the Journeyer now has the grace of whatever beings brought him back to life. This scene is an artistic representation of the infinite grace of God - no matter to what depths you have sunk, he will always help you ascend.

Now, what happens from 1:11:05 on I shall not put into words, because I believe that would negate its beauty. It suffices to say that it is one of the most amazing and spiritually significant things I have ever seen portrayed in media, and that it exhibits the ideal of transcendence and even reverence in a way I wouldn't have thought possible.
Journey is amazing. I have never experienced any video game (or perhaps any other form of media) quite like it, as it is nothing less than a mystical experience packaged in game form. Finally, if you haven't played the game, (and therefore, if you're reading this, didn't heed my warning) please go do it as soon as you can. It's an experience you will never forget.