It recently occurred to me that there aren’t that many movies that are explicitly about, or which explicitly portray, enlightenment, awakening, or other breakthrough spiritual experiences.
There are plenty of films about religion, religious people and their religious ways. But these rarely include scenes that reveal any genuine sense of spirituality. As if to illustrate the point, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is little more than torture flick.
And the less said about Keanu Reaves’ performance as the annointed one in Little Buddha, the better. Same goes for What Dreams May Come, a movie about the afterlife which completely fails to inspire.
There are films which some viewers have experienced as having a spiritual effect on them. For instance, I felt spiritually uplifted the first time I watched the sci-fi movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. But while these contain archetypal images aplenty, and even direct references to God in the case of Contact, I would not say that these had genuine spiritual content. Rather, they had archetypal content.
Many Hollywood films have made use of religious archetypes—superhero stories often deliberately evoke resonances with the life of Christ, for example—but again these are certainly not movies with explicitly spiritual content. In other words, we do not see (or share) anyone’s spiritual experiences or awakenings. Which is a great pity and a great surprise, because such experiences are without a doubt the most meaningful and fulfilling experiences in the entire spectrum of experiences known to humanity. I wonder why this is.
Anyway, there are nevertheless some films in which truly spiritual experiences are either shown or at least alluded to. Here are my personal nominations. Do you have any others?
In the 1976 satirical film Network, news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on air that, just before he loses his job in two weeks’ time because of falling ratings, he intends to blow his brains out on live TV. Ironically, this boosts the programme’s ratings. So much so that Howard is given his own show in which he can rant about the evils of society.
At the peak of his growing madness, Howard explains to his friend Max that he is not actually having a breakdown but that he has, in fact, had some kind of epiphany:
This is not a psychotic episode. This is a cleansing moment of clarity.
I am imbued, Max. I am imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling at all. It is a shocking eruption of great electrical energy. I feel vivid and flashing as if suddenly I had been plugged into some great electro-magnetic field. I feel connected to all living things, to flowers, birds, to all the animals of the world and even to some great unseen living force, what I think the Hindus call prana. It is not a breakdown. I have never felt more orderly in my life! It is a shattering and beautiful sensation! It is the exalted flow of the space-time continuum, save that it is spaceless and timeless and of such loveliness! I feel on the verge of some great ultimate truth.
And finally, in an angry tone, Howard adds:
And you will not take me off the air for now or for any other spaceless time!
The words used by the Howard Beale character to describe this episode of inspiration/breakdown are very reminsiscent of words used by people to describe an experience of kundalini awakening. It just makes me wonder what the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, was using as his own source of inspiration. But while the words give the imprtession of an ongoing breakthrough, we don’t actually see any sign of a transcendent experience occurring in Howard. It’s just him arguing with his friend.
You can see the whole movie here at YouTube – the speech occurs at 45-46 mins.
You can also hear Howard Beale’s speech sampled in a rather funky track called Spirit by Vitamen (hear it here on YouTube).
Fearless is a 1993 drama directed by Peter Weir and written by Rafael Yglesias from his novel of the same name.
Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) is on a passenger airplane that is about to crash. Moments before the disaster occurs, while everyone else is in a state of terror and panic, Max has some kind of spiritual experience that bathes him in peace and light.
Many die in the crash, including Max’s business partner, but Max walks away from it. The whole experience transforms Max’s life in unexpected ways. He becomes preoccupied with rethinking life, death, God, and the afterlife. He also begins to go off the rails, believing himself to be no longer a mere mortal, and in the process alienates all his family and friends.
At the encouragement of a psychiatrist, he tries to lend support to a fellow survivor, a woman who is severly depressed over the loss of her baby in the accident. In a roundabout way he succeeds, but his “nothing can kill us” attitude is so dangerous that they too must part company.
Finally, Max comes seriously close to actual death while doing something as simple as eating strawberries, to which he has a severe allergic reaction. He survives, but this time he evidently recovers his emotional connection to his life, his family and the world.
The story in this movie is really about Max’s painful journey between two spiritual experiences.
The first experience is the etheral peace that descends on Max just before the crash.
This experience seems to give Max a genuine taste of spiritual immortality. However, Max subsequently confuses and misinterprets this by assuming that in cheating death he has somehow achieved physical immortality. Having leapt to the wrong conclusion, he suddenly becomes utterly fearless. And the less he feels fear, the more reckless and ireesponsible his actions become. Far from displaying any great spiritual wisdom, he starts acting like a jerk. Max’s journey is thus a descent into self-delusion with the loss of mortal fear and its consequences.
The second spiritual experience is the near-fatal reaction to the strawberries at the end. It could be argued that this is hardly a spiritual experience at all—if anything, it is all too physical. Well, I would say that it is the life-affirming effect of Max’s close encounter with death, plus its perfect timing, that make this as much a spiritual experience as the first one.
In the end, it is only a full-on, frightening encounter with his real mortality that can finally bring Max back not just to his senses but to his connection with life and especially that most fundamental fact of life: we all die.
American Beauty was for many the best American film of 1999. Amongst many other awards, it won that year’s Oscar for Best Picture. It was written by Alan Ball (creator of and frequent writer for HBO’s Six Feet Under) and directed by the acclaimed London stage director Sam Mendes.
Showing “the dark underbelly of the American dream” has become a real movie cliché now. But American Beauty is not a negative, look-what’s-wrong-with-these-people kind of film. There is a positive message—not just a trite message about finding hope and love in unexpected places, but a message about letting in something that is bigger and better than our ordinary selves: the beauty of life.
Here’s the multi-layered story of American Beauty condensed into a single-layered nutshell (with apologies to all concerned).
Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) hates his job and is hated in turn by his own family. Moreover, everybody around him seems to be dysfunctional in some way. The only interesting thing on his horizon is the new neighbours’ teenage daughter Angela (Mena Suvari), with whom he becomes secretly, sexually infatuated.
Meanwhile, Angela’s teenage brother Rickey is constantly on the receiving end of their psychotic father’s control freakery, including regular drug testing. Ricky, an infinitely more intelligent soul than his dad, finds escape in his hand-held video camera which he uses to record the beauty he sees in his ordinary surroundings. In his room he keeps hundreds of these videotapes.
While Lester sets out to impress Angela by working on his muscles, and while his own wife begins having an affair, his daughter Jane strikes up a relationship with Ricky.
But things take a major swerve when Ricky’s crazy dad, Frank, sees one of Ricky’s videotapes which happens to focus on Lester, seen through the basement window across the road, lifting weights … naked. Leaping to the wrong conclusion, Frank approaches Lester with a most surprising proposal. Lester’s rejection of Frank’s advances, however, becomes his downfall. Frank later returns with a gun to blow Lester’s brains out.
Lester’s closing narration explains that, despite being killed, he is happy, as it is hard to be mad when there is so much beauty in the world.
There are two moments in this film which struck me as spiritual in nature. Whether they were intentionally so, I am not sure.
The first is when Ricky is showing Jane one of his videotapes. This is really a seminal scene: all the video shows is a plastic bag being blown about in the wind, but for Ricky it is the most beautiful thing in the world. And Jane, watching this with him, actually gets it. She gets that it really is a thing of beauty, and that there must be a kind of transcendent beauty all around us the whole time, virtually everywhere, if only we would look for it. And as Jane gets it, so do we. A core truth of life is being revealed to us, or perhaps remembered for us.
The second spiritual moment of the film—setting aside the fact that the narrator turns out to have been dead all along, and so must be narrating from the afterlife!—is just before Lester’s killing.
Near the end of the film, Lester actually has his chance with Angela to make love—yet he declines. Instead, he finds himself to be on the same wavelength as Angela about life’s frustrations.
Incidentally, I am reminded of a short story by Ian McEwan in which the main character, a man, sees a golden opportunity to have sexual contact with an innocent young girl, but—despite the almost overwhelming temptation—he turns away at the last moment when a particular childhood memory comes to mind. The memory is of a field covered in virgin snow, something so mystically beautiful that he just could not bring himself to defile it with his own footprints. Again, it is about a true sense of beauty being allowed to penetrate our more mundane thoughts, feelings and actions.
So, Lester has just refrained from pursuing sex with Angela and found a more meaningful level of contact with her. He has also learned from her that his daughter Jane “thinks she is in love” with Ricky. Now Angela asks Lester, “How are you?” This throws him. Here’s the actual script at this point:
A moment later, he is shot.
Now this statement “I’m great” may not sound like anything out of the ordinary, but Lester’s facial expression of bliss, the expression with which he dies, suggests something else.
After seeing this film my wife and I both said to each other “That looked like a direct experience!” Direct experience is our shorthand for the direct conscious experience of Truth, Essence, the Absolute, the Divine, whatever one likes to call It. In other words, an experience of spiritual awakening, enlightenment or satori. In our work with enlightenment intensives we have had the privilege of witnessing many such experiences, and quite often they are small, simple affairs. Sometimes they are dramatic, as though the heavens were opening and angels were singing. But quite often a moment of true enlightenment is just a simple, quiet realisation like: “I’m great.” Simple, yet infintely meaningful, utterly fulfilling and life-changing.
Not quite life-changing in the way Lester might have wished, though.
– barry –