Much has been written about how the film Avatar was made–how it took five years and thousands of people and $300 million. Much has been written about how enchanting it looks. Vatican Radio said “really never before have such surprising images been seen.” L’Osservatore Romanos, the newspaper of the Holy See, commented: “So much stupefying, enchanting technology, but few genuine emotions…” Others beside these Vatican sources commented on the pantheism of the story–a faith that equates God with nature–taking issue with the suggestion that communion with “Eywa,” the “All Mother” of Creation, the humming hub of energy that is the sum of everything thing, is the highest divinity.
But I have been thinking about how the film follows such a deep groove in the culture and maybe even in most individual’s brains, certainly mine. Gurdjieff told his students that the aim of his work was not to add anything new but to recover something had been lost. Gurdjieff meant wholeness, unity– in a much more subtle, inward way than what James Cameron is dazzling the world with. But the visually mind-blowing Avatar can take a person back, as they say. It made me remember how it felt to be a child. The protagonist of the film, a 22nd century ex-Marine named Jake Scully, is sent on a mission to a moon called Pandora. His consciousness is slipped into the nine-foot-tall blue alien body,or avatar, so he can spy on the Na’Vi, the beautiful, lithe, blue natives of Pandora who look like a re-imagined indigo version of the first aboriginal people. Jake is meant to help his corporate and military masters get rid of the Na’Vi, who are living on top of a rich deposit of “Unobtainium,” an invaluable mineral back on ruined Earth. But Jake (whose original body was paralyzed from the waist down thanks to war) falls in love with a Na’Vi princess and learns a new way to be.
Biologists have written articles in The New York Times about the way Avatar captures “the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.” Watching it made me remember imaginary games I played in childhood that involved climbing trees and (in winter) jumping from couches to chairs in the living room, pretending I bounding gazelle-like through a vast, impossibly beautiful jungle, my black panther consort padding by my side. Watching the swooping, gorgeous scenes of Cameron’s movie, it all came rushing back, the yearning and exuberant certainty I felt at five or six-years-old that I could be far more capable and graceful and alive than my mother and the container of my life allowed me to be. Somehow I new there had to be more to me that what was called on in school each day. There was a capacity to be quicker, wilder…anyway, I practiced pretending that I could listen and even feel the intelligence of the whole of the jungle.
My days as a girl in tune with the jungle came crashing down the day my mother intentionally bleached the navy blue shorts I would not stop wearing winter or summer when I was pretending to be a kind of girl Mowgli. It was a horrible, clarifying moment for me, seeing those shorts all mottled purple and white. It was like tearing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. I went from having a connection to the whole of Nature to being an ordinary kid shivering in a laundry room on a January day.
Many, many decades later, however, I sat down on a sitting cushion with other friends who are interested in coming to a greater unity. These days, the unity I wish for is an inner unity and the divinity I aspire to know is greater than Nature. As I quieted down and sought to come to a greater awareness, I realized that remembering who we really does mean forgetting the small creature we usually take ourselves to be. It means going back, back behind all the proliferating thoughts and biases, returning to consciousness…and that primordial mystery.