Monday, June 23, 2014

The Zen of Pleasantville (1998) Movie Analysis | Internal GongFu

The movie Pleasantville (1998) starring Toby McGuire, Reese Witherspoon,, ingeniously illustrates two ways of experiencing Life; either through fear, control, and repressing life feeling or by accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling.

As you may know, there are as many analyses of this movie as there are those offering such analyses. However, in my opinion each of these either unconsciously overlooks or deliberately ignores parts of the movie which do not support their point of view.

Pleasantville video cover
Contrary to others' reviews, I contend that this movie has no plot because Pleasantville is a state of mind. Even though the typical plot description narrates two 1990s teens navigating life in the 1950s, this “plot” is actually a cleverly designed vehicle to present a collage of "accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling" experiences, any one of which may lead to a Zen enlightenment moment.

These moments are ingeniously portrayed using a change from black & white to color. The moments depicted in the movie involve: falling in love, experiencing and expressing the sensuality of sexuality, exploring artistic expression through painting, reading and feeling an author’s words, taking a stand for someone, acknowledging a deep feeling of love and appreciation for someone, expressing rage. Authentic expression - “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

Prior to these moments, the Pleasantville state of mind controls and regulates the expression of these natural impulses of Life through mind-numbing routines. Pleasantville is a world of black & white and shades of gray. It is a world where there are no highs or lows, where everyone and everything is, well, pleasant. It is a world of codes of conduct, habitual behaviors, book burnings, sexual assault,  repression and destruction of artistic expression, restrictions on movement and thought, fear of freedom, etc.

Another way to think of this movie might be as a depiction contrasting the two extremes as elucidated in Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore when the Dao is lost, then virtue arises  (故失道而後德)
When virtue is lost, then righteousness arises  (失德而後仁)
When righteousness is lost, then morality arises  (失仁而後義)
When morality is lost, then law arises  (失義而後禮。)

The movie begins with David firmly believing that life is supposed to be a certain way and as his “supposed to be” falls apart around him, he seeks refuge in escaping to a fantasy of “supposed to be”. (Each of us has a “supposed to be”. What’s yours?) In this example, the central character (representing me and you) imagines life in his “supposed to be” world.
Bud: If we don't play along, we can alter their whole existence...
In this line, Bud is expressing fear about changing. Addressing fears is a huge part of an internal gongfu practice.
Bud: He won't notice anyway.
Mary Sue: Why not?
Bud: They just don't notice that kind of thing around here.
When you live mechanistically, when you get locked into patterns, when you are even a little bit numb to feeling in any area of your life, then your level of noticing is limited and it is really difficult to notice anything outside of the pattern. This presents a huge problem to practicing internal gongfu where one’s ability to notice what is simply there is dampered by one’s habitual patterns and blind spots.
Skip: I think I might be ill. Something's happening to me.
Mary Sue: That's supposed to happen.
Skip: It is?
Mary Sue: Yeah. Trust me.
The first time you have a breakthrough and feel in an area that had long been shut down, you literally will have no concept to explain the feeling. Trying to "make sense" of it, you will likely misinterpret what you are feeling. Someone who is familiar with you and with the process can reassure you. In this scene it is interesting that despite this couple having had sex, they both remain in black & white. This is a key point. Simply going through the motions is not the same as being fully connected.
What's outside of Pleasantville?
This is an important question. What would be my experience of life it I did not live it as “supposed to be”? How would my life be different if I felt a little more deeply, if I connected a little more? Having the curiosity to simply ask the question is a huge step.
Mary Sue: How come I'm still in black and white?
Bud: What?
Mary Sue: I've had ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend like an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden, they're in Technicolor?
Bud: I don't know. Maybe it's not just the sex.
This is an excellent example of how you can be disassociated from or not connected to your body. You may simply go through the motions or you may develop connection.
Dad: One minute, everything's fine. The next... What went wrong?
Bud: Nothing went wrong. People change.
Dad: People change?
Bud: Yeah, people change.
Dad: Can they change back?
Bud: I don't know. I think it's harder.
In this poignant, touching scene, Bud has recently changed to color. He has connected with himself. His dad is still in black & white. I think this brief dialogue speaks for itself.
Bud: I know you want it to stay pleasant around here but there are so many things that are so much better. Like silly or sexy or dangerous or brief. And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them.
In this courtroom scene, Bud expresses what he is learning. It takes courage to address resistances however subtle. Once a resistance is removed, everything changes.
Mom: I'm forty years old. It's not supposed to be like this.
David: It’s not supposed to be anything. Hold still.
Mom: How'd you get so smart all of a sudden?
David: I had a good day.
Here, David summarizes his Zen moment of realization, “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

The movie concludes with these lines:
George: So what's gonna happen now?
Betty: I don't know. Do you know what's going to happen now?
George: No. I don't.
Bill: I guess I don't, either.
We like to think we know how our days, seasons, and life should be or will be but in reality…

Here’s an experiment you may try. After you watch the film, imagine you are amongst the crowd leaving the courthouse or any other moment where a character first experiences seeing something or someone in color. Now, put yourself in that person’s place and look around you. Select one object at a time. See that object for the first time, in color, without name, fresh, new. Allow yourself to feel awe and wonder (the Wow! moment) at the vibrancy of its distinct shape, the tone and hue of its color(s). Look at a few other objects the same way. Now notice how different this feeling is from your ordinary black & white experience of only a moment ago and to that which you will likely return.

In terms of internal gongfu and developing internal strength, this little experiment provides a useful distinction of just how different your ordinary “black & white” muscle movement feeling is from the “color” feeling of internal connection. The subtle shift in feeling you experienced is the level of subtly at which internal gongfu is played.

A big stumbling block on the path to developing internal strength is maintaining the belief that it is supposed to feel like something. If we learn anything from the movie Pleasantville, it is that "it" is not supposed to be like anything.

If you did not notice a distinct shift in feeling, don’t despair. When I first saw this movie over ten years ago, I barely understood the symbolism at the level of data. It's taken a long time for me to reach the understanding of this movie that I have today.

And know too that as you develop sensitivity at one level, there is another level and another and another… Through the training process, your body changes and you develop your ability to notice and feel at more subtle levels. "It" is constantly changing. To try to reduce this dynamic process to a "supposed to be" puts you on a mechanistic path to a dead end.

And so the relevance of the movie Pleasantville to an internal gongfu practice lies in its portrayal of how we approach an internal gongfu practice. We generally start in the black & white world of Pleasantville and evolve to discovering color. We struggle along the way. And we don't know which moment will be the breakthrough moment. Even though we may think that we are "on the path", we won't "get it" until we "pass through the door" and connect deeply within ourselves and with others.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

City of Angels (1998) Movie Review and Summary | Internal Gongfu

Although City of Angels (1998) was reviewed as a fantasy love-story, looking at it with an internal gongfu perspective reveals an entirely different meaning. City of Angels is the American re-imagination of the German movie "Wings of Desire (1988).

For the internal gongfu practitioner the inner meaning of this movie is that to become human, that is, to become fully embodied and feeling, requires dying to being disembodied/disassociated. Feeling both emotionally and physically is what it means to be fully human and coincidentally, feeling both emotionally and physically is required to develop internal gongfu!

City of Angels video cover
In this film, angels are used to represent the non-feeling, disembodied life. They represent living life disassociated from or numb to physical/emotional feelings. Their drab, black attire lacks vibrancy. Their sullen, stiff postures lack the animation of emotional expression.

In this film, humans are used to represent the feeling, embodied life of being integrated with and alive to physical/emotional feelings. Their colorful attire exudes vibrancy. Their variety of postures and animated movement exudes emotional expression.

Through the juxtaposition of colors, postures, facial expressions, and movement of these two groups, the film shows us in black & white, and in living color, two very different modes of living. When viewed this way, the title "City of Angels" then suggests that cities are full of people living their lives mechanistically, that is without feeling, being guided by the "musts" and "shoulds" rather than living life guided by a trust in what they feel.

In the internal gongfu practice, feeling is king. Yet for some, like me, it can be difficult to open areas that have long been so ardently controlled and regulated to the point where the area is in effect "shut down". But opening to feeling is an essential part of the internal gongfu process.

So as the movie rends its way through its fantasy love story plot, which I don't need to re-iterate here, be mindful of the symbolism and how this adds a rich, instructional texture to an otherwise superficial fantasy. Here are a few quotes from the movie which I found to be particularly meaningful.

The following  passage is the key internal gong-fu training directive:
Seth: What am I doing?
Maggie: You're touching me.
Seth: How do you know?
Maggie: Because I feel it.
Seth: You should trust that. You don't trust it enough.
I remember many a Wujifa class years ago where I said something and my instructor asked me, "How do you know?" In those days, I responded with a lot of data. It took a long time for me to evolve to where I could say, "Because I feel it." And to this day, I still have trouble trusting what I feel. I still second-guess and rationalize away what I feel. And I wonder why my progress is stalled?

In the following passage, Maggie, though she is human, provides a rather clinical/mechanical response. But Seth is looking for a feeling response.
Seth: Why do people cry?
Maggie: What do you mean?
Seth: I mean, what happens physically?
and here, you can see Maggie shift into "data mode" to provide the "correct" answer:
Maggie: Tear ducts operate on a normal basis to lubricate and protect the eye. When you have an emotion, they overact and create tears.
Seth: Why? Why do they overact?
Maggie: I don't know. 
Seth, who is trying desperately to understand 'crying' from the perspective of feeling, responds:
Seth: Maybe emotion becomes so intense...your body just can't contain it. Your mind and your feelings become too powerful. Your body weeps.
It is very interesting that Seth says, "Your body weeps." He sees humans as a fully integrated emotion-body. He does not see the two as separate. And although Maggie is human, she has been trained to respond mechanistically. Much of the love story throughout this film is based on Maggie evolving from doing what is right to trusting her feelings.

In the following passage, Mr. Messinger tries to describe what it's like to transition from being an unfeeling, disassociated "angel" to being a fully feeling human.
Mr. Messinger: You just make up your mind to do it and you do it. You wake up all smelly, and aching from head to toe...and hungrier than you've ever been...only you have no idea what hunger is or any of that it's all real confusing and painful, but very, very good.
Seth: Human.
Mr. Messinger: Listen, kid: He gave these bozos the greatest gift in the universe. You think He didn't give it to us too?
Seth: Which gift?
Mr. Messinger: Free will, brother. Free will.
There are a couple points in here. One is that the transition from living mechanistically to living with feeling is real confusing and painful but very good. And the other point is that every day we choose to  continue living mechanistically or we choose to live with a little more feeling.

Although this is not a martial arts movie per se, it is a movie that was recommended to me many years ago when I began on this internal gongfu path. If you haven't seen it, go watch it. What do you notice?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Resisting the Simple: Journal Notes #122

Notes from my May 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

First, let me begin by saying that I continue in my lackluster "practice" habit which began in April 2012. So I've been stuck in this place for just over two years now.

For this month of May I practiced zhan zhuang two to three times a week for 20-30 minutes per session. In the past, I enjoyed practicing zhan zhuang early in the morning before work. However, now I've been waking up so fatigued that when I am able to drag myself out of bed, then my zhan zhuang practice is more like a zombie, semi-comatose stance. I'm not happy practicing like this.

At work, sitting behind a computer monitor all day leaves me mentally fatigued. In the evenings I stretch and practice the moving exercises but even these I do more mechanically than with a mindset of attentive exploration. It's like I just don't have the energy I need to practice at the level where I should be practicing.

(Note: A progress-oriented practice includes at least an hour a day of zhan zhuang and at least an hour a day of other Wujifa movement exercises. So you see how far I am from a progress-oriented practice!)

I've been struggling with the question: "Should I continue going to class or not?" I have chosen to continue going. I always learn something. I see how my school brothers are progressing (even if I'm not). And I'm afraid that if I stop going, then this entire venture will slowly fade away. And I don't want that to happen. It's hard to stay motivated for so long when A) results come so slowly for me and B) I unconsciously sabotage my own progress.

For example, every time I have a breakthrough and get excited about the possibilities, I invariably encounter a resistance to further exploration. When I hit this, then it's like something else in me takes over and I either shut down or pull back. This is my pattern. What am I resisting? Why don't I "push through" the resistance? There's value in recognizing this pattern.

So that's a little bit about where I am with my practice. Now, here are my May notes...

* Many "internal" martial arts teachers and practitioners don't figure out and focus on the simple, elemental, functional methods that can lead to developing internal strength. Instead they value complexity and diversity and hence engage a wide variety of sometimes very complex practices which ultimately do not lead to internal strength.

* Various qigong and martial art systems (with an internal component) come with various flavors of complexity in their philosophy, story, and practices. For example:
  • Taijiquan
  • Baguazhang
  • Xingyiquan - Five Elements
  • Six Harmonies
  • LiuHeBaFa 
  • Baijiquan
  • Eight Pieces of Brocade
  • Twelve Daoyin Qigong

I think the Wujifa system arguably has the most simple, elegant and straightforward practice with its four points of alignment and four points of structure.

* Keep in mind, that the more complicated or layered the story, the more resistance or armoring is in place. Cut through the rationale to what is simple. Summarize long-winded explanations to a single sentence. Reduce the complex sentence to a simple "subject + verb" sentence. Clarity is revealed in simplicity. Feel connection! Focus on the simple. Jettison the complex.

* For some people (like me) it is difficult to let go of old stories. People who come to practice Wujifa have a tendency to interpret their current experience through previously learned stories. Unfortunately, what was learned previously may have been misinterpreted or misunderstood. Do you really want to interpret your current experience through the filter of a misunderstanding? Through the filter of a misinterpretation? It sounds really dumb but this is what people do. In fact, the people who make the most progress are those that simply throw themselves into the practice, stay present with the simple exercises and don't try to interpret present-day experiences through either their own (or another teacher's) earlier misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

* If I could let go of old stories and complex theories, if I could see the exercises in relation to the whole, then my questions would change. My questions are still based on compartmentalized thinking. (Darn! After all these years!) I still tie current experiences back to old stories and theories that didn't help me make any progress developing connection. Sounds really dumb but this is what I do.

* I was doing the 'weight on the chest' exercise because I thought I needed to engage my chest in breathing so it would not be so "dead" while focusing on abdominal breathing. So I had questions about the relation between abdominal and chest breathing. I was reminded that the purpose of this exercise is to loosen the rib heads because I'm not getting the "drop the chest" as much as I should.

* The purpose of mini- breathing squats is to discover how the abdomen moves in relation to hip movement. Feel the connection between abdominal breathing and the horizontal kua movement. I had quite unconsciously forgotten the purpose of this exercise and had developed a more complex mental construct and altered the simplicity of the exercise. Sounds really dumb but this is what I do.

* Sadly I've also developed an elaborate micro-movement strategy to avoid retaining adjustments (from class) that open the blockages in my structure. I unconsciously dissect, split, and redistribute the blockage throughout my body. (Yes, this was shown and explained to me.)

Because I still have difficulty feeling the level at which the blockage exists and how this blockage affects the whole, I easily fool myself. By this I mean that when I look at my structure in the mirror, I only see the area of my body I am working on. When I see the desired goal in this area then I believe I've made progress. In fact, I am unable to see how I've subtly distorted other aspects of my posture that contributed to the "correct" appearance in this one area.

What does "subtle" mean here? We're talking about a difference between a few millemeters of external movement or no external movement but noticing a muscle or muscle group tensing under the skin.

* There are two ways to open the joints: from resistance (bad), and from relaxing (good). I made a comment that I've never liked hearing or feeling my joints "pop". My attitude is contradictory to the classics which talk about opening the joints. Ah, another insight into my underlying resistance?

* That kind of massage can be therapeutic. Simple human contact, touch, communicates, awakens...

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: The Door Into Wujifa: Journal Notes #121
Next article in this series: The Self Delusion of Beginner's Mind: Journal Notes #123