The Humble Earth

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory….
(Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 44)

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Repost : Movies (Spiritual motivation behind movie watching)

I just read a wonderful post on a blog I just discovered called “One Baha’i’s Approach” that shares insight into watching films with a spiritual eye that I thought you guys might enjoy to see why I do what I do.  I highly recommend the blog, and you can find it here, and the original post here.

Movies

I recently asked you, dear Reader, for your thoughts on ideas for topics I could try and address. Many wonderful suggestions came in, but one, in particular, was one that I could immediately write: Movies.

The idea was presented in the context of writing a review of a movie in light of the Baha’i teachings, but I’m not sure I want to do it quite like that. Instead I will talk a bit about my own approach to movies, in light of the Baha’i teachings.

My guidance comes mainly from two quotes, one by Baha’u’llah and another from Shoghi Effendi. The first, found in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf ,refers to arts and sciences, saying that they should be “productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit…conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men“. This quote alone radically changed the way that I approached my own work as an artist.

The second quote is found in The Advent of Divine Justice. In that text, Shoghi Effendi speaks of the three spiritual weapons we have at our disposal in our fight “to regenerate the inward life of their own community, and… to assail the long-standing evils that have entrenched themselves in the life of their nation.” The three weapons, as I’m sure you know, are “a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities, absolute chastity in their individual lives, and complete freedom from prejudice in their dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or color.”

The second of these three is further defined by the Guardian in the following quote: “Such a chaste and holy life, with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness, involves no less than the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations.”

It was this second quote that got me to re-examine those arts to which I subjected myself, as he particularly mentions “all artistic and literary avocations“. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that he is telling us to avoid movies, or anything like that, but just to be more selective, recognizing the influence that they can have upon us. I love a good fantasy novel, or a fine science fiction movie. In fact, I even enjoy a fun shoot-em-up action adventure movie, too. (Shocking, I know, but true.)

The key word in that second quote is, to me, “moderation“.

The question now is, “How does this effect my movie-going?” Easy. It makes me examine each movie after I see it, explore the motives and morals within it, and see how it effects me as a person. Now, I believe that I get far more out of every movie I watch, and every book I read, than I did before.

This also gets passed on to those I work with.

For years now, whenever I take a group of youth to a movie, I willingly take them to see whatever movie they want, on condition that we can talk about it afterwards. A two-hour movie? I want at least thirty minutes of conversation. And during that time we explore the story and motives of the characters, framing the whole thing in the context of virtuous development, and the Baha’i teachings.

Conclusions? Well, I have to admit that I used to love horror movies, but now have absolutely no desire to see them any more. I have not found anything worth the time invested in seeing them. Although I don’t criticize anyone for watching them, they are just not for me. My time can be better spent elsewhere.

I have also come to love some of the action movies even more. Why? Because it gives a lot more room for discussion of motives, and allows a great deal of exploration in how we would react to similar circumstances. Now I don’t expect to ever find myself hiding in a building that is being taken over by terrorists intent on robbing a bank, or having to jump on a moving train to try and save someone from being blown to bits by a bomb, but I have found myself reacting instantly to seeing people getting beaten to death by gang members on the street. This little exercise of asking myself what I would do in such a situation allowed me the ability to draw the attackers away long enough for the victim to survive (without getting killed myself).

Some of the most enjoyable movies I have seen are ones that I was “dragged” to by a group of teens who thought I would never want to see them. They figured that those movies just weren’t my type, whatever my type may be. But I enjoyed them, and we had a very fruitful discussion afterwards.

The teens also told me later that these discussions have changed the way they watch movies, television, and on and on. They are far more selective, and always ecplore it afterwards, no longer content to view them as mere entertainment.

Going back to the first quote, in which Baha’u’llah tells us the purpose of the arts, I began asking myself if a particular work was conducive to my well-being and tranquility. I didn’t expect to only enjoy works that put me in a drug stupor, but looked at that in a broader context. Did they lead me to tranquility? Did they improve my well-being? If not, why was I subjecting myself to it?

By looking at the overall purpose of the arts, I found myself in a better position to decide whether or not I wanted to take the time to view a particular work. Now that said nothing of the merit of the work itself, just whether or not I wanted to take the time to find out.

The second quote, about absolute chastity being related to artistic endeavours, made me further examine what I watched, read or listened to.

These two quotes also helped me better refine how I wanted to spend my time on my own artwork, but that’s probably better suited for another article.

Instead, I’d like to just take a moment to look at an example, Lord of the Rings. While I could go into the artistic merits of the film, or how they used so many different artisans to create the world, I, instead, want to look at one part of the story. Or actually, one part not of the story: the bad guy.

This is a story that does not focus on the bad guy. It focuses almost completely on the good guys, and their epic struggle. You never really see the bad guy; he’s always just this big eye in the distance.

Too often in artistic works, the artist focuses almost exclusively on the bad guys, or at least spends a considerable time on them. They get into the minds of these people, and really, do you want to get in there?

But Tolkien focuses on the good guys. He gets into their headspace, and brings us with him. You feel their fears, their concerns, and their courage. And that is a space I want to get into. Don’t you?

So next time you read a book, or watch a movie, look at these two quotes again and see how they apply. It’s a wonderful experiment that I will explore more and more in the future.

Synecdoche, New York — Idle Fancies, Vain Imaginings, and Longing

Film:

Synecdoche, New York, 2008

Staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

After his painter wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stages an autobiographical play in a massive New York City warehouse amid a life-size replica of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Caden must contend with the many women in his life — including a box-office worker, an actress and a shrink — in this beguiling directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

My Thoughts:

This movie has been in the recommended queue for over a year and I am finally getting to it.  I apologize for the delay, it’s been a crazy year, and I know it’s the type of film that requires due process.  It’s the type of film that makes you think, and makes you feel.  But not comfortable feelings.  Incredibly frustratingly uncomfortable, painful feelings.  I like films like this, that force you to wrestle with this side of life but I do not enjoy films like this.  Let me elucidate that paradox a little.

Film is a medium, and as such it is not always used for entertainment and pleasure, even if that is the predominant trend.  Film can be used as a tool for communication, for meditation, or exploration.  I love it when movies use all the power film has to offer as an art form by working the visuals, and pushing the boundaries to actually show you something rather than tell you.  This movie does that.  However what it shows is frankly unpleasant.  It does it really well, but it’s painful. It helps you to experience the pain and suffering of the main character by getting so lost in him, and his meta existence so as to trick you into feeling that (if you are highly empathetic like myself).  If you like films like Lost in Translation or Magnolia then you will like this movie, but it’s even more extreme.   Ok, with that lengthy introduction let me actually get to the content of the film.

The film begins like a typical independent film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He’s made a lot of them and if you’ve seen even one you have a feel for it.  As it opens, it’s gritty and has that look to it.  I think Kaufman wants to trick the audience into complacency because as it goes on characters start breaking unwritten rules.  They do not react how you expect them to, they do not react in the way society dictates is normal.

What is clear from the beginning is that Caden Cotard is lonely, unhappy, and ill, and throughout the film this state increases. Nobody can help him, even when he asks for it.  His family abandons him.  His doctors shuffle him around not solving the problem.  His therapist just tries to sell him books.

What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?  – Bahá’u’lláh

Cotard has no clue, and so he pours himself into his art.  Art can be a wonderful thing.  It can uplift the soul.  It can increase knowledge.  But what Cotard does is essentially use his art for his ego.  He wins this prestigious MacArthur genius grant right when his life is falling apart and thinks it can redeem him.  Instead his play becomes him playing God and recreating his life over and over again, getting deeper and deeper into himself and his neuroses and it doesn’t work.  He finds no solace.  He finds no audience.  He finds no answers.

Cast away, O people, the things ye have composed with the pen of your idle fancies and vain imaginings … Idle fancies have debarred men from the Horizon of Certitude, and vain imaginings withheld them from the Choice Sealed Wine. – Bahá’u’lláh

Instead decades go by, he ages as he suffers and as his relationships disintegrate more and more due to his inability to view the world outside of himself and outside of his pain.  He becomes completely self centered.  There is a glimmer of hope near the end when he and Hazel finally work out there issues, and she states what may seem like a throw away line, but I think reaches at the heart of the matter about how it was the first time she’d seen him think about someone other than himself.

And finally the true ending when he is too tired of all his directing and decides to play another role, to step into another person’s life.  It is here that he can see that another has pain, another disappointment, and he can finally find comfort in feeling for another, rather than himself.

Millicent Weems: What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.
– From the film

And I think this is why I had such a problem with the film, why it did not sit well with me, and that’s because this is a half truth.  It reaches the culmination of understanding that we are all connected, that we are all unified and we need to get over the ego of self, but it only focuses on the negative, on the disintegration.  This is everyone’s experience, but not everyone’s complete experience and because of this it is bleak.

Where is joy? Where is beauty? Where is love? Where is God?  The word was only first mentioned an hour into the film in passing, and then indirectly and derogatorily by Hazel “We send the kids to Christian school.  It’s Derek’s idea, I don’t believe in that stuff”, and then in the end at a funeral when a priest preaches pretty much the exact opposite message that a cleric would.  This is a world without God, without religion (in the true sense of the word), and it shows.  It shows in all the social dysfunction and ill portrayed in the film.  People are amoral.  They abandon each other.  They use one another.  They cause each other suffering. If this is everyone’s experience than what are we all doing wrong for it to be this horrid?

Some people argue that this is the world as it is, and on some level they are right.  People have abandoned the teachings of the great faiths, have stopped fearing God, stopped loving God, and stopped following God and in doing so have created even more pain and suffering.  They have corrupted many forms of religion and turned them into self-serving political machines, or an isolationist club, in the image of themselves instead of God’s so that even labeling oneself religious does not necessarily free you from this Kaufmanesque view of the world.

Instead if we distill the message from the major faiths it is this: Love.  Put others before yourself.  Humble yourself.  Be compassionate.  Show this love through deeds.  Love everyone, even the people you don’t like, nay, especially the people you don’t like because it’s not about you, and it’s not about your opinion. They probably need the love even more so.

We can hardly blame Cotard because he was not shown love so he could not really learn how to love.  He is constantly looking for someone to follow, but has no adequate model.  However, this is why we have the examples of Buddha, of Jesus, of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha.  They show us what true selfless love can be so we can follow there model, so that the world won’t devolve into Synecdoche, New York.

synecdoche |siˈnekdəkē|
noun
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).

-from the Apple dictionary.

In this case of this film Caden Cotard represented the whole.  Let’s change that.  Let’s make it one of these great teachers, who shows us how to love, and how to suffer with grace instead of despair.


Food Inc. — The Ethics of Eating

Film:

Food, Inc. 2008

Synopsis (from Netflix):

Drawing on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, director Robert Kenner’s documentary explores the food industry’s detrimental effects on our health and environment. Kenner spotlights the men and women who are working to reform an industry rife with monopolies, questionable interpretations of laws and subsidies, political ties and rising rates of E. coli outbreaks.

My Thoughts:

First I would like to thank the reader who voted in the poll and suggested this film.  Secondly I would like to advocate that *everyone* watch this.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix Instant.  Watch it now.  Ok, on with the post.

Robert Kenner begins this documentary saying that the food industry has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000 and that his hope in creating this documentary is to “pull the veil back” and show people how they are really eating and where there food had come from.

Remove the veil from their eyes, and enlighten their hearts with the light of guidance. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

This is a veil that I myself have been pulling back slowly but surely over this past decade, and it is quite shocking and disheartening.  Our food industry has become so industrialized and so far removed from those consuming the food that it’s interests no longer match those of the consumers.

In this documentary there were several interviews with farmers and one shared some statements that I thought were pretty profound that I would like to share with you. First:

“Industrial food is not honest food.  It is not produced honestly.  It is not priced honestly.  There is nothing honest about industrial food”

As we know truthfulness is the foundation of all virtue, and without it there cannot be justice.  The industrial food system is so highly subsidized that the food can be sold below cost.  This puts pressure on both independent farmers, as well as farmers outside of the US who cannot compete because they don’t have these subsidies and can’t sell below cost.  Also, the cost to the environment is not factored in to these industrialized methods which are not as ecologically sound.  E Coli was not a problem before this system.  These hidden costs are dishonest.  The food industry also uses undocumented workers who they can pay cheaply, and treat poorly.  It is the workers who are punished if caught even if the industry purposely goes to Mexico to recruit them.  Chickens have been manipulated to grow three times as fast but in doing so their bones can’t support their weight so they can barely stand.  This is also unjust.  How can we treat people and animals so cruelly? As the farmer so aptly put it:

“A culture that just views a pig as a set of protoplasmic structures to be manipulated will probably view other people in its community, and the community of nations with the same controlling type mentality”

Or if you prefer Holy Writings:

Burden not an animal with more than it can bear. We, truly, have prohibited such treatment through a most binding interdiction in the Book. Be ye the embodiments of justice and fairness amidst all creation. ~Bahá’u’lláh

Eating food is something we do everyday, three times a day.  How can we do so with integrity?  With justice?  Over 100 years ago Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and that changed our food industry for a time.  People demanded better regulation.  But that system broke down as the food industry became more powerful.  Also, the cheaply subsidized food is not the healthiest food, but instead commodity crops, and has led to the epidemic of obesity.  At the end of the documentary the filmmakers list several suggestions as to how we can work together as a society and as individuals within this society to combat this problem.  Here are three:

You can vote to change this system. Three times a day.

Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect.

If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy.

It is up to us.  We can be the change we want to see in the world.  Those who can afford to, to vote with our wallets and support ethically grown food.  Doing so is better for us, for our health, for the world, and for peace.

My friends have also posted a wonderful blog on the topic of ethical eating.  Check it out here.