Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries.
TLDR: The journeys of two young men searching for answers converge at Plum Village. It offers light in a world where we see escape as the only means to happiness.
It often feels that a day barely passes without the media talking about mental well-being or climate change as a subject that demands our attention. However, it is rare for a film to stir your attention and make you sit up to notice these issues.
Director Wouter Verhoeven’s heavy use of first-hand footage, interviews with protagonists and others brings into focus, the plight of Mother Nature and burnout in life.
Wouter masterfully uses mindful pauses in the film (shots of nature and the characters doing mundane activities) to create moments for reflection.
His main message is clear throughout the entire film: The way out of these crises starts when we look inwards.
The film, with momentary commentary by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, further enhances the impact of the film’s message.
The founder of Plum Village teaches, “The way out is in. The way out of climate change is inside each of us.” His invitation is to pause: to stop running and observe what is really going on.
The Way Out is Reflection
Wouter’s documentary focuses on two protagonists: Eddie, an environmental activist struggling to prevent fracking in Yorkshire, England; the other, a London banker facing an existential crisis. The banker, upon deeply examining his life, discovers its monotony and emptiness.
The film lays bare their attempts to remedy that despair in both their searches. Eddie searches for environmental protection while the banker searches for meaning.
As I watched the film, I was moved by the protagonists’ raw, unfiltered examination of their lives. The courage to confront their insecurities and uncertainty struck a chord within me. In a world where social validation of positivity is lauded, this film was a breath of fresh air.
For example, the banker realises that so many peers are depressed, in spite of their material success. He reflects that everyone is living in a fishbowl: one can look outside of the bowl but is incapable of experiencing the ocean outside (real world).
“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The Way Out is Harmony
What makes this film worth sitting up and paying attention to? For me, it was the Director’s elegant weaving of the two stories into one storyline. As I watched the film, I was trying hard to understand how the two protagonists’ stories would meet. Hint: Plum Village is the centre stage.
Within the film, harmony is achieved by the director’s thoughtful mix of tense scenes of confrontations with still nature shots and interviews with a Plum Village monastic.
The monk speaks to Eddie about his confrontations with the fracking industry and how Eddie feels about it.
“Don’t make a front, make a circle, there is no one to fight. We suffer because we don’t know better,” the Buddhist monk counsels Eddie as he faces burnout over his cause.
Nuggets of wisdom like this sprinkled throughout the film makes it a compelling watch. The film is not alarmist but rather, awakening.
The Way Out is Change
The most beautiful part of the film is watching how these two protagonists transform their mental states, especially after they come into contact with Plum Village, a Zen monastery in France. Seeing their calm faces while meditating, and their serene smiles while doing temple chores brought a smile to my face.
Eddie’s calm focus while making bread for fellow practitioners and the banker’s gaze while being in the monastery garden were my favourite scenes of inner change for these two characters.
Seeing Eddie and the banker find the strength to feel comfortable in their own skin and at peace was a relief. It was akin to witnessing a fish finding its way out of the fishbowl into the greater ocean. Change can be painful but necessary.
Change enables to let go of superficial & lesser happiness for the greater & deeper happiness in life.
Who do I Recommend the Film for?
Friends who find themselves stuck in the grind of the 9-to-5 or those feeling burnout from championing causes close to their hearts.
This film speaks directly to you and is unafraid to show you the costs of your ideals. It is a great introduction for those new to Buddhism as the film gives a taste of how Dhamma can be applied in real-world situations. How do we approach people who are in direct conflict with our values? How do we face an existential crisis? The film is a perfect illustration of Buddhism in action without requiring deep Buddhist knowledge.
You will be challenged to stop running and to take a pause. To find a mindful and peaceful way out.
A positive post-note to the film: In 2019, the UK government halted fracking in England. This effectively bans fracking in the UK, a watershed moment for activists and the environment. Scientific studies warned it was not possible to rule out unacceptable consequences for those living near fracking sites.
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TLDR: We often go through life unaware and miss out on the treasure in our heart. The jewel within that is self-awareness is this treasure that differentiates humans from animals.
What is self-awareness? We use this term to describe whether someone is self-aware or not. For example, I never thought that my father had no self-awareness when I was young. He was and still is quick to anger, dislikes any slight form of challenge (depending on who the challenger is), and loves to pick on me. I had thought that he just hates me for reasons unknown.
But as I grew older and encountered some new age spiritual books and later rational teachings by the Buddha, I realised my father has no self-awareness. Although realising his denial of this inner awareness changed my feeling of low self-esteem (being the object of his tirades) to compassion, I feel sorry he does not see the jewel within that is self-awareness.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness theory is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection according to positivepsychology.com. Although it is not possible to attain total objectivity about yourself based on the theory, there are degrees of self-awareness and it exists on a spectrum. Having inner awareness allows you to accept yourself, see the perspectives of others, change yourself, communicate better and to make better decisions.
When I was a young adult, positive psychology and studies into self-awareness was at its nascent stage. I never thought I had awareness of myself.
I thought that being able to see others’ perspectives, probe my values and how others see me, was me being overly sensitive or having empathy.
I thought my ability to reflect caused much suffering because those around me who did not reflect much, seemed to enjoy life better. They were happy with sensual pleasures such as food, exercise, travels and work while I felt there is something more than these things in life.
Thus, instead of being glad I have a tendency towards self-reflection, I detested it. It made me miserable. I wasn’t able to occupy myself from one thing and the next like the others do. I read and reflected a lot on philosophy.
This inner sense that something is not right with the general purpose in life (to work, earn and buy a home or get married) disturbed me.
I even rebelled against such a life cycle by wanting to be different. Unfortunately, I did not encounter Buddhist teachings till my 30s.
The Difference Between Humans and Animals
I was teaching a Buddhist class recently and shared how the contemplation of death can bring about a purpose in life. Based on the dhamma talk given by Ajahn Anan, he asked what is the purpose of life? He said if we ask this question, most people would not be able to answer. He added that most people live to fulfil their physical duties (work for food), eat and sleep. They repeat this cycle until the day they die. He asked, if this cycle of life is different from that of a chicken? A chicken too forages for food, eats and sleeps until it dies.
Until I encountered the Buddha’s mind training, I wished I had no self-awareness. What is the purpose of being aware of myself when I suffer pain and death? I’d rather not know. Moreover, my reflections were a torture more than a joy because others said I think too much.
But being able to be aware of the self, is what differentiates us from animals. It is also this quality that produces human intelligence.
Ajahn Anan continued to say, if we do not utilise our intelligence and mindfulness, we are no different from animals. His words made me thankful today that I have a sense of inner awareness.
The Purpose of Having Awareness
Why is having an inner sense of awareness considered having a jewel within? Without an inner awareness, we cannot embark on the path, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhism or even scientific inquiry to find out what we really are. Our lives would be buffeted endlessly by the vicissitudes of life while we strive over and over to find impermanent solutions that are outside of us.
Self-awareness is used to great heights in the teachings of the Buddha. One can realise the liberation of the mind through inner reflection, and probing into what makes up the self.
The self is made up of the mind and the body. Both the sensations of the body and mind are conditioned by the objects our senses come into contact with. The sensations arising from our contact with objects of our senses come and go and are impermanent.
Due to our wrong views that what we come into contact with are permanent, we cling. For example, someone may make a passing critical remark and we hold onto that remark as attacking our permanent self. We may feel insulted. This causes ill will to arise, even if the person who made that remark forgets about it entirely because s/he is not mindful. This is not to say we become doormats for people to be rude or to criticise us, but there is no need to hold on and hurt ourselves. We can simply inform that person and forget about it.
We neglect to see what we see as the self, is easily collapsible. The more we hold onto having a precious self, the more fear and ill will can arise. In today’s world, catching a virus such as Covid-19 can kill us. Taking the vaccine may also kill us. In fact, natural disasters can also easily kill us. We are unaware of our vulnerabilities. St. Teresa of Avila asked, why do we crave living so much when there are so many uncertainties? She was a Catholic Carmelite nun living in the 15th century and had several episodes of ill health that nearly took her life.
The Buddha taught us to build our self-awareness – the ability to be objectively aware by first quieting the mind through the practice of virtues and meditation.
With our awareness sharpened by these practices, we begin to see in our mind the constant flux of things – such as the impermanence of materials and our thoughts about them. Seeing the constant flux teaches the mind to let go instead of clinging onto things.
Ajahn Anan often extols in his talks that we never know when we will die. The body does not belong to us. Make use of the body we have towards the true purpose of life – to build treasures in our heart (the cultivation of the heart in love, compassion, joy and equanimity) with the path taught by the Buddha before we die. It is our unenlightened hearts which clings that go on, we cannot take the body or our material possessions with us upon death.
If you find yourself reflecting on your actions and values, you have a sense of self-awareness. Be glad that you have this jewel in your heart!
Cultivate and strengthen your self-awareness with meditation.
Utilise your awareness to look within to see a constant change in your mind and body and find out what you are.