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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Maya At The Movies

As participators in the creative, transformative power of the imagination, we make our own illusory reality, "mini-maya" through visual arts media such as such as television, film, and theatre. We are extremely skilled at creating these illusory realities. When we are involved with these, either as spectators or as performers, we can sometimes get very engaged and forget that these illusions are not real.

Just as we are able to have different experiences that seem real at the time when we are involved with these media, imagining ourselves to be having the experiences we see on the stage or screen, so too, the Divine is able, by devolving and becoming involved to experience itself as us, in a multitude of different individual roles, intrigues, adventures, dramas, comedies, and tragedies.

And it does not stop there, for the Divine is not only limited to the human realm andcan experience all of creation. Consciousness evolves through getting to experience itself as everything. This is the true Cosmic Game, as we have seen. Goswami (2001a, lecture) compares our experience in relation to the experience of the Divine, by saying “we are all little eyes in the big I of Consciousness.”

Rilke’s poem “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight” captures the idea of the Divine learning through us.

Just as the winged energy of delight

carried you over many chasms early on,

now raise the daringly imagined arch

holding up the astounding bridges.

Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing

living through and defeat of danger;

miracles become miracles in the clear

achievement that is earned.

To work with things is not hubris

when building the association between words:

denser and denser the pattern becomes—

being carried along is not enough..

Take your well-disciplined strengths

and stretch them between two

opposing poles. Because inside human beings

is where God learns. (Rilke, 1924/1992b, p. 236)


Grof (1998a) explains that “theater, film and television are artificially created illusory representations of reality.” They are a ". . . frequent source of metaphoric images that people who have experienced holotropic states use in describing the process of creation” (p. 66). This has been my experience as well, and I have frequently experienced movie parallels or flashes from movies in my holotropic sessions. The ancient Hindus also used theatrical analogies. The Sivasutras of India, contain a series of Sutras that use the simile of the actor/dancer (which are the same in Indian theatre). All of the terms have a double meaning, with both a yogic and a technical theatrical significance (Baümer, 1995). For example:

O Siva, you have produced the drama of the three worlds containing the real seed of all creation and the germ within it. Having performed its prelude, is there any other artist but you who is capable of bringing it to its conclusion?” (p. 39)

Baümer tells us that Siva, a.k.a. Shiva, is the artist, both the author and stage director of the universal drama in which he is also the actor. The senses are seen as the spectators and the individual soul is the stage. The jivamukta is the liberated one who is able to realize his identity with the Divine and sees the multiplicity of the universe as a divine play, thus experiencing the revealing effect of maya. The liberated one “views the entire world as the play of the Self, identical with Siva” (Baümer, 1995, p. 40).

Grof (1998a), like the Hindu sages, uses analogies to movies and virtual reality on several occasions to explicate the “Cosmic Game.” I see no reason no break with tradition, so I will do the same, not only in this chapter, but also in the “Kaleidoscope of Culture” section, using movies and other virtual realities as ways of seeing through to cosmic play. So, to begin and give a Hollywood face to the whole project we will turn to the movie Zoolander, starring Ben Stiller, which Stiller (2001) also co-wrote, directed, and produced. All of the characters in the movie originated in one creative mind—Stiller’s, and even though Stiller wrote the screenplay, when he is an actor he goes by the script as he temporarily identifies with the character he is playing, Derek Zoolander, an idiotic male model. Grof (1998a) reminds us that similarly in the divine play, we are both creator and actor. “A full and realistic enactment of our role in the cosmic drama requires the suspension of our true identity. We have to forget our authorship and follow the script” (p. 67)

Behind the Scenes

Now let us go behind the scenes and see how this divine play works. As previously discussed, the Divine projects itself through the magic of maya to create the world. In the movies and depth psychology, both born at the turn of the Twentieth Century, projection plays an important role. The concept of projection in psychology refers to seeing something outside of oneself that is in actuality also within oneself, which one does not recognize. Projection can be either positive or negative. With negative projection, disowned qualities in oneself, that are seen in another person tend to make the projecting person angry, irritated or judgmental—this quality about other person bothers the person who is projecting. Whereas in positive projection, unrecognized positive qualities are displaced onto another person and that other person is seen to possess something that the person doing the projecting does not see in him or herself, in other words, we think it is them, but it is really us, too.

In the movies, projection comes into play in two ways, technically, which we will discuss in a moment, but also in our experience of the movie, where, through our imaginations, we project ourselves into the experience. Grof (1998a) explicates:

The intention of the moviemakers is to create a reasonable facsimile a “make-believe” version, of material reality. They use all the available means necessary to achieve this goal. It is usually very easy for spectators to imagine that the scenes unfolding on the screen represent real events in the material world. In some instances, the impact of a movie on some spectators can be so strong that they respond to it emotionally as if it were real. This happens in spite of the fact that they know intellectually that what they are watching is nothing but a play of electromagnetic waves of different frequencies within a single undivided field of light. (pp. 73-74)

But this is just the process of watching the movie. We need to look further behind the scenes to actually find out what is going on, as the process is much more involved, and what we see up on the screen is an illusion in many different ways.

Flickering Images—The Play of Light

Lila, as we have seen, has its roots in flickering movement, and so it seems to be no accident that lila shares this in common with modern moviemaking. To the Vedic seers, the world was:

a place of wonder, of amazement, of puzzlement; it was a shimmering, almost translucent world, which at once, veiled and revealed hidden subtle forces that, though their effects could be known initially through the senses, finally transcended the empirical realms . . . . this world was . . . a universe of sparkling light and energy, glimmering with creative power and splendor, and shining with transformative potential brilliance. (Mahony, 1998, p. 17)

Light was especially important to the Vedic seers and indeed the ultimate goal was enlightenment. As we have seen, the Indo-European root for divine, dyeu, means to shine, and the root for lila, lelay means to flicker, and so both light and its play were divine.

Since it was through the illuminative power of light that objects were known to exist, all things therefore were seen to consist of light: the light of the sun revealed the objects on Earth as much as it revealed the sun itself; physical objects were, to these seers crystallized light. In a sense, therefore, sublime light was the universal essence of every and all particular things . . . . As the universal essence and creator of everything, light was seen to be equivalent to being itself, and thereby to truth. To perceive light was thus to gain knowledge of reality itself: this was revealed by the play of light. The universe as a whole glowed with the inner creative power of light, which suffused and gave being to all things. Since creative light played on the many surfaces and forms it created, the world as a whole was a world of play; it was a cosmic game, a universal riddle, the meaning of which few could understand. (Mahony, 1998, p. 18)

We create our movie-magic through flickering light as well. What we experience as a movie is a series of moving pictures on a strip of celluloid through which a powerful light source is projected. The moving pictures are, in actuality, many still pictures that go by rather quickly (24 frames per second). What we experience as continuous movement when seen up on the screen, are in fact discrete and discontinuous images. The strip of film determines the forms and colors we see, while the soundtrack is encoded on a magnetic tape, which we hear through speakers placed throughout the theatre. Grof (1998a) notes that this is reminiscent of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, and also is similar to insights from the East:

According to Tibetan Buddhism, reality is radically discontinuous. The world is constantly flashing in and out of existence, being dissolved and recreated from one moment to another. Similarly, we ourselves do not have continuous existence, from birth to death, but die and are reborn all the time. (pp. 75-76)

What we see on the screen while watching a movie is a story in which different actors have different experiences, which have is no independent reality. The film is made up of bits and pieces of different things, often what we see on film does not even exist at all in the phenomenal world. For example in the case of actors acting in front of blue or green screens, the backgrounds and other special effects are computer-generated and added in later. A recent film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Conran, 2004) was filmed entirely using this blue screen technique, everything was computer generated except for the actors!

If we go to a horror movie, we expect to be scared, while with an action-adventure film we expect to be on the edge of our seats and at a comedy we expect to laugh. The whole intent of the movie is to provide a certain experience to the audience and the audience willingly pays to have this particular experience. This is the whole idea behind genres and also the typecasting of actors. What we are really watching, Grof (1998a) reminds us, are “actually various aspects of one and the same undivided field of light,” even though they look like different people. He says that “in a certain sense, the protagonists and the drama do not exist at all, or they exist and do not exist at the same time.” Thus we can “interpret our perceptions as a complex real life drama or realize that we are witnessing a dance of electromagnetic and acoustic waves of various frequencies that are carefully orchestrated and synchronized for a specific effect” (pp. 126-127). We usually decide to do the former, we treat the movie experience as if it were real, even though we know on another level it is not. Now that we have got a feel for the smoke and mirrors of maya, we will go behind the scenes of creation itself to see . . . .


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