This is a special moment… in the first ever MindThatEgo Podcast, I’m delighted to be joined by a very special guest, Dr. Roger Walsh, Professor of Psychiatry, Philosophy & Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.
Roger has spent three decades researching wellbeing, combined with deep spiritual practice and self-exploration. Roger’s writing has earned him numerous international awards. His book — Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices — is the topic of this discussion. It’s not an understatement to say this book changed my life, transforming my perspective on the world, inner and outer.
Roger’s transformative work has extensively uncovered useable tools all of us can practice to open us to new ways of living. These tools, thousands of years old yet more relevant than ever, can help uncover our true potential, transforming our inner-universe into an abundant landscape of analysis and learning.
Far from dogmatic religion, this is livable, life-changing, state-enhancing spirituality.
Talking points include:
What is the true source of happiness?
How can spirituality prepare us for death?
The role of psychedelics as a glimpse of our spiritual potential.
Can depression and anxiety be a gateway to spiritual awakening?
Spiritual practice as a means of connection and oneness.
Joyfully serving others as enlightened self-interest.
A special thank you to Roger for not only generously giving his time, but also sharing deep personal insights with sensitivity and kindness. This conversation will stay with me for life; I hope it contains value for you too. Enjoy.
The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.
In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.
Buddhism And Body Image
Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.
The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.
Separation #1: Worth From Appearance
“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh
Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.
Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectualacknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”
To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”
Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.
The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.
The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.
“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.
How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.
The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.
I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.
Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification
“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future
In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:
Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.
From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.
I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.
The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.
Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.
Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts
“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta
Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:
All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.
One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).
Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics
Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.
Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.
Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.
That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.
A final word
Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.
This post isn’t planned or researched. No notes jotted, no research saturated in neon highlighter ink, no books reread. I have no idea how I’ll do such an elaborate topic justice, but could I ever do this topic justice, really? It’s humanity’s greatest question, a question that divides, incites, reassures, and ignites, and will never be succinctly answered in this world: does God exist? And if so, what is its nature? The only way to address the topic is through my experience.
Let me begin by immediately addressing the thorn-crown-wearing-elephant-in-the-room. I appreciate the word alone, God, sparks an immediate, visceral response. When I talk of God, I don’t mean an entity, a bearded being in the sky. I don’t mean the societal construct of God, derived from the often dogmatic, power-controlling structures of organised religion. No, God is the term I use to describe the universal, conscious energy behind all matter.
God In The Paradigm Of Thought
Trying to understand God in the paradigm of thought is like measuring temperature with one of those flexible rulers everyone had at secondary school; it’s not an appropriate tool. Conceptualising God on the level of thinking leads to the requirement of belief. Rationally weighing up the arguments for and against God’s existence takes belief to come to the conclusion “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist.” I see belief as required when attempting intellectual, thought-based understanding of the metaphysical — where there is a lack of evidence. Belief by this definition is the mental process of rationalising a concept.
This isn’t exclusive to God or the meaning of life. Most of us, myself included, spend a huge amount of time not perceiving reality as is, but filtering external stimuli to best fit the mind-made constructs about how the world should be. We conceptualise on a daily basis thanks to the power and frequency of thought. Our experience is subjective, playing second fiddle to the 70,000 thoughts rattling around the brain and the kaleidoscopic variety of emotions running through the body. The likes, dislikes, judgements, preconceived ideas, limiting beliefs, so on. Combined, this is what Buddhists call Māyā — the illusion.
Contemporary religions* filter spirituality and the metaphysical through the same process, creating a construct of what, or how, God should be. My aversion to this construct made me a staunch, unashamed atheist. I had absolutely no belief in what I was told the nature of God was. It didn’t work for me, or make any sense, especially when compared to the rationality of science. My attempt at thinking my way into the realm of God left me with one definitive answer — it’s all bullshit.
* As a side note, at their essence, all religions tend to agree on the central ideas of what God is, the same message portrayed in differing metaphor.
Moving From Intellect To Experience
Unfortunately, the “it’s all bullshit” mindset didn’t work out for me. All of us have an innate craving to connect to something bigger than ourselves. A lack of this connection leads to many afflictions, for me a pervasive and inescapable depression. The “it’s all bullshit” motto led me to attempt to satiate the craving of connection in the material world, in external pleasures, fleeting fulfilment and chemical highs. But I was coming up short. The intellectual conclusion, “it’s all bullshit,” clearly wasn’t serving me.
But what happens when we move from the intellect to a place of direct experience? This occurred, unwittingly, when I started meditating. At its most basic level, meditation is a way of stepping back from our thoughts and feelings by focusing elsewhere, typically on the breath. In doing so, we access the place behind thoughts and feelings. When the thinking mind’s vice-like grip relaxes, an inner peace and tranquility can be experienced. In essence, meditation moves us from the realm of concept to the realm of experience.
It’s a liberating place to be. It’s a place where all of the concepts we have about ourselves, the world, and the universe we exist in, dissolve, like snow melting in the blazing sunshine of pure awareness. Peculiarly, my atheistic, “it’s all bullshit” construct melted with it. I moved beyond the place where I rationalised there was no such thing, to a place of direct experience in union with a higher power (I promise you I try my best to avoid phrases like “union with a higher power” but, sometimes, they can’t be avoided).
Beautifully, that higher power was an enhanced and unblemished version of an energy I’d experienced before — love.
The Direct Experience of God
Before I continue, I want to be crystal clear that in describing God, I’m attempting to define the realm of experience within the realm of concept, using language, an inadequate tool. It’s like trying to ctrl + c the binary code of a video game into notepad, hoping to play the game but faced with an abundance of 0s and 1s. The fabric of direct experience is too grandiose for language. But here goes…
To experience God is to experience a presence, a pureness, an awareness. It is to experience a divine link to a dimension beyond the ego and the material, a dimension so assured and righteous, it cannot be explained by knowledge. In moments of clarity, submerged in lukewarm lucidity, a peaceful, palpable sensation is experienced, like jacking into a direct IV drip of love in its undiluted form, “the good shit.”
I want to add an important caveat: throughout the process of my, uhum, “spiritual journey,” my experience has always preceded any attempt to rationalise or understand. But the beauty is, when looking for explanation, I realised how universal and common such experiences are. These shared qualities are at the core of all religions, not just those originating in the East. During a time before long-distance travel or communication, many separate communities shared the same experience, and drew the same conclusions.
Challenging The Concept of Love
I touch on unconditional love in deconstructing the myth of romantic love. Spiritual practice has given me access to the unlimited source of love that doesn’t require an intellectual deconstruction to be validated. It just is. But how does this atheist go from experiencing love during meditation, to the conclusion love is the universal force behind everything?
Well love is universal. Every so often, outside of our control, we see through the veil of Māyā. Removed from the mind’s filter, the celestial sacredness of the world around us is experienced. It rises to the surface in the moments we can’t quite describe, an inextricable beauty, a place beyond the mind, beyond language: staring into our beloved’s eyes, mesmerised by a sunset, a last-minute Wembley winner, a moment of unexpected compassion or shared humanity, or a moment of spontaneous appreciation. These are glimpses of the world’s sacred nature and our place in it.
“God is love” sounds like a fridge magnet you’d find in any respectable retail outlet in Glastonbury during the summer solstice, but that’s the downside of tackling this topic with language. Language is an immensely valuable tool but it can never describe the spiritual experience adequately. The great spiritual teachers are able to write in a way that instead pokes and prods the smouldering ember within you, the place where you just know these things to be true, as if a pool of knowledge lurks deep within the self, and all you have to do is abseil down to bathe in it. But they can never describe the experience. That’s for us to discover by ourselves.
There’s also the risk that, rather than poking and prodding the smouldering ember, words, sentences and beliefs will form a semantic shield, blocking the openness required for direct experience.
Approaching The Universe With Humility
“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan.
I find great solace in the sweet spot between the direct experience of spirituality, and our understanding of how the material universe operates. In this respect, science, and in particular quantum physics, can be a highly spiritual pursuit — but it requires humility. What we don’t know is just as important as what we know. We know the evolution of the cosmos, from atom to expansive universe, came from the same source. We know through thermodynamics that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and all the energy within the universe is all that ever has been, a message religions have echoed in metaphor for millenia.
Further still, it’s exciting to see slightly outlandish theories beginning to gain credibility. This includes panpsychism, the theory that everything in the material world, down to an individual atom, has some form of consciousness, mirroring the spiritual notion of a universal consciousness behind all matter. In his theory of biocentrism, highly respected scientist Robert Lanza’s proposes life itself creates the universe, not the other way around; congruent with ideas such as manifestation. Shit like this gives me chills, and the beauty is, it completely fits with spirituality.
As well as the poetic quote above, Carl Sagan also once said we are “atoms contemplating atoms.” Indeed we are, and that in itself is a miracle. But what’s the mystery behind those atoms? If God is love, love is the unseen energy behind contemplating atoms, the universal, conscious, nurturing force behind all matter, responsible for the creation, expansion, evolution. And it’s here, ready for you to experience, to distill into your life, to give you the connection so often sought in the material world, to provide you with new meaning.
It did for me, and it sure beats “it’s all bullshit.”
Like a perfect storm, mother! is chaos. It drags you from your seat, punches you in the face, grabs you by the shoulders and shakes, leaving you with an emotional palette that mixes feelings of disgust, awe, and astonishment. It is, essentially, a masterpiece. But it’s a masterpiece only Darren Aronofsky can make, technically accomplished on the surface but elevated to greatness by its context.
Huge spoilers for mother! from now on.
It’s not a surprise that analysis has delved into metaphor. Outwardly, mother! is a dark psychological horror that tells the story of a couple, known as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) whose quiet, isolated home life is disrupted by mysterious visitors, known simply as Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Behind the veil, the film is a metaphorical representation of mankind’s most deep-rooted religious parables. Following the spiritual dive into the metaphysical with The Fountain (2006) and an exploration into the Book of Genesis with Noah (2014), mother! is Aronofsky’s attempt to produce an allegory of Christianity, and in particular, the biblical tale of creation.
Bustle has eloquently analysed the biblical correlations in mother!, highlighting the film as a condensed history of Earth told through the doctrine of Christianity, ending tragically with the forewarned apocalypse. The links aren’t all ambiguous, either. Mother is a representation of mother nature. Him is the masculine, Judeo-Christian god. Man and Woman are Adam and Eve, their feuding sons Cain and Abel.
As frantically manic as it is, the plot also follows a biblical trajectory. At its core, it becomes a story of man destroying Earth against mother nature’s wishes. People pay the house no respect, they do as they please, they take renovation under their own control. The ignorance of those unwanted visitors leads a broken sink, which floods the house in a clear reference to the Genesis flood, where God reverses creation by turning the Earth into a flooded wasteland.
In an oddly niche mother! based Inception, I’m going to dive even deeper down the parabolic rabbit hole and look at the meaning behind the parable behind the allegory. Having digested Aronofsky’s work, I don’t think mother! is a straight up, like-for-like metaphor for Christianity. I believe it contains commentary on the belief system that underpins religious doctrine. Now, let’s metaphorically peel back the blood-soaked floorboards.
The Distinction Between Religion And Spirituality
Before we go on, it’s important to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. The former can be see as dogma, a set of held beliefs that are taught in a structured way. The definition itself is: “a particular system of faith and worship” — emphasis on particularsystem. Spirituality, on the other hand, is more open, encompassing a belief or experience with the metaphysical, or the soul. It isn’t assigned a set God, it doesn’t follow rules. It’s religion in its distilled state.
All religions, at their core state, generally agree on the same principles. They just package them in different ways. In his book, Essential Spirituality, Dr. Roger Walsh identifies seven central spiritual practices across all religions: finding the soul’s desire; cultivating wisdom; living ethically; calming the mind; recognizing the sacred in all things; awakening wisdom and understanding; expressing generosity and service.
Another facet of spirituality is the conflict between the ego and the soul. The ego is a manifestation of the thinking mind, the barrier blocking our soul’s true desire and the discovery of God. For many Eastern religions, our true selves lie in the quiet clarity that sits beyond the mind’s “chatterbox” nature — the part of ourselves that resides beyond the thinking mind (i.e., the part of you that is aware of your thoughts) is awareness. While the ego sees itself as separate entity cut off from the world, our true selves tap into a universal, interconnected consciousness.
What on Earth does this have to do with mother!? By viewing the film through the lens of essential spirituality, it leads us to a new set of comparisons, that provides further understanding of the message behind it — Him is a manifestation of the ego, Her is awareness.
“I Am I” — Is Him A Manifestation Of The Ego?
While watching mother!, there was one particular comment that caught my attention. After she has destroyed the home to rid the unwanted guests, Mother is dying in His arms. She asks him, “who are you?” to which he responds, “I am I.” This statement is crucial. The ego is often referred to as a false sense of a separate self, a set of belief systems separate from the soul that sees itself as an “I.” By referring to himself as “I,” Bardem’s character reveals he isn’t God, but masculine, man-made representation of God.
There’s more evidence of this. The seven deadly sins on the surface appear to be rigid religious doctrine on “how not to have fun.” Instead, they highlight the different desires of the ego, “sins” in the respect that they remove oneself from the soul, or true being. Him is clearly captivated by a number of these sins, most of all pride. His attraction to fame and adulation takes him away from his soul, Her. It becomes an obsession that leads to him neglecting the most important thing he has.
This is also reflected with the visitors, who can be seen as challenges that entice the ego, to lure it into false fulfilment, away from the enlightenment that lies within the soul. In many ways, the visitors are manifestations of such ego-desires, or sins; they act freely without inhibitions, they fornicate, they steal, they crave salvation. Interestingly, in mother!, celebrity worship replaces religious deity, a nod toward fame being an ego-driven, modern substitute for God.
When Mother gives birth she introduces the purist element of the film. The newborn has no ego, no doctrine, no religion. It’s essence is spiritually free, explaining why many eastern religions advocate the need to “be more like children.” However, the ego-driven hoards can’t handle purity, they literally devour it, their own craving causing the death of the untainted.
Bardem’s character shows signs of gluttony (often referred to as a sign of selfishness), greed (in the manner he seeks adulation), despondency (his struggle with writer’s block) and wrath (his outburst of anger). As an interesting side note, Mother takes on the role of temptress for Him to commit the two final sins — she provokes him into seducing her (lust) and doesn’t let him hold their newborn child (envy) — thus completing the set and potentially unveiling the film’s true message.
Is Mother The Divine Feminine?
On top of testing Him’s ability to show restraint and avoid sin, there are more signs that Mother is ushering Him toward enlightenment. After supporting him through writer’s block, she cries as she reads his finished poem. In that moment, she believes, having attained his goal, Him may be close to enlightenment and overcoming his ego-driven desire (“will I lose you?”). However, he immediately informs his publisher and the press, seeking fame. Mother realises, to her disappointment, his work has become another extension of his ego.
This leads me onto the crux of this article. I don’t believe Him is God. In fact, there’s enough to suggest Mother is God, or at least the true divinity of the film. At the end, we’re shown that the Him is masculine God, the creator. He takes pride in his creation. He takes pride in the fact that he remains, while Mother does not. But out of the two, it’s Mother who acts Godlike. She surrenders, wholly. Despite everything, she gives her heart, her essence, to allow Him to continue. This leads me to a biblical quote, Galatians 2:20, which states:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Herself up for me.”
This text, it’s the Son of God who surrenders, and gives “Himself” (I’ve switch the gender pronoun for clarity), so it is no longer “I” who lives. In a biblical bait-and-switch, I believe that Aronofsky is making a claim that the divine feminine is God, and man’s masculine creation only “thinks” he is God — but as explained, thinking is a manifestation of the ego. If this is the case, the ending takes an interesting twist.
Him makes out Mother didn’t live up to his high expectations, but instead he’s the one being tested, and failing. Like Sisyphus, he’s forced into repetition until he learns his lesson. What’s the lesson? To avoid the cycle of destruction, “I” (Him) must transcend his ego to become connected with being, or pure awareness (symbolised by the poem which shows them connected, holding hands). In short: Him is responsible for attaining enlightenment to prevent the cycle of egoistic living and thus become one with God — “You never loved me, you loved how much I loved you,” says Mother.
The question is: Is there a basis in reality to motivate Aronofsky to pursue this as a story?
The Suppressed Sacred Femininity
Unequivocally yes. Divine femininity has been seriously suppressed, throughout centuries. As highlighted by spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, the Holy Inquisition — an institution founded by the Catholic Church — tortured and killed between three million and five million women across a 300 year period. Conversely, pre-Christian civilizations such as Sumerian, Egyptian and Celtic societies, revered and worshipped the divine female. The Holy Inquisition rebranded sacred femininity, making it demonic.
Why? As highlighted by Tolle in A New Earth, sacred femininity was rebranded due to collective ego desires taking control. Tolle argues females are more in touch with the soul, thus the ego takes a stronger hold in men. Historically, as the collective ego grew, dogma and fear-based religion was introduced. In order to flourish, the enlightened form of spirituality, in its feminine form, was censored and silenced.
Tolle adds that as a result, women were pushed to the sidelines, reduced to child bearers and objects owned by men. We see this in mother! — throughout the film, Lawrence is seen as an object of Him, her hospitality and life-giving qualities are overlooked. When Mother fulfils her child bearing purpose, she knows immediately. In that scene, the camera focuses on the sun, shining brightly. This could be an illustration of good weather…
Or, in a parable of a parable, a film abundant in metaphor and deeper meaning, it’s more likely the sun represents something else — the Son of God.
In 1922 Albert Einstein wrote a note on how to live a happy life. It said: “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” That note recently sold at auction for $1.56 million. Einstein’s note subtly hints that attachment prevents us from being happy, and non-attachment brings joy. Here’s why.
All of us have varying levels of attachment to desired outcomes or to life situations. Attachment is a buzzword that pinpoints the cause of suffering. To define attachment, Buddhist philosophy is a good place to start. In particular, the Four Noble Truths, which are:
Dukkha (life is full of suffering)
Samudāya (the origin of suffering is attachment)
Nirodha (we can be liberated from such suffering)
Magga (there is a path that can be followed to be liberated from suffering)
I won’t go in-depth on the intricacies of the Noble Truths here, as they’ve been covered elsewhere. However, it’s important to acknowledge how Buddhist philosophy highlights the conflict in seeking and craving pleasure in the outside world. The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is tanhā, which translates to desire, craving or (that word again) attachment. Unfortunately, craving pleasure from physical senses (food, sex, alcohol) is destined to fail as it only brings short-lived happiness. It lacks true meaning, true purpose. Or in Einstein’s words, the pursuit of what we crave is bound with unrest.
Interestingly, attachment also applies to things we see as positive. Maybe it’s our health, our iPhone, our partner. We catch colds, break bones, drop our phones down the toilet and argue (or worse still, break up with) our partners. For sake of simplicity, let’s call these attachment to current positives. It’s the deep-rooted sense of “I like x now, I don’t want it to change.” The trouble is, everything changes (more on impermanence later) and the more attached you become to good things, the more you suffer when they change. Which they will. Always.
The Influence Of Buddhism On Psychotherapy
Before moving on to non-attachment (or nirvana in Buddhism) it’s important to note that the principles above also provide the building blocks for the scientific approach to psychology. For example, meditation master Chögyam Trungpa identified in his 1975 book Glimpses of Abhidharma just how influential Buddhism has been to psychotherapy:
“Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma [ancient Buddhist texts] coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom.”
Many well-respected thinkers of Western psychology agree. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung wrote a 30-page foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a popular form of talking therapy in the West, aims to restructure the mind. Further still, a branch of CBT, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, takes huge inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry even identifies the Buddha as a “unique psychotherapist.”
How To Practice Non-Attachment
A statement I’ll end up repeating a lot on Mind That Ego: the moment you become aware of a specific behaviour or habit is the moment that sparks change. As soon as you realise your own personal relationship to attachment, you can apply clarity to it to help it reduce its hold. In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh identifies four exercises in non-attachment to reduce craving. These are:
Recognise pain as feedback. This is the first point of awareness, as mentioned above. It’s the acknowledgement that the pain or suffering you are feeling isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of attachments and cravings.
Examine the experience of craving. This exercise has deep roots in mindfulness. Walsh highlights that often when we think about our cravings, we pay attention to what we are trying to get (cake, a new car, that last Rolo) and not the sensation of craving itself.
Reflect on the costs of craving. We all need motivation now and again, and what better motivation than giving some consideration to how such attachments are influencing our lives? Especially a process that uses energy and keeps us in an unhappy loop of seek, find, seek, find.
Recognise underlying thoughts and beliefs. I mention CBT above, which is relevant to this exercise. CBT therapy focuses on changing our thought patterns and beliefs. This technique can also be applied to our particular attachments, our “I’ll be happy whens.” If we crave money our primary thought is more than likely: “I’ll be happy when I have made more money.” Dig deeper, and you might find thoughts linked to self-esteem (“I need to earn x per year to be a valuable person”) or even comparison and jealousy (“my friend earns x, I should earn the same”).
If Spirituality Means Giving Up Everything Fun, Why Bother?
Most of us like a cheeky beer, splashing out on new clothes or having sex (probably not at the same time). Here’s the good news — you don’t have to give them up. I’m a huge believer in moderation, and in the right dose, all of the pleasures we physically seek can be indulged now and again. The key, though, is to make sure that process of seeking doesn’t become interlinked with a sense of craving. When you feel you need any of these things to be happy, that’s when it’s a problem.
When you practice non-attachment and finding self-fulfilment in “the now,” you won’t need to seek more money, more sex or more alcohol. That means you’re the one in control, choosing to divulge when necessary. Curiously, once this relationship has changed from attachment to non-attachment, behaviour soon follows, almost out of our conscious control. You might no longer feel the need to drink or binge-eat or whatever your attachments are.
In fact, you may start to live a quiet and modest life, full of joy.