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My Avatar Spiritual Experience

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 3, 2010

Susan suggested I write about personal stuff. She thought you’d like to hear about practical experiences, ways to connect with g0d. Well… there’s movies?

I’m sure a billion other bloggers are writing about Avatar as we speak. There’s good reason for this: It’s a great film. By “great”, I am not so much talking about plot, acting, dialogue, direction – though I don’t think it’s too shabby here either. I say Avatar is great because it’s rejuvenated the movie experience. It’s the first of the next gen cinema experience, imo [1].

Avatar, rated SAO (Spoiler Alert OK: Only contains minor spoilers). I took my 11 year-old son to Avatar, it’s a great age for this movie and I wanted to share the experience with him. It’s been quite some time since I walked into a movie theatre. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing film on the big screen. It’s a function of my recent poverty that has restricted me. It wasn’t unusual for me to see two films in the theatre per week at one point. I still watch around 4 films per week at home. (Thankyou BitTorrent.)

I knew very little about Avatar aside from the basic premise, I wanted to surprise myself. And surprised I was. Tears fell freely down my face at some points. Tears can be a sign of a spiritual experience I think. At this point my fellow agnostics and hardened atheists will be rolling their eyes. Yes I know we can put this down to emotionalism, and psychology. But this raises a very important question:

Just what IS a spiritual experience anyway? How would I know if I had one?

You’ve probably read of the recent studies of brains having religious experiences, specifically under deep meditation or prayer. At the very least, a spiritual experience would be something that activates that part of the brain. If spiritual experiences are merely a particular kind of brain experience akin to an emotion, then atheists can sleep easily at night. But this doesn’t cover all religious experiences. For example, a miraculous healing might affect my body but not activate that part of my brain. This would be because the external ‘spirit’ would be acting on my body, rather than me experiencing the numinous through prayer. I think we’ll have to return to this question in future posts, would you agree?

Why was I feeling this way in the cinema? Some feelings were romantic feelings – I’ve recently broken up with someone I love. She was special to me, and I was a fool. It made me yearn for something I’ve lost, something I hope for. Yeah, I’ll confess I’m hoping the alien sex scene is included in the DVD. Incidentally, having only seen Zoe Saldana as her N’avi character I didn’t realise – she’s hawt! I suspect the loss of something important and profound is a theme in many religions. Certainly this is so in the churchianity I grew up in: The loss of innocence, the breaking of the world, the loss of connection with a creator. More mystical churchians could also point to the divine romance between g0d and ourselves.

I had feelings of hope, of inspiration, feelings of injustice and pleasure at seeing justice restored. Can you “feel” spiritual experiences in a different way to emotions?

Avatar also hints at the possibility that some kind of “god” is real. Any human being with a heart not too bruised by cynicism would surely weep at that? The interesting thing in Avatar is there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the goddess. It evolves out of a kind of natural neural net covering the surface of the planet via tree roots. Once again, a ‘supernatural’ being that atheists could see as a pal. In a way it was kinda like Jung’s theory of the universal unconscious, but with a practical mechanism.

Another test: If it was a true spiritual experience, should it motivate me to social justice? This is indicated in the Christian New Testament

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

and by the Buddhist Monk I quote here

The ‘insights’ claimed by some who [allege spiritual experiences] should be tested against the difference which these experiences make to the forces of greed, aversion and delusion in their hearts and conduct.

I think Avatar reinforced my ideas around justice for minorities and native peoples, although I haven’t had that tested yet. Intriguingly, this is an area where there’s been criticism of Avatar. A New Zealand Maori academic says Avatar repeats “negative stereotypes” about indigenous people:

The head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, Rawiri Taonui, said Avatar addressed the impact of colonisation on indigenous people in an entertaining way, but relied on stereotypes.

“It was a great movie and had some progressive themes, but did it in a way that still repeated some stereotypes,” he said.

Taonui said the “rhythmic body swaying” of the indigenous people during a ceremony only appeared in “B-grade movies” and “just doesn’t happen in any indigenous population”.

There’s more at Stuff

Feminists with Disabilities makes some good points, and links to other criticisms of racism:

This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure.

Contra this, in their comments Anna says “I’m a wheelchair user and not only did I not find it offensive, I thought it was a much more accurate, positive portrayal of disability than any other film in recent times.”

I don’t think all spiritual experiences would necessarily drive one directly towards justice; I can conceive of valid experiences that are only internal. If you’re seeking a spiritual experience; perhaps a movie could be a gateway for you? I’ve already blogged a list of movies you can try. Completely off topic, but I can’t resist throwing in the very funny making of Avatar the bootleg. Anyone seen a bad, 2D version with camera shake yet?

It’s not just the liberals hating on Avatar either – Patrick Goldstein in The LA Times asks “Why do conservatives hate the most popular movie in years?”

As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can’t-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits — and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.

To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood’s John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it “a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises…. Think of ‘Avatar’ as ‘Death Wish’ for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America) you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all.”

There you go people, have at it. Meanwhile, I’m gonna be over here with the popcorn enjoying the movie, and possibly finding g0d.

Someone else took his 11 year-old son to the movies and came out with a Buddhist perspective on Avatar. “My 11 year old son … watched the movie with me and we both talked and talked about the movie. ‘Little Anthony’ said, “Dad this movie was just like Buddhism”. Not surprising, considering Mr Elmore is Buddhist. Everyone wants a piece of Avatar. (It seems appropriate to plug my article on the dark side of Buddhism here.)

Avatar also raises the question of the consciousness surviving death, and of soul transfer. The same day I saw Avatar I found out a high-school friend is dying of leukaemia. Coincidentally, he’s my own age, a born-again christian and a pastor. I visited him the day after, I hope to report back soon.

What do you think? Criticisms? Has there ever been a movie that spiritually moved you?

Here’s my follow up post.



listening to The Electric Six | Antisocial Sex Boy Hit Machine, Pitch Black (The New Zealand One!) | Ape to Angel (Blutech remix), Apoptygma Bezerk | Soultaker, Arch Enemy | God Dethroned
tful [2] A fun and funny way to help the planet
reading Appignanesi & Garratt | Introducing Postmodernism



[1] Yeah yeah, I know we can all point to similar films plot and genre-wise, and earlier 3D efforts. It’s because Avatar has done it so well, that I suggest it’s the first of the new generation cinema experience. The archetype, perhaps.

[2] Today’s Fun Unrelated Link

34 Responses to “My Avatar Spiritual Experience”

  1. I can’t comment on Avatar as I’m going to see it next week, but what I can comment on is having a “spritual” experience. I use quotations, because on reflection I’m pretty sure there’s not anything supernatural about this feeling. Often in the bush or outback I have had a sense of connectedness with the natural world, a moment of intense clarity about the connectedness of the universe, starting at a micro level and working up to the macro. I’m not sure if this is the same thing you are talking about in your blog, but for me it’s probably the most intense experience I’ve ever had without the use of substances. I can rationalise this as a chemical process within my brain and body, but the intense feeling of understanding that come with this is certainly powerful enought that, if felt by someone so predisposed, would be seen as evidence of a gOd.

    I’m not sure I really added anything to your conversation. Thanks for your post tho, and thanks also for not spoiling the movie for me! 😉

    • Thanks Martin, you did add helpfully to the conversation imo.

      All of our experiences are indeed “a chemical process within my brain and body” afaik. But maybe some of these experiences can correctly be called “spiritual”. Or maybe not.

      In replying, I’m starting to think spiritual experiences that are mere feelings prove little. We need proof from philosophy, history, science etc that there is a g0d or enlightened Buddhas or whatever. These experiences are still fun though, and a lot of people seek them. I’m gonna stop there before I ramble.

      It would be interesting to do similar experiments on you while in nature and see if the so-called “spiritual centres” in your brain were active, as in the research I mention above. This may well degrade your nature experience at the time 😉

  2. dan said

    Very cool.

    Is anything *not* a spiritual experience?

    Why do we tend to divide between ‘spritual’ and ‘non-spiritual’ isn’t it all ‘spiritual’? Can’t every single minute aspect of matter ( creation ) and our time in it BE a constant spiritual experince? Wether one recognizes it or not AS a spiritual experince doesn’t mean it isnt one.

    Perhaps the more aware of the spirit one is, the more one sees it in all things.

  3. Freeman said

    Dude. How do you have a body to have “a chemical process within my brain and body” in the first place? Materialism is such a hoot.

    • Oh, I don’t claim to be a materialist. At least, not all the time. That’s what being an open agnostic means to me. I’m willing to (critically) consider all comers.

      Are you meaning “what caused us to be here in the first place?”, matter from nothing, cosmological argument type thing?

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

    • dan said

      that’s not something that anyone can ever KNOW, but presume to know. At least with the whole “a chemical process within my brain and body” that’s pretty much ‘proven’ with science.

      The only other way someone could ever KNOW the beginning and how our bodies were formed was if they had some kind revelatory *experience* in which ‘god’ himself showed them how he did it. I dont count quotation of revelation that same as personal revelation.

    • dan said

      btw… Not sure I enjoy the comment “Materialism is such a hoot.” sounds patronizing to that person’s views ( More accuratley it really is your ‘view’ of their views ). However, If it is a view that person has I’ve learned it should be respected, not mocked or belittled. That’s a form of ad hominem.

      I believe ( and have learned ) that one should aim to keep things personally respectful at all times in philosophy/theology.

  4. Hahaha! US pioneer/colonial John Smith vs Avatar http://3.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kvp9pqvMaG1qzpcf6o1_500.jpg

  5. Avatar has hit 1 billion dollars in revenue in its first three weeks according to http://mashable.com/2010/01/04/avatar-billion Mashable asks whether Titanic will outdo the incumbent number one – ironically, Titanic, also by James Cameron.

    Here’s an edited version of my comment at Mashable, which I felt worth repeating here:

    I think Avatar has what it takes to be number one. (Is Titanic number one atm? Dayum James Cameron must be proud.) As I’ve reviewed, Avatar is the first of the next-gen cinema experiences, in spite of precedents.

    Yeah, I plan to see it again – not for the story, but to enjoy the 3D tech.

    The challenge of future 3D movies, like others that rely on special effects, is that soon these effects will become commonplace and audiences will demand good story and acting again. For example, Peter Jackson’s King Kong: Dazzling special effects couldn’t save a movie that was far too long and didn’t have enough story to carry us through 10 minute Kong versus dino sequences. Also compare Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park with their sequels. Whoops, weren’t they by James Cameron too?

  6. dan said

    I missed the part where you spoke of tears.

    Only you know if that was spiritual. If you say it was, I’m inclined to believe you. My wife and I had this discussion last night…”how can one person tell another their experience was NOT spiritual?”.

    Even if its just that you ‘think’ it was and is really only emotionalism. Because you think it was spiritual, then it is afaic because you’ve converted what to some is only emotion into a spiritual experience. Maybe the same can be said of anything material…. its what you as a spiritual being BRING to it.

    • “Because you think it was spiritual, then it is afaic because you’ve converted what to some is only emotion into a spiritual experience”

      I think this is a great point Dan, thankyou.

      • dan said

        Yah man, perhaps like most things can be spiritual if you create them to be. This has implications for my views on mind altering substances too…. that one might bring an experience to them rather than vice versa, however sometimes you need a jackhammer where conditioned patternized thinking has solidified. Once that has been cracked one may be open to subtler things.

      • dan said

        ideally we would all be open to subtle manifestations of spirit, but perhaps because of life tragedies / cirumstance there could be ‘spiritually blockages’ that only a certain combination of matter/spirituality may unlock for that person.

        Or it may be a case where someone needs to reject something in order to really see what its about from a fresh perspective. Kind of like a ‘reset’ button. Or a rebuilding of a crooked house… first the old must be torn down kind of thing.

        This is why I don’t presume to know anything about another and what is right / wrong spiritually for them. That would sort of me trying to limit another based on my own understanding of life and spirituality, which really doesn’t seem right.

        I think everyone is spiritual and can teach us given the chance. But if we cut them off how can we learn and they see it in themselves?

  7. dan said

    – You know, I think the other’s spirituality is just much OUR responsibility as it is theirs. We must encourage growth and help the other to grow… for the other is ourselves ( in a sense ).

    So we can’t look down on another and say ‘they are not spiritual’ – to that I would respond ‘What have you done to help them be more spiritual?’ – Judgement and condemnation is not help. Encouragement to see what is buried underneath the surface would be I think.

    PS- Sorry I keep posting all over your blog. Just a lot of ideas flowing right now.

    • dan said

      Its as if there is this spirit of division in the air.

      It can manifest itself through anything ( religion, politics, race, hair colour, eye colour etc etc )…. this spirit of division is what motivates people to seek out ways to seperate each from the other…. to divide… to focus on discrepanices rather than commonalities.

      its like we are all in pieces ravaging each other, rather than really communing as one.

      • dan said

        Yes, a spirit of division even seeks to divide the I against itself. For if the I does not know the self there can be no union with others let alone harmony within the self.

  8. Hi Jonathan!

    Thanks for your even-handed and emotionally open break down of the movie. I haven’t seen it. My fundamentalist Christian friends have had fairly predictable reactions to it but almost everyone has said that it’s an amazing visual spectacle to behold.

    I believe that films like Avatar (what I’ve heard about it so far, anyway) are signals that humanity is moving and active in its own effort to evolve. Even stuff that is hackneyed or inaccurate is fine if the underlying motive is a sometimes inexpressible desire to break free from what Gary Zukav calls a five-sensory experience and into a multi-sensory state.

    thanks, Jonathan.


  9. aj said

    interesting on the maori response. thanks for a great response

  10. Any movie that creates so much discussion has to be striking “a nerve” in people. Isn’t that the goal? When someone tells me that they like or dislike a movie, I always ask them “why”.
    Whether a movie experience is spiritual or not, it is certainly a personal for the viewer. As you said, what you bring with you internally to the theater will make a difference in how you view and rate the movie content.

    Enjoyed your post.

  11. Nicki said

    I think I can imagine up a spiritual experience. When I was some kind of animist witch of some kind or another, I would sit in a park behind my flat and feel the power fows from the trees and rocks and earth. I can still turn on that sense. Is that a spiritual experience? Maybe. Is it real? I’m unsure. I can feel trees calling. Maybe I’m crazy.

    I was once invited to a youth penticostal church gathering with dipping for marbles in the baptism pool and the lads played and they had a big prayer session. I could feel the ‘faith’ around me like it was a real thing. I did not believe in what they believed in but I definitly felt a ‘power’ in that faith. It was unnerving and felt misguided. It made my skin itch. It did not feel like a good thing, it was stifling and I could see how all these young people were being sucked into it. I think that was a spiritual experience, or maybe I was an observer of spiritual experience??

    When I was a kid I had this dream when staying over at my grandmothers. I was floating up near the cealing and sitting on a high shelf when I hurd this awful voice, which could only be the devil, telling me to get out. I was cast down and woke terrified with a thump on the bed. Just a dream, but it reflected my christian spirituality when I was a believer.

    Lastly I thought I saw some ghosts in the Karori cemetary- it was a wedding party. Maybe my brain made it up but I have never seen such a thing since – definitly a spiritual experience in that I saw spirits (or what I assumed was). It was very vivid and felt very real. Seems a bit cleche though to see ghosts in a cemetary, I would imagine it would be the last place I would hang out in if I were a ghost. If I were a ghost I think I would spend more time in other people’s showers. Now that would be a holy experience indeed.

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  15. I gotta admit: I didn’t like Avatar. Then again, I didn’t expect to. The story wasn’t my thing, and between the Playboy interview about how non-placental mammals need boobs for sexiness ( http://defamer.gawker.com/5403302/james-cameron-reveals-his-quest-to-build-more-perfect-cgi-boobs ), and for all the Na’vi being played by actors of color, while all the main human characters were white… it irked me.

    As far as spiritual experiences go… I dunno. I easily understand being a part of something bigger than yourself: hello, system! It’s why I’ve got a stuffed animal on the bed and a dress in the closet. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had that “hit by lightning” moment of spirituality, definitely not from a movie. Maybe when Mac first kissed me and I realized that I WASN’T as ruined romantically as I thought, but that was more of a massive mindfuck than spirituality, I’d say.


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  19. I found it entertaining, but the story ideas are nothing new.

    I’d like to see it in IMAX.

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