Zen and the Art of Movie Watching

I am a Star Wars fan—a HUGE Star Wars fan.

I’ve seen each of the movies dozens of times, yes, even the prequels. I have learned to accept Jar Jar Binks as part of canon. I was very excited to see J.J. Abrams’ new trilogy and what he would do with my beloved characters. He didn’t let me down with The Force Awakens. While basically ripping off the original Star Wars plot, he was still able to introduce a new group of characters to the Star Wars universe, while treating the old characters with the respect, and screen time, they deserved.

So, to say that I was excited to see The Last Jedi is an understatement. I was, as the kids say nowadays, amped. I purchased tickets for the first showing I could make it to and settled in to what I was sure was going to be another great Star Wars movie. I knew the movie would center around Luke and I also knew it would answer a lot of questions that had been left unanswered from TFA (that’s how we—the real fans—write The Force Awakens) such as who Rey’s parents were and who Snoke really was.

A little over two hours later I left the theater dejected. The movie was definitely not what I had wanted it to be. How dare the director, Rian Johnson, basically disregard all the movies that had come before and create this movie that was only superficially a Star Wars movie. Yeah, it had Stormtroopers and light sabers and Luke Skywalker, but they didn’t do or act how they should have. I know, because I’m a Star Wars fan. I was like Boba Fett falling down the Sarlacc Pit; I had found a new definition of pain and suffering, like being slowly digested over a thousand years.

I was pissed off. I even made a comment that Sunday at my Sangha. At the end of our meditation session we go around the group and say our names and give a high point and low point of the week. When it came around to me, I gave my name and my low point, “I’m Tyson and my low point was that the new Star Wars movie was shit.” Which actually went with the day’s theme because our teacher had just given a dharma talk on Yunmen’s dried shit on a stick koan.

A few days later, after I had read dozens of online reviews and realized that a lot of other people were as upset as I was I started to cool off. Misery loves company. I also read the “professional” reviews that said what a great movie it was. I didn’t understand how the pros’ and nerds’ viewpoints could be so different. So I decided to go see it again.

This time I went on a Wednesday night. It was much less crowded, there was less buzz and energy in the theater. To say I was not “amped” this time would be correct. The movie started, and a little over two hours later, I was…confused. I was confused because I actually enjoyed it. How could I enjoy a movie that just a few days ago I was calling shit during my sangha meeting?

Oh, wait…

The first time I saw it, I carried a lot of stuff into the movie with me (like Luke going into Dagobah’s Dark Side cave). I was a HUGE Star Wars fan. I knew how the movies should go. I expected the director and actors to please me because they owed it to me. I had pretty damn high expectations.

The second time I went to see it I had zero expectations. I went to see it as a neutral observer. I didn’t expect anything from the movie and wasn’t expecting anything from myself—no baggage and no labels. There was nothing to be let down about.

I went in empty.

I’m a terrible Zen student, but even I could figure this out. If I go into a movie with an identity (Star Wars Fan) and I have preconceived notions and expectations (how a Star Wars movie should be) then what else in my life do I do this with? What other areas of my life can I see this pattern happen? I do this with people and places all the time. I know how Joe from work is going to act because he’s this type of person. I know when I go to the grocery I’m not going to like it because there will be long lines and babies crying. Instead of being a clean sheet of paper, I’ve already written in permanent marker what these experiences will be like beforehand. Intellectually, I knew I was doing this before, but for some reason a Star Wars movie was an opening for me where I attained what was happening.

So today when I came to work I had a different relationship to Joe. He didn’t annoy me quite so much with his chipper, “isn’t it a wonderful morning” attitude. I’m not sure how long that will last, but hopefully longer than it took for Han to make the Kessel Run.