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group study Pop Culture and Spiritual Practice

Group study openly invites people to exchange thoughts together based on premises that are always explicitly pointed out, however loose they might be, and when any fixed outcome isn't called for. It's good to keep mindful and respectful of both what is and what isn't relevant for discussion though.

Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
Moderator
Let's discuss how pop culture is actively catalyzing the dissemination spiritual themes across civilizations and what is this pollination's impact on people's personal views.

Popular culture is created for mass appeal and consumption. It appropriates everything that can be grasped in superficial terms. Even traditional spiritual culture it takes and churns back as unhealthy New Age-ish condensate that excites people and feeds them reactive emotional impressions that lead to strange practices and warped attitudes. Yet, this only a small part of the larger scheme where uplifting emotions and emotional showdowns are steadily sold as the entertainment standard.

Is there anything good in how pop culture handles spiritual topics? Where are the good examples? How does energy cultivation fit in with the overt emotional sensationalism in everything?
 

Earl Grey

Gonzo Daoist and Dharma Punk
Teacher

The Spice and the Force: Competing Sci-Fi Analogies for Cultivation​


The most common metaphor people interested in energy work and internal arts love to use is The Force from the Star Wars series. In over a decade of cultivation practice with proper lineage and instructors, I have to say that a more appropriate one is actually the spice melange from the Dune series.

One thing to also point out is that the people using the Force metaphor also do not understand Star Wars very well, which I will differentiate between the actual use of the Force and people's dubious understanding of it, which I will simply call The Farce.

It should also be noted at the beginning here that Star Wars itself was inspired by Dune.

Definitions:

The Force: "An energy field created by all life that connected everything in the universe, and known by a variety of names throughout galactic history." A New Age version of the Dao that forgoes the concept of duality and focuses on polarity while adding concepts such as synchronicity and destiny.

The Spice: "A naturally produced awareness spectrum narcotic that formed a fundamental block of commerce and technological development in the known universe for millennia." A drug as both an actual narcotic and metaphor for wisdom that has many gatekeepers, be they Brahmin analogues or merchants. Also based on psilocybin mushrooms.

The Farce: "I can read minds and move things with my mind! I can set things on fire and electrocute people! Whoa dude! I'm so special!" Midichlorians and everything else in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy along with whatever people individually construct for themselves and is affirmed by others who are hopelessly optimistic.

Cultivation may initially seem like it's the Force because of the superficial similarities to Daoist concepts and philosophy, but strictly speaking, the Force is not just a watered-down version of taiji (the proper name for Yin and Yang for those who need a helpful reminder), it also lacks other concepts such as five elements theory, which gives birth to other significant concepts such as medicine, seasons and cycles, and personalities, and the three treasures of jing, qi, and shen.

The most obvious difference in the Force is that the Light and Dark are opposed, and there is the use of absolutes. Yes, both Light and Dark in the Force use absolutes, as stated in the funny, zero-self awareness statement, "Only Sith [the dark side] think in absolutes" which is in itself an absolute stated by the Jedi [the light side]. This polarity also tends to look at Light as all things good and Dark as all things bad, but Yin and Yang are not definitively good or evil, as light can be both good and evil, and dark can be the same. Shakespeare himself said in Hamlet, "There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so."

When people think about the Force and tie it to energetic practices to practice the Farce, because it lacks the three treasures and the five elements, they base their cultivation exclusively off of energy and qi and on moral platitudes and self-righteousness rather than the three treasures and ethics.

Anyone who knows proper cultivation 101 is it is not just qi or energy. You have to build your physical structure in order to reprogram your abilities, you can't just have a positive attitude and intent and magically have control over energy. People can feel sensitive to energy, but controlling it is another story altogether.

The Force implies that people have the ability to use the Force if they are sensitive, and the Farce makes people think they are special for having more midichlorians. This is simply not the case--it's people watching too many movies where they see someone suddenly awaken latent psychic powers and become very powerful. In basic cultivation, you can have latent powers--the problem is, without the proper methodology, they will never be anything else but sensitivity and wishful thinking.

The Spice Melange from Dune is an analogue for the psychedelics Frank Herbert had used before, as well as the culture of drug use for his time. What people don't remember are the Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres, orders of women who hold secrets of cultivation, such as reversing aging and telepathic powers, and manipulate behind the scenes the ascension of humanity. People are born into the lineage or brought in, analogous to conflicting orders in the Catholic tradition (especially Jesuits) and martial schools, mystery schools of the ancient world such as the Pythagorean tradition and the Eleusinian Mysteries, and can even find parallels with the Brahmins. In other words: they are gatekeepers not for the sake of gatekeeping, but because of the foregone conclusion that power corrupts.

The Spice Melange unlocks amazing powers, but also leads to insanity. There are conflicts and the threat of war for the right to access the resource of the Spice Melange, as merely taking the spice isn't sufficient enough to grant ultimate power--it merely unlocks potential, and then it must be guided accordingly, much like the Bene Gesserit trained Paul Atreides long before he ingested the spice on Arrakis.

Whether it is a drug or secret doctrines and alchemical techniques for cultivation, we can conclude from Dune's metaphors that 1) knowledge itself and ethics are far more important than the latent powers or potential for power, 2) such knowledge is guarded heavily just as the secret for power, 3) people will go to war and commit heinous acts for the mere prospect of what they could get from the spice, 4) excess use of the spice can cause insanity and physical harm, 5) the spice causes physiological changes, not just mental, and 6) there are liars and cheats who play with people's desire for power.

The world of Dune captures human nature far better than Star Wars when it comes to cultivating power, as Star Wars presumes natural talent and has an extreme focus on energy. Dune has designated experts and requirements for even being considered to have potential, and Star Wars can't decide if anyone can develop the talent or if it is something you are either born with or aren't lucky enough to have.

The Farce takes this in a contradictory way if the ramblings of mad men on YouTube comments and reddit are anything to go by (which you should never do): it states that everyone has potential (and thus makes everyone an expert because they all feel sensitive to energy), and then those who feel energy deceive themselves into believing that they have more energetic potential than others. It is again the common pitfall of cultivation: energetic sensations.

Cultivation is not egalitarian. What is egalitarian is the sensation of energy. Anyone can play with basics, but to really control it is not just mental masturbation through self-affirmation, it is a complete process with specific guidelines for progression and structure. Without this structure, people are not skipping or hacking the practice, but acting in a manner that is analogous to picking up random books from a library based on the cover art and title and making up their own branch of science, making themselves experts and disregarding the slow and certain harm they are inflicting upon themselves.

What we learn then from Dune is that its analogues for cultivation factor in human nature and the necessity of safeguarding the development of power and knowledge due to its effects on the body and mind rather than wishful thinking and basic energy sensitivity in Star Wars. What we typically ignore is that whether it is the Force, the Spice, or the Farce, these parallels are still just works of fiction and actual practice should be regarded as our basis for understanding cultivation rather than trying to make cultivation fit into our idealized model from science fiction. In other words: don't make your cultivation try to fit the framework of the Force or the Spice, throw them both out unless you want to practice the Farce.
 
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Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
Moderator
The Force: "An energy field created by all life that connected everything in the universe, and known by a variety of names throughout galactic history." A New Age version of the Dao that forgoes the concept of duality and focuses on polarity while adding concepts such as synchronicity and destiny.

I feel that there also is Zen Buddhist and Christian Deist influence on the concept of the Force and the imaginative Jedi culture.

Even thought the Force is described as formless, it's not transcendental in the sense that it is described as substantive, having its own will and changing due to events of the story. The Force is like a Panentheistic Great Spirit of Mystical Deistic Space Shamanism. The slogan "May the Force be with you" is no different than saying "May God bless you". One example of the Force changing is how Obi-Wan feels a disturbance in the Force as the space weapon Death Star destroys the planet Alderaan. This type of allure into extraordinary sensitivity particularly echoes Zen Buddhist and Japanese martial arts cultural influence.

However, it should be pointed out that the Jedi culture itself has a very superficial imitation of oriental spiritual currents. The Jedi individual's harmony with the Force is in a rather single-minded manner described as staying tranquil in all circumstances. The bad guys of the story, the Sith, are described as using their intense emotions and desires as their means to mystic powers of the Force. In many ways this echoes to the typical story telling tradition of saying that the bad people are impatient and want to push others around because of their selfish desires. In my eyes, the Jedi tranquility ethics seem like a skewed Christian Puritan or Victorian understanding of what the "generic oriental" meditation singularly does and is supposed to accomplish. Maybe it could even be unconscious appraisal of the more familiar British "Keep Calm" and "stiff upper lip" mentality because these are more understandable to the average American mind than the nuances of gaining self-awareness that are the stable substance of Zen literature.

Cultivation may initially seem like it's the Force because of the superficial similarities to Daoist concepts and philosophy, but strictly speaking, the Force is not just a watered-down version of taiji (the proper name for Yin and Yang for those who need a helpful reminder), it also lacks other concepts such as five elements theory, which gives birth to other significant concepts such as medicine, seasons and cycles, and personalities, and the three treasures of jing, qi, and shen.

Like I mentioned above, the attuning to the Force isn't developed, but rather each person, whether Jedi or Sith, accesses it either with ascetic calmness or accepts their natural temper and fervor. There is no insight into nor development of the human condition here, but zero self-awareness and rather a petty dichotomy between self-denial and self-indulgence.

The most obvious difference in the Force is that the Light and Dark are opposed, and there is the use of absolutes. Yes, both Light and Dark in the Force use absolutes, as stated in the funny, zero-self awareness statement, "Only Sith [the dark side] think in absolutes" which is in itself an absolute stated by the Jedi [the light side]. This polarity also tends to look at Light as all things good and Dark as all things bad, but Yin and Yang are not definitively good or evil, as light can be both good and evil, and dark can be the same.

The quote you present about absolutes is excellent. The classical spiritual traditions could however say that "Only evil/dark would seek excess and cling to consequences" and thereby highlighting the cosmic ignorance as the chief culprit instead of arousing a moral panic and condemnation.

Star Wars likes to ride on oriental spiritual mysticism, but upon closer inspection it can't resist to resorting to the self-conscious "we are so good/bad people, why don't you respect our authority" which is entirely typical of human condition.
 
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