Key Points: These weren’t as easy to succinctly describe this week, so in their place, I’ll leave you with this.
WARNING: Spoilers for two 2023 films, Oppenheimer and Barbie, feature heavily in this piece.
Estimated reading time: 8-16 minutes
My younger brother would probably be the first to tell you that I’m not a big movie watcher, mostly because even in my early 20’s, I could barely make it through the first half hour of a film without falling asleep. So, I don’t go to the movies often, which made a recent weekend quite a departure from the ordinary. My wife, Tess, talked me into experiencing the cultural phenomenon of a double feature many people initially assumed was a joke. That’s right, we saw Barbenheimer–Greta Gerwig’s Barbie on Saturday and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer on Sunday.
And interestingly, one of these films raised existential and philosophical questions about the human experience, and the other…was about a man and a bomb.
Let’s start with Oppenheimer
Perhaps that last sentence was slightly unkind, so I do want to stress that I can see why this film is receiving so much Oscar buzz. The performances of Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, and the rest of the supporting cast were uniformly excellent. Director Christopher Nolan and the writers also managed to keep a dialogue-heavy biopic interesting and engaging for the vast majority of its three hour runtime, no small feat in today’s action-dominated blockbuster landscape.
That said, as the film was a character study of a man it portrayed as a bit of a moral enigma, perhaps it’s unsurprising that philosophical discussions took a backseat. Oppenheimer gave some attention to the morality of the construction of the atomic bomb and its use to end WWII, but not as much as one may have suspected. Indeed, multiple characters pointed out the difficulty in eliciting any sort of concrete response from the titular J. Robert about whether or not his work was immoral.
He often attempted to portray both sides of any issue without committing to one. There is some nobility in that, and the movie also made it clear that Oppenheimer used his notoriety to push for disarmament after the war. However, in my opinion, the most intriguing bits of the film were the instances in which Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, and eventual antagonist, Admiral Strauss, pointed out his desire to be viewed with sympathy despite the damage directly caused by his actions. Also brilliant was Oppenheimer’s final conversation with Albert Einstein, where he posited that perhaps setting off the atomic bomb had indeed created a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world…just not quite as quickly as setting the entire atmosphere on fire.
However, these issues were not the focus of the story. Much more attention was given to the race to beat the Germans in constructing the bomb, as well as the injustice of the United States government revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance for having the temerity to suggest restraint in nuclear proliferation. Overall, dramas regarding the man, not the morality, took center stage in Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus.
Barbie, on the other hand, was surprisingly philosophical.
Those who have read my blog for a while may have picked up on my interest in and appreciation for Eastern philosophy. It’s one of my favorite topics to discuss, though I’ve been a bit more sparing in writing about it. To that end, there’s a piece I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while called, “What’s the Major Thread in all World Religions?” So, imagine my surprise when I found this very topic littered throughout what was ostensibly a pastel pink comedy about a doll. It was so prevalent that I’d be shocked if either the director or key writers for the film don’t have a side interest in Buddhist and Hindu spiritual teachings.
In particular, the journey of Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” featured multiple parallels with a journey of “non-dual realization.” In Eastern religions, this can also be known as “enlightenment” or “liberation,” while Western religions tend to describe it as being in perfect union with God.
As I’d planned to point out in my “Common Thread” piece, all religions share fundamental similarities in that none of their primary teachings are much different from the “Golden Rule.” This states, “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.”
“Non-dual understanding” would have us go deeper for a justification behind this rule other than, “because it’s the right thing to do,” to consider a tantalizing possibility. While not a perfect description, nonduality declares that any sense of separation is ultimately illusory. Every seemingly unique and separate “thing” in the universe is part of an indivisible whole. So, what if following the Golden Rule makes so much sense because “others” aren’t actually different from you? What if anything anyone does to “another,” they also do themselves? If one is open to this possibility, the drive to follow this rule becomes much more compelling, as one stops viewing themselves as intrinsically separate from everyone and everything else.
Does that sound too crazy?
I don’t think it does. I’ve written before about the arbitrary lines we draw when separating mind, and body, and even the world, and I truly believe it is possible to cultivate a sense of connectedness with everyone and everything. Why do I believe this? Well, during the 200 hours I spent alone in total darkness during a meditation retreat in Mexico, I felt it.
On the fourth night, while meditating, I received a strong taste of the “undifferentiated” love typically associated with the revered figures of major religions. Think of the Buddha, or Jesus Christ, who effortlessly treated saint and sinner alike with the same compassion, kindness, and care. No exceptions. So, while pondering the question, “Is there anyone for whom I don’t wish love, happiness, and peace?” some deep and ancient-feeling wisdom popped into my head. “Don’t confuse loving with liking. You’re never going to like everyone the same, but you don’t have to like someone to love them.”
At that instant, I felt what I can only describe as a powerful explosion in my chest, and energy coursed throughout my entire body. It felt like a dam had burst and that love was pouring from every fiber of my being. And in that moment, I deeply knew two things to be true. “Knowing” doesn’t quite do it justice though. This knowing was stronger and more powerful than any intellectual fact. Despite having no logical or intellectual reason, here’s what I knew:
- This love that I was experiencing is what we’re all made of. It is our true essence.
- When this is remembered and felt, we are utterly incapable of causing harm.
While this first truth is easily covered up and forgotten, the selfishness, fear, anger, and violence that result are not our default state. They can be overcome.
Peel back enough layers, and that is what every religion is truly about.
However, millenia of politics and culture get layered on top, with rituals and pointers becoming confused for truth. Identities are built and hardened, and we miss the exact point of a remembrance and embodiment of perfect love and shared oneness.
And that finally brings me back to Barbie.
Beware extensive spoilers here, as I’m going to draw parallels between many major story events in the movie as they relate to a journey from ignorance to liberation, or “the end of suffering.”
While most of the comparisons I’m going to make here will be tinged with a flavor of Zen Buddhism, I want to stress that this is simply one interpretation. As I mentioned, every major religion, and even plenty of non-religious philosophies, describe a similar journey, albeit with different terminology.
So, without further ado, here are some of the shared themes for Barbie and non-dual philosophy that stuck out to me like a sore thumb.
The Initial Glimpse
Here, one starts to get an inkling that perhaps everything they thought about themselves or their existence may not be quite accurate. They start asking existential questions, driven by a hunch they’re missing something important. In the movie, this is when Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” abruptly causes a record scratch mid-dance party by wondering aloud, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
Often, this initial glimpse runs into a fear response before it can progress. Old patterns, habits, and beliefs try to prevent one from pursuing these questions until it becomes too painful not to. The film highlights this perfectly when Stereotypical Barbie goes to speak with a guru-like figure, Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie.” Robbie’s character initially wishes to return to her previous “perfect” life and have things go “back to normal.” But as Weird Barbie says, “You can’t stop this. It’s happening.”
While this stage of the journey defies an easy description with words, a sense that something about one’s identity has fundamentally changed, never to be seen the way it previously was, features prominently. This is often accompanied by a sense of wonderful connectedness, peace, and even bliss. Stereotypical Barbie’s steps into the “Real World” can be seen as her “awakening.” We can see the “afterglow effect” in the scene where she feels the experiences and emotions of everyone around her, and with genuine reverence and awe, tells an elderly woman on a bus stop bench, “You’re so beautiful.”
Fun fact, that woman is the daughter of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel. She’s the real-world inspiration for Barbie dolls, so giving her a cameo in the movie was a nice touch.
Here, deeply held beliefs, emotional traumas, and thought patterns may strongly reassert themselves. The serenity of the “awakening” may fade into a distant memory. Barbie’s tearful dismay at never feeling good enough demonstrates this here, and I imagine many viewers could relate. I know I did. It was incredibly humbling to realize in my late 20’s that the outward confidence and self-esteem I projected, and genuinely believed I possessed, were in reality, masking an almost primally deep fear that I’d never be good enough.
Feeling fundamentally inadequate is one of the core emotional wounds from which millions of people suffer. It is a deeply held belief, often internalized during childhood, and the mind wants never to acknowledge it. So, it erects all sorts of barriers to prevent this belief’s exposure. Facing it requires a level of vulnerability and courage that may initially feel quite painful. However, once this belief has been uncovered and felt, it can be seen to be false and left behind.
On that note, while Stereotypical Barbie may believe thoughts of her inadequacy for a while, humorously falling over like a tipped plastic toy, she eventually rises above her despair. And for anyone struggling with this belief in their own lives, I can’t recommend Dr. Joe Dispenza’s book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, highly enough.
Once one becomes interested in certain spiritual explorations, it’s quite natural to want to share lessons and insights with others. Barbie’s late-movie conversations with Ken fit this to a tee. She tells him it’s time to find out who he really is. She encourages him to ask the questions that will lead to a powerful shift in identity. To paraphrase her, “Who are you, really? “Who would you be without the clothes, without me, without even…Beach?”
These questions share similarities with some of the most fundamental in all of Eastern philosophy. The way in which the film had Barbie speak to Ken made me feel quite strongly that she wasn’t asking in a mere “new-age self-help” fashion. She was indicating non-dual philosophy’s influence on those who wrote the story.
And finally, the end of worldly suffering. After this, any situation would be met with exactly the actions and emotions called for, with “the peace that passeth understanding” ever-present. Resistance to life would be gone, the good and the bad accepted equally readily and enthusiastically. And here, we have Barbie’s smoking gun of non-duality.
Stereotypical Barbie has a conversation with her literal creator, who asks if she’s sure she’s ready to accept all that comes with being human. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem called Please Call Me By My True Names that helps illustrate this. In it, he talks about being the frog swimming joyfully on the surface of a pond and also the grass snake that eats the frog. Among many other things, he says he is both the abused child and the abuser whose heart is not yet capable of seeing and loving.
Depending on your current perspective, the poem may come across as either dark and disturbing, or loving and beautiful. Perhaps both. But this is why “liberation” is the final threshold. Oneness with everything means acknowledging and experiencing a lack of separation from not only the joyful and beautiful, but the dark and horrifying as well. A mind that says, “I am a good person,” will have a very hard time accepting this, especially if it fears that it may secretly be “bad.”
With all of this understood, hopefully it’s easy to see why I was so captivated by the scene after Stereotypical Barbie’s conversation with her creator. Let me paint you a picture. The screen zooms out to reveal them standing in a void of nothingness. Then, one of Barbie’s piercing blue eyes fills the screen as a faded backdrop overlaying a series of changing images. An incredible diversity of human emotions and experiences play before her, showing laughter, tears, sadness, joy, life, death, and everything in between. After feeling, living, and being with all of this, Stereotypical Barbie looks up, with Margot Robbie’s eyes overflowing with reverent wonder. She smiles, and simply says…
What’s the big takeaway?
I’d like to end this piece with a quote from Dogen, one of the most famous Zen masters of all time.
“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”
This saying hints at embracing the beautiful simplicity of life, ultimately deriving peace and satisfaction from what is, not seeking anything more. Stereotypical Barbie humorously demonstrates this enthusiasm for the mundanities and annoyances of existence in the film’s final scene by excitedly checking in for her first ever gynecological exam.
In doing my best to reflect her transformation, I’ll admit that I actually don’t have anything particularly deep to share to wrap this piece up. All I can say is that this 5-hour movie weekend was well worth it. Two films that I initially didn’t have any desire to see surprised me and brought tremendous joy that my wife and I could experience together. And isn’t that enough? What more could I want from movies than that? Plus, I didn’t even fall asleep!
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Did you see either or both of these films? Did you enjoy them? And what did you think of my admittedly unorthodox interpretation of Barbie’s journey? Reply to this email and let me know!