Mindful lessons from Star Wars: A New Hope

Shane Ledford with the cast of Star Wars

Guest Post by Shane Ledford, CMT-200, CYT-200

I have mentioned in a previous post how I feel the original Star Wars movie might have sparked a curiosity in me into what I would later now classify as Mindfulness. Granted, as a pre-teen in the summer of 1977, I, like everyone else in the sold- out Atlanta movie theater, watched the film and was whisked away in awe by the sheer fun, escapism, visuals, and the different-yet-familiar mythological storytelling…and was not thinking the movie had anything to do with Mindfulness (nor did I even know what that word Mindfulness would mean until 30+ years later). BUT…at that time, I knew there was something going on in that film that I could not describe. It was a something I could not quite identify, but it would actually guide the path of my later years in education and travels…a path that would eventually lead to where I am today: a Mindfulness and Yoga teacher.

On this International Star Wars Day (so called because it is May the 4th…as in, “May the Fourth be with you”), I thought I would reflect on some of the mindful lessons I either noticed when I saw the film for the first time (but didn’t quantify it), or ones that have emerged after constant viewings, or ones that have revealed themselves after studying the influences behind Star Wars. Other films and series in the Star Wars universe have underlying mindful themes, but, I have chosen to only focus on the first one…the one that started it all for me: Star Wars: A New Hope (hereafter just referred to a Star Wars). As a caution, it is assumed the reader is familiar with Star Wars, but if not, this blog post will contain several spoilers.

LET GO OF YOUR CONSCIOUS SELF. Obi-Wan Kenobi says this to Luke Skywalker during his lightsaber training aboard the Millennium Falcon. So often we cloud our mind with thoughts of what we think things should have been or what they should be, and that is generally not useful in dealing with what is actually happening at the moment. In his notable book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki said, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” This letting go of the conscious self can sometimes allow us to come up with creative alternatives to situations. When Luke and Princess Leia are trapped above a chasm in the Death Star, instead of being overcome with wallowing thoughts of “we’re trapped,” Luke pauses, notices his surroundings, and creates an ingenious plan to use a grappling hook and cable to swing to freedom on the other side. Renowned music producer, Rick Rubin, says in his best-selling book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, “Sometimes disengaging is the best way to engage.” This releasing of expectations and non-beneficial thoughts can better allow us to do what Obi-Wan also says:

woman in black and white suit holding black rifle

Photo by Anthony Duran

ACT ON INSTINCT. One of the things that most fascinated me when I first saw Star Wars as a kid (and still does) was Obi-Wan’s ability to sense things that others do not, and respond accordingly. I now attribute this to him being constantly mindful and aware of his surroundings without getting caught up or overwhelmed in judgement, stories, or emotions. He learned and honed this through his Jedi training, and begins to impart those teachings onto Luke. With Mindfulness training and practice, one may find themselves more intuitive and instinctive, and be able to “predict” an outcome (such as knowing a car will pull out in front of us before it does…because we are completely immersed and aware in the driving…and not distracted by devices, thoughts, or surroundings).

For example, despite the confusing surroundings and noise of the cantina, Obi- Wan instinctively knew that a blaster was being drawn on Luke, and was able to defend Luke and himself with his own lightsaber. Later, after emerging from hyperspace in the Falcon into the destroyed remains of Alderaan, Luke and Han Solo engage in an excited “how-did-Alderaan-get-totally-blown-away?” discussion, whereas Obi-Wan stoically states it “was destroyed by the Empire.” Luke and Han still find that scenario hard to fathom, but I feel Obi-Wan was grounded enough in the situation as to recall Leia’s earlier holographic plea for help as well as his own earlier sensing of “the millions of voices crying out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” So, he instinctively came to the conclusion it could have only been the Empire that destroyed Alderaan. More of Obi-Wan’s instincts play out in the following moments when he senses it is an Imperial fighter approaching the Falcon (before Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and the movie theater audience see it), as well as his now-famous intuitive observation: “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.”

It should also be mentioned that earlier, during Luke’s lightsaber training in the Falcon, Obi-Wan hands Luke a helmet with the blast shield visor down. Luke comments he cannot see to defend himself against the practice remote that is floating around, but Obi-Wan says, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” During the revelation of Alderaan’s destruction and Death Star emergence to those on the Falcon, Obi-Wan moves past what just his eyes are telling him by relying on instinct…and he, like he tells Luke earlier, is able to:

STRETCH OUT WITH YOUR FEELINGS. The notion of noticing feelings is very prevalent Star Wars. During the remote and lightsaber training, Obi-Wan tells Luke, “remember a Jedi can feel the Force flowing though him.” In Mindfulness it is okay to feel. It is what we do with those feelings that is important. We try to respond to those feelings rather than react. It is like noticing one is chilly and getting a blanket or putting on a sweater. Generally, there is not a questioning of why one is chilly or any stories associated with it. It is simply, “I am chilly and I think I’m going to get a blanket.” The same could be said for other experiences such as if one is feeling anxious before giving a presentation in front of large group of people. If one is feeling anxious perhaps say “I am feeling a little anxious…and that is okay and understandable,” and then perhaps take a few deep breaths. After the lightsaber training is completed on the Falcon, Luke says, “You know, I did feel something,” to which Obi-Wan replies, “That’s good. You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.” It is a world of noticing what we are feeling and nurturing it to our benefit…not detriment…regardless of what we are feeling. There is also the almost meme-like saying first uttered by Luke (and later by Han…and then others in other films), “I have a very bad feeling about this.” It is okay to have a bad feeling(s). What we want to do is notice it and comfort it much like Dr. Daniel Siegel formulated, “name it to tame it.” When we notice the feelings, emotions, or observations, we also:

NOTICE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT: One of the basic tenets of Mindfulness is the practice of looking at or noticing something as it is…without judgement. So, if in meditation, one notices that they are having a challenge with quieting down busy thoughts, then, perhaps, just say “this is challenging today.” It is okay to investigate why one might be having the thoughts (such as “I am feeling a little rattled right now because traffic was a little intense on the way here”), but we try not to attach a story to that investigation (such as “if only I would have left earlier I wouldn’t have been in such heavy traffic—when I’m I ever going to learn?”).

There are several instances in Star Wars where a character may notice something AND judge…but then find out the judgement was unwarranted and untrue (as are many of the judgements our judging mind can create). For example, Obi-Wan (Ben) is referred to as a “strange old hermit” by Luke and a “wizard (and) a crazy old man” by Uncle Owen. We later find out that he is a Jedi Master. The Millennium Falcon is first noticed by Luke as “a piece of junk” (and Han Solo adds that “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid”). Of course, later, the Falcon is proven to be very fast, reliable, and becomes legendary in the galaxy (and our pop-culture lexicon). Another amusing judgement is when Luke, disguised as a stormtrooper, breaks into Princess Leia’s cell and she mockingly says, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper.” Luke then takes off his helmet and says, “I’m Luke Skywalker , and I’m here to rescue you.” Seconds earlier she thought he was a stormtrooper (albeit a short one), but then it is revealed he is there to help save her from imprisonment. Even “nondescript” R2-D2 is a main catalyst to this story in the beginning search for Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as containing the Death Star plans and assisting the group escape the Death Star (and helping Luke destroy the Death Star).

STEP AWAY FROM THE TECHNOLOGY. When Star Wars was released in 1977, it was a technological breakthrough in cinematic special effects. Ironically, an underlying theme in the movie is that technology does not allow us to truly see.

When R2-D2 escapes from Luke after having the restraining bolt removed, Luke uses his macrobinoculars to search for R2. It is of no use and he says, “He is nowhere in sight.” Later, when searching for sandpeople and using the same macrobinoculars, Luke says, “Well, there are two banthas down there, but I don’t see any—(sandpeople).” And then a sandperson immediately jumps up in front of Luke. If Luke was not so intent on looking for sandpeople far away with his macrobinoculars, he may have noticed one was right there in font of him by being aware of his immediate surroundings.

Even Darth Vader expresses cautions about a reliance on technology when, during a Death Star briefing meeting, he says, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” This statement, of course, proves to be prophetic by the conclusion of the film as Luke relies on the Force…and not technology…to destroy the space station. He shuts off his targeting computer while his X-Wing fighter screams through a Death Star trench towards the thermal exhaust port target (while Obi-Wan’s voice in his head says “use the Force, Luke. Let go, Luke. Luke, trust me”). With that he is able to launch the pair of torpedos that destroy the space station (after a previous attack run was unsuccessful by Red Leader… who did rely on the targeting computer). Now, nearly 45 years later, we are even more attached to technology than then, with smartphones and social media… because we think we need it at that moment. Perhaps putting the devices down might help us see (and feel) more clearly at times.

HOPE IS POWERFUL (EVEN IF OVERWHELMED). The main theme of Star Wars is hope (and, as a reminder, the chapter title of this film is A New Hope). The ragtag Rebellion, in theory, had no chance against the much larger, technologically advanced, and more evil Galactic Empire. Early on Luke says, “I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not like that I like the Empire, I hate it — but there is nothing I can do about it right now.” This is much like our present day challenges of climate and social issues which can be overwhelming when we think about the scale of these issues. It can be easy to give up and think “what can I do as one person?” But, like the Force, which Obi-Wan says, “Surrounds us (and) binds the galaxy together, ” we realize that we are all the Force and interconnected with the environment and other people. Mindfulness teaches us that even small actions can help (or harm) that which we are connected with. Instead of focusing on the enormity of the Death Star, the Rebels just had to focus on a target that was two meters wide. Do small things which will inevitably lead to bigger results: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Be kind. Volunteer. Donate. Learn. Educate. Focus on what you can do selflessly more than what is done selfishly.

So, in celebration of International Star Wars Day, I invite you to revisit (or watch for the first time) this first or any of the other Star Wars movies or serials. You may find that you pick up some teachings that you did not see before. And perhaps, it might also inspire you to continue or discover your Mindfulness practice…and much like a Jedi, allow you to let go of your conscious self and stretch out with your feelings and act on instinct…mindfully.

More importantly, remember that the Force will be with you always.

Want to take a class with Shane? He has a fun, interesting and down-to-earth way of weaving pop culture elements, such as movies, music and film, into his teachings. You can look for his upcoming classes on our Offerings Page.

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