Thursday, December 2, 2010

Slower and Less Intense

A Study of Tera Sinube

Those who are wise won’t be busy, and
those who are too busy can’t be wise.

- Lin Yutang
The Importance of Living

The Clone Wars animated series has consistently capitalized on George Lucas’ famous and oft-quoted maxim concerning the overall direction of the Star Wars saga, “Faster and more intense.” Almost every week, fans are treated to furious lightsaber duels, fighters spinning and wheeling against the vast backdrop of space, and enormous battles that erupt across countless alien worlds.

Not to mention more star-streaking jumps to lightspeed than even the films themselves offered.

Yet in the season two episode Lightsaber Lost, the “faster and more intense” mantra is cleverly subverted by the character of Tera Sinube, an elderly Jedi master who is pulled back into active duty by a young padawan in need of his assistance. His particular brand of expertise not only helps reunite her with the missing lightsaber of the title, but single-handedly calls into question the tacit assumption that “faster and more intense” is the only way to live life in that galaxy far, far away.

While boasting its fair share of breathless chases and epic stunts, Lightsaber Lost also offers a quiet philosophy at its core, and the Tera Sinube character is its beating heart. Doing what Star Wars does best, this story is served well by stunning visuals and the best computer animation available, but it carries with it timely and timeless themes celebrating not simply patience, but the surprising virtues of moving slowly.

Not long after the episode begins, the padawan Ahsoka Tano abruptly realizes her lightsaber has been stolen by one of the many thugs populating the Coruscant underworld. Though growing increasingly skilled in the ways of the Force, the Jedi learner is also proud and impetuous, and decides not to confide to her master that her saber was taken during their mission.

After all, she’s been the last in a long line of padawans receiving the “this weapon is your life” speech.

Of course, the lightsaber itself has always been more than simply a weapon. Since the beginning of the saga, it has been the symbol of “a more civilized age,” the thing that immediately sets the Jedi apart. George Lucas has used the saber to echo back to the stories of the knights of the Round Table and the samurai, evoking times in our own fabled past when honor was paramount. The glowing blades also conjure up the flaming swords of Biblical and Buddhist lore, whether it be the ones angels used to guard the way into the Garden of Eden, or the one the bodhisattva Manjushri used to cut away ignorance and delusion.

Perhaps it is not too much to say that the lightsaber is the humming soul of the Jedi who meticulously crafts and constructs it, and maybe that’s what our little Togruta padawan really lost.

With nowhere else to turn, the bereft Ahsoka marches into the vast Archives in the Jedi Temple. It is there that Jocasta Nu, the galactic archetype for knowledgeable librarians everywhere, guides her to a new mentor. As a retired Jedi sleuth, Tera Sinube is an alleged expert in the Coruscant underworld, and Jocasta assures Ahsoka he will be most helpful on her quest. For her part, Ahsoka is considerably less sure about this, especially when they finally discover the Cosian master nestled away at a computer console, having clearly dozed off in the middle of his research.

While Ahsoka is not impressed and Sinube himself insists he was only “resting my eyes,” for me this scene calls into sharp contrast another old patriarch of the galaxy. Let’s be honest. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Republic senator or corporate power broker ever walking into Palpatine’s office and finding the Supreme Chancellor contently snoozing at his desk. Generally speaking, catching someone enjoying a quiet little nap in the middle of the day is a good indication that the being in question is at least not a power-driven lunatic trying to take over the galaxy. This alone speaks volumes about Sinube.

Anyway, Ahsoka is naturally worried that the elder Jedi is going to slow down her pursuit and, in classic fairy tale style, it is true that Sinube doesn’t cut a particularly impressive figure at first (especially when he finally rises from his station and is so bent over with age he remains the same height as when he was sitting). Their relationship is pretty clearly established in this scene, with Ahsoka anxiously pacing around while he fumbles and mumbles around the computer database. Though Sinube’s hokey pun about “fishy” aliens pulls a grimace out of Ahsoka, she is nonetheless relieved when he manages to track down the thief in question.

With the suspect identified, Ahsoka is ready to launch the quest for her lightsaber. She tellingly refers to Sinube as “gramps,” predictably squirming and backing away before he can follow. She’s obviously looking for a tactful way of ditching the old guy, not unlike a teenage girl who’s terrified a grandparent might want to accompany her to the mall. But Sinube hasn’t been on assignment in years, and sagely warns Ahsoka, “if you don’t slow down, you won’t find what you’re looking for.”

As the unlikely pair journey to one of the capital’s slum districts, their fast and slow dynamic becomes even more apparent. Ahsoka is quick to flare up and demand to know who’s been trying to sell her missing saber. By contrast, Sinube follows his nose, going along with the various alien dealers they meet up with, more or less just staying alert and letting the exchanges play out as they will. Pretty soon, the elderly Jedi master learns the whereabouts of Bannamu the pickpocket, though he still insists on moving slowly and deliberately throughout the investigation.

The ideas of “fast” and “slow” are about more than mere changes in rates of speed in this episode, and the same holds true for Canadian journalist Carl Honore. As opposed to a simple shifting of gears, Honore describes them as shorthand for “ways of being, or philosophies of life.”

In his cheerfully subversive, internationally bestselling book In Praise of Slowness, Honore posits that “Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.” Interestingly enough, some of those attributes almost smell of the dark side. “Slow is the opposite,” he argues, adding it is “calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” By contrast, plenty of light side mantras lurk in that definition.

To Honore, slowness doesn’t mean mere sluggishness, but rather taking the time to make real connections with ourselves and the world. Modern culture finds itself precariously out of balance because all the emphasis is on speed, and the virtues of going fast have been eaten up by the law of diminishing returns. Our society is therefore largely defined by traffic jams, road rage, overwork, ringing alarm clocks, sleep deprivation, instant coffee, microwaved meals, fast food, violent indigestion, and the perpetual need for faster and faster Internet connections.

Maybe all of this has something to do with the fact that the average American attention span is somewhere under eight seconds and maybe it doesn’t, but it does eloquently outline much of the subtext found in Lightsaber Lost.

Tera Sinube’s philosophy continues to play out in the scene when he and Ahsoka are creeping along the halls of Bannamu’s hideout. Sinube chastises his young ward, warning her that she needs to be quieter. Ahsoka grumpily acknowledges him, but she doesn’t get his real meaning.

“Not quiet with your mouth,” he explains, “Quiet with your mind.” Sinube tells Ahsoka that her “worry is equal to his,” and that if only her busy mind would grow silent, she could sense the thief’s anxiety.

Again, this is the kind of ancient wisdom that is sprinkled throughout Star Wars. The Jedi and the Force have been linked with Eastern philosophy since the saga began, with more than one lightsaber-wielding adept spouting proverbs which could have just as easily sprung from the mouth of a spiritual master in China or Japan centuries ago. The line about quieting one’s mind is actually one of the aphorisms of the Indian sage Patanjali, who noted that the beginning of yoga was the slowing of the perpetual turnings of our consciousness. Tera Sinube operates in this sphere of enlightened teachers, all of whom have traditionally valued silence over speech and stillness over action.

In his seminal book The Way of Zen, Alan Watts wrote that the first principle of any of the Far Eastern arts is that “hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal.” Zen Buddhism in particular is not about chasing after things like truth, but rather getting out of its way and allowing truth to reveal itself to you. Part of Zen discipline conversely means accepting that this is a process, and one that can’t be hurried any more than an acorn can be hurried into an oak tree. From this point of view, putting a finish line at the end of the race unnecessarily separates the beginning from the end, when it’s all really one process. As Watts remarked, “for it is when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are open to receive the world.”

This is precisely what Sinube is slyly teaching Ahsoka throughout the episode, but in part he’s also letting her find it out for herself. After all, there has always been much talk in the Jedi philosophy about “letting go.” It is the same in the Zen arts, for it is only when one lets things happen rather than egotistically trying to make them happen that life starts functioning properly. The art is to let the canvas paint itself, the flowers arrange themselves, and even the arrow find its own way to the target.

Or in the case of Tera Sinube, it’s pretty much about letting the criminals capture themselves.

After interrogating the truly fishy Bannamu, Sinube and Ahsoka travel to the upper east side, where a being named Nack Movers lives. Or at least, he had once lived there. Not long after purchasing Ahsoka’s lightsaber, poor Nack is dead on his apartment floor.

When our two Jedi arrive, they not only find Nack’s lifeless body, but his quivering girlfriend Ione Marcy. Sinube senses that Ione seems terrified of something other than the gang who allegedly killed her Transdoshan snuggle-bunny (my phrasing). Still impatient, Ahsoka stomps into the adjacent room, and is confronted by another girl by the name of Cassie Cryar. Once Ahsoka spots her beloved lightsaber in Cassie’s hand, she sees the mask-sporting thief dive out the window.

As Ahsoka gives chase, Sinube seemingly acts as a comfort to Ione, while simultaneously planting a tracking beacon on her. Ever the sleuth, he teases out information about the crime scene Sherlock Holmes-style, noting that not only was Nack Movers poisoned, but that Ione has a very hard time keeping her odd alien hands from shaking. Sinube finally tells her she wasn’t afraid because her Transdoshan love-muffin (still my phrasing) was killed, but rather because she was in league with the saber-stealing girl. When Ione gives herself away and bursts out of the apartment, Sinube simply shakes his head and sadly laments, “Off she goes. Always rushing.”

During all this, Ahsoka and Cassie have taken rushing to a whole new level, a stunning chase ensuing across the endless Coruscant skyline. Unfortunately for the still saberless padawan, Cassie is an incredibly nimble Terrelian Jango Jumper, one capable of acrobatic feats that could rival that of a Force-user. The pursuit across the rooftops is truly amazing, with both girls diving, flipping, leaping, and pouncing from one narrow ledge to the next.

Yet, predictably, all these death-defying jumps are to no avail, as Ahsoka loses her quarry. In one of the more memorable bits of the episode, our young Togruta heroine winds up sliding down a giant animated billboard of a Stalin-esque Palpatine, who’s busy spreading baseless, anti-Jedi propaganda (again, one of the worst things about wannabe galactic tyrants is that they never seem to catch up on their sleep, much less take a day off).

After borrowing a police speeder with maybe the help of a mind-trick or two, Sinube putters up to the side of a building where his student has had no choice but to finally stop hurrying and sit down. Pleased she’s finally learning patience, Sinube invites her on the little speeder, though when’s he behind the controls, “speeder” is pretty much a misnomer. The two crawl across the skylanes as the rest of the flying traffic furiously races by. Ahsoka turns impatient teenager again until Sinube calmly explains he planted a tracking beacon on Ione, and there’s no rush because he knows right where the femme fatales are fleeing to.

Soon after the Jedi odd couple arrives at the hover train station where the beacon is transmitting, Ione Marcy stumbles into the waiting arms of some police droids. As Sinube coolly addresses how rude she was to hurry off in the middle of their conversation, Ahsoka once more gives chase to Cassie Cryar, who speeds away on a hover train. Wildly wielding the stolen saber with all the finesse of a Kowakian monkey-lizard, Cassie crashes into a passenger car and grabs some hostages.

Ahsoka does give a moment’s pause here and, to her credit, tries to negotiate with the panicked Jango Jumper. Yet when the train pulls into the next station, it is Sinube who saves the day. Like a formidable oak that has been planted there waiting all along, he stands in the way when the train doors slide open. Suddenly revealing that his wicked cool cane pulls double duty as a lightsaber, he snaps the flashing blue blade into action. With several fluid moves, he effortlessly disarms Cassie and deftly flicks Ahsoka’s saber right into her waiting hand. Using the other half of his cane, he knocks Cassie out, and she is soon in the hands of the authorities.

Reunited with her saber, Ahsoka is properly awestruck. “For a guy who moves slow,” she admits, “you always seem to get ahead of me.” As centered as ever, Sinube merely replies, “The value of moving slowly is that one can always clearly see the way ahead.” This is surely a bit of wisdom the Jedi Order as a whole could have learned from, particularly as they stumble through the “cloud of the dark side” obscuring the real reasons for the Clone Wars.

Master and padawan return to the Jedi Temple, that towering structure that grew as slowly as the wisdom that fostered the whole Order. In the end, Sinube gently requests that Ahsoka only “pass on” what she has learned, and she does exactly that. The episode calls back to the interplay of the young and the old that was once quite common among tribal cultures still living out their myths and sacred stories. The timeless truths were passed on into new hearts and minds, from one generation to the next. As we watch Ahsoka learn a new way of knowledge and experience from Sinube, that archetypal rhythm has once again found another chord.

Tera Sinube was born out of The Clone Wars series, but he has a certain quality about him that makes him seem as though he’s been patiently waiting his turn backstage since that first opening crawl rolled up into space. Perhaps that’s why his championing of slowness is down to an art form. Charming and humorous, he represents what was best about the Jedi Order before the Empire and the Dark Times. He’s also a quiet reminder that, as cool and exhilarating as it is to make the jump into hyperspace, in order to really feel and appreciate our kinship with the stars, sometimes we have to cut right to the sublight engines, and just let ourselves coast.

“Wisely, and slow,” Shakespeare himself advised. “They stumble that run fast.”

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