Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Living Force

The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us. It penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

-        Obi-Wan Kenobi

     The most unique character in Star Wars, the one that permeates, guides, and flows through the complete saga, is the mysterious energy known only as “the Force.”
     Any detailed discussion of the Star Wars galaxy must really begin with the acknowledgement of this living field of mystical energy. It informs the entire stage, as well as the characters acting upon it. The Force not only binds the galaxy, it also makes it live and breathe, ebb and flow. Its ineffable presence is what truly makes Star Wars mythic, for like all genuine myths, it once again brings the universe to life for us in a way modern stories rarely do.
     In the Annotated Screenplays of the original trilogy, Lucas outlined his ideas in early story conferences:

The act of living generates a force field, an energy. That energy surrounds
us … There is a giant mass of energy in the universe that has a good side
and a bad side. We are part of the Force because we generate the
power that makes the Force live. When we die, we become
part of that Force, so we never really die.

This established much of the framework for what grew into a complex, fully-realized cosmology.
     It also reminds me of what the British writer and thinker Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy.” In it, he identified a common thread running through nearly all religious traditions. This thread followed that there was a vast Ground of Being shared by all; that it is both transcendent and immanent; and that the purpose of existence is to know, love, and finally become one with this Ground. Huxley defined this as the “Minimum Working Hypothesis,” and the Force clearly fills this role in that galaxy far, far away.
     Yet there is more than one view of the Force, as hinted at in the prequel trilogy. One can even infer from Episode One that there is something of a denominational schism within the Jedi Order itself. Though all dedicated to maintaining peace and justice in the galaxy, the Jedi of that time are bound by codes and councils, somewhat removed from the Force Yoda and old Ben Kenobi waxed lyrical about in the original films. As was discussed in the last post, it was the maverick Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn who really found the heart and soul of the Force, who followed its will as a poet follows his muse, and passed it on to the next generation. [1]
     One of the very first lines in the prequels centers on Qui-Gon’s insistence about being mindful of the “Living Force.” While the Jedi Council often seem fixated on the distant past or uncertain future, the Living Force is by contrast grounded in the present moment, the “here and now,” the only reality we can truly know. As such, it is also steeped in flashes of intuition, focused spontaneity, as well as an empathy with and deep connection to all beings.
     This “living” quality is perhaps the seminal idea in all mythic traditions. In our own history, it permeated the world of our ancestors. The sun was a chariot driven across the sky by a deity, or the moon was the eye of a goddess, or the earth itself was a living body. When such imaginings were revealed to not be literally true, the Cartesian and Newtonian models that dominated much of eighteenth and nineteenth century science dictated a mechanistic, almost clockwork universe held together by little more than dead matter and dumb luck. With the natural world basically mere automata, all consciousness and intelligence were thought to exist solely in the turnings of the human mind. [2]
     In sharp contrast to this, the intuitive, imaginative world of myth always pictured the surrounding universe as something animated, intelligent, and responsive, a magical energy the gifted could play as effortlessly as a master pianist could a piano. The Force brilliantly continues this metaphor. From a certain point of view, the Jedi are as much musicians as warrior-monks, the Force their scaled, stringed instrument. When the Jedi selectively strum or pluck certain strings, a harmony of power erupts. The more skilled the master, the more complex the rhythm, the more astounding the feat. [3]
     Again in the Annotated Screenplays, Lawrence Kasdan, writer of Episodes V-VI, defined the Force as the “combined vibrations of all living things.” So perhaps the explanation really is a good one, the Force that we so powerfully see in action really the effect of something akin to musical vibrations on the surrounding world. Either way, the important point is that, as in all myth, there is a creative participation between humanity and the cosmos, and that said cosmos is alive and attentive.
     One could also argue that this “living” quality is at the base of most mystical experiences as well. As recounted in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience,” Richard Bucke eloquently explains the sensation of what he called “cosmic consciousness,” which overtook him one seemingly ordinary day:

Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that
the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary,
a living Presence: I became conscious in myself of eternal life.

Bucke’s commentary brings to mind the passage in Terry Brooks’ novelization of Episode One regarding how the Jedi began as a theological or philosophical study group, and it took an enormous amount of time before they even became aware of the Force.
     One has to wonder if Bucke’s experience of “cosmic consciousness” was all that different from the first Jedi who spontaneously realized he or she was immersed in a vast field of living energy. [4]
     Equally intriguing is the realization that beings in the galaxy far, far away create the Force, rather than the other way around. As Yoda himself said, “Life creates it. Makes it grow,” once again establishing this is the “living” Force that is being discussed, as taught by Qui-Gon. This also neatly ties in with Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on spirituality in The Power of Myth series: “Spiritual life is the bouquet, the perfume, the flowering and fulfillment of a human life, not a supernatural virtue imposed upon it.” So the Force grows out of the organic world as naturally as an oak tree grows from an acorn. [5]
     All of this is to again emphasize that the Star Wars galaxy is in fact animate, and the effects of this on the characters within have to be seismic. The basic psychology of someone living in such a reality is no doubt going to be drastically different from someone living in a passive, unresponsive one. The importance Jedi stress about letting go and having faith is important, because such a reality offers a natural “buoyancy” that supports and sustains someone when they do so.
     In one of his classic lectures on Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts likened the universe to “water.” To let go is to conversely be held up, while to struggle is to drown. The same could be said of life in the Star Wars galaxy, with water perhaps being the best metaphor yet for the Force.
     To imagine the Force as a kind of galaxy-wide ocean, filling all the spaces between the stars, planets, and moons, is to see and feel its reality all the more. While billions of beings swim in it as oblivious to its currents as fish are to water, there are others who come to feel the flow of its tides, and even partially control them. One could also visualize significant events creating ripples like a stone dropped in a pond, with said ripples traveling back and forth in time and space, enabling the gifted to see visions of the always-in-motion future.
     Incidentally, this interpretation of Force energy also makes good sense of the Jedi Order’s prohibition of things like “attachment” and “possession,” which play a substantial role in the prequels. As the Jedi teach, the Force exists within and without, both embracing the galaxy as well as uniting it. From this certain point of view, all of existence is fundamentally one, resulting in a wholeness that is as real as any of the particulars one may cling to.
     To again invoke a Zen metaphor, the ocean may produce individual waves that constantly crest and trough, but the water composing the waves is the true field of existence which is constant. If one becomes too infatuated with a single wave rather than allowing its natural rising and falling, suffering inevitably follows. To ignore that oneness of things [6] by fixating on a particular point [7] is called avidya in Sanskrit, often translated simply as delusion.
     It is well worth pointing out a truly extraordinary passage in the Episode III novelization which highlights this point. Matthew Stover brilliantly paints a portrait of a Jedi master in his prime, as he experiences reality when viewed through the shining kaleidoscope of the Force, in a rare moment when the dark side has receded and the energy is pure and perfect once more:

The Force flows through him and around him as though he has stepped into a crystal-pure waterfall lost in the green coils of a forgotten rain forest; when he opens himself to that sparkling stream it flows into him and through him and out again without the slightest interference from his conscious will. The part of him that calls itself Obi-Wan Kenobi 
is no more than a ripple, an eddy in the pool into which he endlessly pours.
The passage goes on to describe how he shares a fundamental identity with the ship he is on, the lightsaber taken from him, the battle droids surrounding him, and even the cyborg general who wants to kill him. All of this is caught up in the inexorable flow that is the Force, a flow that is beyond questions and answers, belief and doubt.
     The Force simply is, as constant as the silent stars shining throughout the galaxy. Its luminous reality pours from all the worlds, only to flow back to guide, inform, and connect them. This cross-pollinating energy plays the star systems like a harp, the resulting rhythms being the saga we all know and love ... [8]

[1] Albeit it as a Force ghost. Yes, we really need that deleted scene that tells us all this at the end of Episode III.

[2] This historical debate naturally continues in all six Star Wars films to great effect. 

[3] Such as levitating an X-Wing.

[4] Or at least I do, but I’m weird like that. 

[5] This biological root makes the dreaded midichlorians totally sensible, though lucky you, we won’t tackle that until a later date.

[6] The Force.

[7] Like say, a certain Senator from Naboo. 

[8] Interestingly, I rediscovered a quote from Percy Shelley who once conjured up an image that he intuitively sensed when he let go his conscious self and was inspired to write poetry: “There is a power by which we are surrounded, like the atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords, at will.” Our very own Romantic poet could have been channeling the Living Force, no?


  1. Oh another great essay. :) I love all the parallels between the Force and ocean, and music, and between Jedi and musicians. And everything else. :)

  2. Thanks, as always.

    Yeah, I've had that ocean/music imagery with me for a long time. Like with most religious ideas, very commonplace, concrete metaphors seem to help flesh everything out.

    Really, I just wanted to touch on what it would actually be like to exist in an animated, responsive reality permeated with such an entity as the Force.