Balance The Equation – This Is Why We Needed Interstellar


I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I found out how I want to live my life, and could finally bypass the battling, scrapping, grappling and struggling that comes with figuring out what the future will bring. I think I can speak for many 20-somethings when I say that we’re all expected to know what we want to do and how we want to do it. We’re expected to have a plan, but before that plan, a philosophy.

Usually that philosophy is passed down from past generations. We observe our parents’ approach, their outcome, and evaluate it in terms of our own beliefs. It’s something like a scientific process, except it’s not about science. This is about us. It’s about what strikes at our core and makes us feel alive. There are moments when we transcend our everyday lives – this is when we are doing something that we feel we are meant to do.

The problem is that there are most likely several different reasons for feeling this invigorated. In our day to day lives, we may feel like we are merely existing without this feeling. Mindfulness is already a well discussed method of combating this “going through the motions” attitude. Several studies have indicated both the observable and non-observable benefits of the practice. After practicing mindfulness for about a year, I’ve felt tremendous benefits. My focus has improved, my sense of self has lessened, and my gratitude is greater than it has ever been. I found myself happier than ever, because I was learning to find happiness in each second that passes. But I think the reason I was the happiest was because I thought I found the key to my happiness forever. No more looking back, no more searching for more. I thought I had what I needed. The long search was over.

This is when Interstellar came along and unraveled the issues I had found with mindfulness, but was afraid of pondering for fear that I would reduce to effectiveness of the practice. It showed us that we can never abandon our ambitions. It showed us that some of us are in fact destined for greatness. We just have to maintain hope and faith, and keep believing in ourselves. The opportunity will present itself when the time comes and it is then where we will prove to ourselves that our ambition was not a fantasy or a delusion. It’s not about proving it to others – it was never about that. This is about ourselves, it always was, and always will be.

You see, we’re all looking for a routine. Routines are easy to follow, as they allow us to act mindlessly and effortlessly. Even though mindfulness preaches the opposite, our natural tendency is to seek comfort and ease. We can become comfortable in our mindfulness practice, or at least comfortable with the idea that we can practice mindfulness when we please and reap the benefits on a need by need basis. The issue here is that we actually become complacent and arrogant in our practice. We lose sight of the discovery process because we believe that we’ve found what we needed and can relax. This is not dissimilar from “One-Hit Wonder” syndrome.

Interstellar taught us that we can’t relax, not when we the world is ravaged by blight (which is arguably our impending situation). If people in the movie practiced mindfulness and found contentment with what was around them, assuming that one could find contentment in those conditions in the first place, humans would have been doomed. If Cooper was grateful for the little crops that did grow and left it at that, where would “we” be?

Buddhism is centered on mindfulness. I’m a believer, or at least for the past year, I have been. And I still like to think I am one. For someone who likes regularity, though, this is hard for me to sort out, but what the movie trigger was my sense of drive again. Mindfulness taught me to be like water; I forced myself to go with the flow, but to be aware of each moment. I may have been practicing incorrectly, but I felt like I was relinquishing my sense of control (in every sense of the word and aspect of my life) and increasing my sense of gratitude and compassion. There isn’t anything wrong with this, and I probably would have been pleasantly surprised with this insight had I not seen the movie.

So I guess in all this confusion, I’m trying to say that mindfulness can detract from our ambitions – Interstellar restored them. In today’s hyperawareness and technological age, maybe mindfulness was what we needed to unplug and distress. We should be content with what we have, and not long for the advancement of technology to bring us the iPhone 7. But the movie argues that it isn’t a philosophy that we can continue to live by for very long. There will be a moment where we need ambition to ensure our survival. There will always be an event that kicks us in the ass and forces us to adapt, or face the possibility of extinction. Therefore, we can practice mindfulness for short term benefits, but ambition (and in this case, the desire to explore beyond our galaxy) will bring us the long term benefit of survival. If we don’t first have ambition, then we cannot establish an environment to practice mindfulness. In other words, mindfulness will not bring benefits without the drive to first survive.

We can be extremely content with everything we currently have. I’m not referring to the resources immediately around us, but the current state of the world. We can accept that tyrants and dictators will always be present, that war is inevitable, and that global warming will strike at some point. We can come to terms with these evils and be completely happy in the present, but the benefit will be to none but your own. It’s the easy way out (and it breaks my heart to say these words, being born and raised a Buddhist and wholeheartedly practicing mindfulness for the past year).

Mindfulness teaches us to have compassion for others; the practice is not just for ourselves, but for others as well. Faced with the possibility of extinction, however, I don’t see how we can turn to mindfulness as a solution. Maybe I’m just a perfect example of the guy buying into the movie’s agenda – faced with all the complacency that has come with this digital age, the message is to inspire people to dream again (or start dreaming). Why are we happy with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on this planet when we could be doing everything we can to achieve something greater, something more profound? Or maybe, we aren’t supposed to fight extinction (as pessimistic as that may sound). Perhaps that’s the goal of mindfulness: true selflessness is resisting the need to ensure the survival of our kin. Our kin are projections of us and the past, and our desire to ensure the welfare of our progeny may be another selfish fixation that mindfulness can remedy.

I don’t have the answers, and I never will. The real take-away from this movie (for me at least, after all this rambling) is the establishment of a philosophical spectrum. At one end is mindfulness and at the other is ambition. Neither is better or worse than the other, they just are. I’m not saying that you can’t be mindful and ambitious at the same time; mindfulness has become a useful tool for professionals in various fields. You can also be ambitious and maintain a regular practice of mindfulness. But fully committing to one leaves no room for practicing the other. To practice true mindfulness is to have complete content and gratitude with the present, the present is more than sufficient, it’s everything. Having complete ambition is the opposite, seeking and pursuing happiness through endeavors and being unsatisfied with present conditions. They’re philosophies that conflict by definition.

So, what do we do? Well, we can never really have the answer while we’re alive. Without ambition, we would die before trying, and we’d never really know the extent to which our ambitions could take us. On the other hand, without mindfulness, we’d never know when to hold on for a second and appreciate our progress. We’d need a proper balance between the two, but when certain situations present themselves, we’d have to lean towards the appropriate philosophy. As Interstellar showed us, facing extinction requires pure ambition. After establishing some stability mindfulness would prove more useful. They’ve found respite, so why not practice gratitude and compassion? Thus gives rise to a cycle – a cycle of ambition and mindfulness (gratitude, compassion, contentment). Ambition establishes the conditions necessary to practice contentment as well as prevents the practice from prematurely dying out.

We need both, and Christopher Nolan showed us why we need one of the two. If this movie doesn’t inspire people to dive headfirst into science, then I don’t know what could. The graphics were amazing, the addressed issues were issues that are currently at hand, and the message was clear. Absolutely brilliant. Well, now that we have an incredible advocate for ambition it’s only just to have one for mindfulness as well. Mindfulness is permeating into popular culture, with several writers from various fields advocating its benefits. Not sure if we’ll see a movie created about the practice at such a large scale as Interstellar, but hopefully we will. We can’t have an integral part of this spectrum missing – just like how Murph never would have been able to launch the space station without Cooper’s literal shot into the darkness that was the event horizon.