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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
Published March 18, 2013

LIKABILITY: Lexi Alexander's film Lifted
By Ming Zhen Shakya

Most of us see our faults - if, indeed, we see them at all - the way Perseus saw the Medusa, i.e., through the safe distance of a polished shield's reflection. Ego-survival requires this degree of separation. To look directly at our faults is to maybe have to acknowledge them or, what is even more alarming, to correct them.

Prejudice, those biased beliefs which prompt us to act for or against someone, is a product of a person's emotions, those feelings that are generated somewhere in the abdomen. Rational thought would not be caught dead stepping into those intestinal convictions. Rational thought is wise to keep its distance. Think is no match for Feel.

It gets worse. If someone tries to disabuse us of our comfortable certainty that our opinions are pure and unbiased, we accuse that impertinent fool of being intolerably prejudiced. We faithfully defend a feeling. Only on rare occasions do we defend a thought. It's not as though we don't appreciate the damned things. Not a day goes by but that we generate at least one of them.

And so we stubbornly refuse to confront our prejudices, and as to analyzing or correcting them? We'd sooner muss Medusa's hair or give a Dutch Rub to all those wriggling mambas.

Usually, when filmmakers present an account of The Path - from its material world's attachments through to its spiritual denouement - they let us watch an allegorical "Questing Protagonist." The shield is up; and we are free to choose whether or not we wish to see a reflection of our erring selves in the shoes of that Path Climber.

Lexi Alexander, in the elegant simplicity of her film Lifted, does not give us the luxury of watching someone else make those stupid emotional errors that cause so much of life's bitterness and pain. She lowers the shield and we are caught in the act, red handed, committing the offense. We see how easily we succumb to 'knee jerk' prejudice.

There is nothing epic about the film. There are no grand sweeping gestures. She simply takes the Biblical "handwriting on the wall" and reduces that warning to an eight point font. But more clearly than any sermon can describe, the work enables us to see how we expand the process in our daily lives. It's scary. (Poor Medusa. Someone should warn her what she's in for when she comes face to face with us.)

Gross is easy. Subtle is hard. Alexander's manipulation of perception is deceptively facile. She turns inside out Zen's definitions of real and illusionary. Zen defines "the real or the true" as being that which is immutable, universal, unconditional, and eternal; and it is this "reality" that constitutes the world of the Spirit, the 'actionless actions' performed by the interior Buddha Self, or even the egoless state of what used to be called "Cosmic Consciousness." We may then define "the illusionary or the false" ego-conscious material world as being changeable, parochial, conditional, and temporal.

Alexander starts with the premise that those who have experienced the real world know that it is more vivid, more indelible, more commanding and complete than any of the paltry experiences of what we consider ordinary reality.

It is not possible to discuss the plot of Lifted beyond its exposition phase. She sets her film in a small Alabama town, in one of the unpretentious houses from which heroes emerge. Three people constitute a loving family that is challenged by poverty, bigotry, and the torment of drug addiction. Dad is an auto-mechanic who works hard to support his family. Having completed a tour of duty in Iraq, he is in the Marine Reserves. Mom is a recovering drug addict who attends group therapy sessions. She's been 'clean and sober' for over a year. Child "Henry" is a pre-pubescent junior high school student who has exceptional singing talent. Father and son are united by a love of music, a sanitized version of Rap. They sing whenever possible, even at the breakfast table. The impervious bond that holds musician to music reinforces their paternal and filial love.

The family's little sacred space is suddenly violated. Dad is recalled to active duty in Afghanistan. When Henry asks why he must go since he has already served, the father repeats the Socratic argument given in Crito, that is, he entered into a contract with his government and did not object when he received the benefit of it. (The Reserves paid him the money which he used as the down payment on their home.) He cannot then object when he is required to fulfill his part of the contract and serve.

Henry is bullied in school by a gang of boys who taunt him because of his mother's old drug addiction. On one particular day, when they chase him, he takes cover in a church, and the pastor, (nicely played by American Idol winner Ruben Studdard) helps him to write music. Impressed by Henry's talent, the pastor informs the boy that in two months there will be an Alabama Teen Starquest competition given in Birmingham. The prize is Five thousand dollars.

Without the father's income, bills go unpaid and the house is foreclosed upon. Henry and his mother must return to live in her father's trailer. This is not sacred space. Her father is a racial bigot who refuses to let Henry sing "ghetto" music. The man in the next trailer is a drug addict who persists in trying to lure the mother back into her old life. Overwhelmed by loneliness and loss, she succumbs to her heroin addiction. When her father catches Henry listening to rap music, he beats the boy and destroys his CD player.

As Henry views the problems, there is only one solution: win the contest and use the money to get their house and their lives back into that former safe place. Henry is now desperate to win the competition.

Do we want Henry to succeed? You bet we do. But we do not have to cheer him on. This film is not about a disparaged high school basketball team that must make up in verve what it lacks in height; or a disparate group of college jocks who must be hammered and teased into a football team. Alexander has taken a different approach. From the start of the competition, most of the judges agree that this kid is a winner. He has talented competitors, but he doesn't have to come from behind. He doesn't have to overcome a handicap. Those old themes do not apply.

And it is here that Lexi Alexander shows us why the Buddha noted that life in the material world is bitter and painful. She shows us how readily we serve our emotions, how eagerly we respond to feeling that believes that it thinks.

We desire Henry to win and, accordingly, we regard with disdain anyone who appears to oppose him.

We take from the film a lesson about skewed perceptions. As Zen teaches, only disciplined discretion enables us to free ourselves from being trapped by those bad choices we make that invariably lead us into bitterness and pain. Enlightenment requires that we detach our emotional teeth and claws from the people, places, and things around us. And, as we all know, detachment is the Everest of Zen.

Contrived utterances and calculated presentations are designed to manipulate us into responding in the way that those who formulate these expressions intend us to respond. Truth is not contrived. It reveals itself as spontaneously as an epiphany. Zen has an old story:

A novice wanted a master to accept him as a disciple. He went to the master and knelt before him and asked to be accepted. The master said, "I'll accept you as my student when you can tell me one word of truth. Go home and don't come back until you can utter a truthful word." So the novice went home and asked himself, "What will the master consider to be a truthful word?" Finally he settled on a word and returned to the master and knelt. "What is your truthful word?" the master asked. And the novice answered, "Buddha." The master got angry and shouted, "Get out, you fool! And don't come back until you can utter a truthful word!" So the novice went home and desperately sought a word that the master would accept as true. Finally he settled upon a word and returned to the master and knelt down, and when asked to speak a truthful word, he said, "Love." Again the master threw him out, telling him not to return until he could utter a truthful word. Frantic, the novice tried to pick an acceptable word. Finally, he decided upon one and returned to the master. As he knelt, the master suddenly kicked him hard. The novice yelled, "Ouch!" And the master said, "Now you may stay, my son. You have finally uttered a truthful word."

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