Have any of you seen the film, Inception, which was one of the big box office hits this past summer? [Oh, good. You can tell us what it was about.] Not really; I think I can give it a try; I got the main points, at least.
The main character in Inception is Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate spy who uses his skills to sneak into the minds of high-power executives and extract their most treasured secrets, which he then sells to rival corporations for Big Bucks. (Of course, if there’s mayhem and intrigue involved, the Big Corporations have got to be involved. Even though, after seeing Inside Job this past week, it could also be the Big Banks that are involved instead.)
Cobb, in his former life, is also a fugitive from the law, and has a past of his own. He’s haunted by the death of his wife, Mal; he wants more than anything to go home to his children; but he can’t; if he does, he’ll be arrested.
So he seems destined to spend his life interminably on the run. But when a rich Japanese CEO named Saito offers to make Cobb’s legal troubles go away, so he can finally return home to his kids, he seizes the opportunity. Saito wants Cobb to undermine his business rival, Robert Fischer. But instead of targeting Fischer directly, he wants Cobb (and his team) to infiltrate Fischer’s mind, to plant there dreams which will cause him to break up his own corporation, and leave the field open to Saito’s plans for monopoly.
This process of planting dreams is called inception, and many say that it just can’t be done. It’s too complex, too dangerous—and Cobb’s earlier experiments with inception are what caused his great heartache in the first place. But he wants to go home again; he wants to see his kids; so he agrees to Saito’s challenge.
As in any good heist film, Cobb assembles his team: his longtime partner Arthur, who has worked with Cobb on many missions before; an experienced dream traveler named Eames; a shady chemist named Yusuf; and a brilliant architecture student named Ariadne (in Greek mythology, of course, Ariadne is the one who leads Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth; that gives you some idea of the kind of imagery and symbolism we’re going to have showered upon us as Inception proceeds.)
But unfortunately for Cobb, things start to get complicated (very complicated) almost from the get-go. This is mainly because his late wife, Mal, keeps popping up in the dream he and his team are trying to conjure up with Fischer. (They all have to dream the same dream, along with Fischer, for this to work.) Mal’s appearance throws off the other team members and threatens to destroy the elaborately constructed illusion that they’ve prepared for Fischer, in order to plant new dreams, new ideas, into his psyche. What we have in Inception, then is a dream within a dream—within a dream—and maybe, within another dream as well. Four layers of reality (four different story lines) unfolding (and interacting with each other) all at once. Like a cinematic Rubik’s Cube, one reviewer has described it. As I said, complicated. Like life. And, as in life, if you understand half of what’s going on, you’re probably doing about as well as most people.
Inception was not my favorite film of the year. Not that you asked, but that would have been The King’s Speech, with The Fighter second. I guess I prefer my story lines linear (more or less), and my inspiration drawn from the world of flesh, rather than that of fantasy. I never got into Rubik’s cubes all that much, and I sure as heck could never figure them out. I was more into those little plastic squares, where you’re supposed to put the numbers in order. You know: 1…2…3…4… I am a simple man in that way, I suppose. Or maybe not as bright as I think I am…
But I am glad that I got to see Inception, anyway. It is a highly imaginative film, and daring in many ways. It opens us to some deeper ponderings on the nature of flesh and fantasy, of dreams and reality.
Cobb is an interesting character. Of course, it only makes perfect sense that someone as capable as he is at extracting dreams from others would be deeply hiding secrets of his own. History (or, more likely, psycho-history) is full of characters who did what they did as a manifestation of something they were repressing, or hiding, or running away from. “We become the things we hate,” Jung once said; it may also be true that, often deep inside, we are, in fact, the things we hate. (It makes you wonder sometimes about the vehemence some people have against, say, homosexuals, or foreigners, or Republicans. What is it about that despised other that’s inside of us, that we’re trying to repress, or run away from?) Better to hug your demons, as the therapist Pia Mellody said, or they’ll come back to bite you in the “back” (she used a slightly different part of the anatomy than “back” which would not quite be appropriate for Sunday morning. But I think you get the idea.)
Cobb is all about having people “trust” him. Indeed, the only way he’ll ever be able to plant the ideas he wants to inside Fischer’s mind is for Fischer to trust him, totally and completely. But he can’t trust himself, can he? He can’t escape from the guilt and the pain of the past, and so it continues to haunt him, time and again, and at the least opportune moments.
“Know thyself,” the ancients counseled. Good advice. But something it takes a lifetime to do, really. But the first step in the process is confronting who we really are, and understanding that usually the best way out of a troubling situation is by going right straight through it. The only way out, often, is through.
Confronting who we really are is never easy. It’s seldom very much fun. Admitting when we’ve screwed up, and transgressed, and done wrong is tough work. (No wonder we human ones avoid doing it and choose instead to live in denial as much as we do.) But it is “the way out”. It’s the road to growth. It’s how we find depth and meaning in these lives of ours.
In the later part of Inception, the architecture student Ariadne helps Cobb to find his way through the labyrinth of his guilt and pain. To find his way through, so he can get out of it, and let go of it, and maybe, find his way home again.
Inception also raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship of memory and dreams—How our memories of the past color the ways in which we envision our present and future reality.
Ancient voices also tells us that “The truth will set you free.” But often, we’re set free by letting go of the truth of the past, so we can move beyond it in our lives.
A great part of the tragedy of Cobb’s life was caused by the inability of his wife to let go of the dream world they had created for themselves: a perfect world, with palm trees and tropical beaches, full of idleness and luxury, free of the challenges of “real life”. Because she refuses to let go of it, it all comes to a devastatingly tragic end. Now, Cobb won’t let go of it either. In his dreams, he either wants to cling to the glorious hours before the tragedy. Or, paradoxically perhaps, he clings to the tragedy itself; he won’t let go of the pain and guilt it has engendered.
The Eagles used to sing: “Call someplace paradise, kiss it good-bye.” Perfection (in this worldly existence) is a figment of the human imagination, and
Paradise never existed. (Remember that utopia is the Greek word for “nowhere”.) The “good old days” were certainly not as perfect as we remember them, and they probably weren’t all that great, if the truth be told. So, to cling to some enraptured vision of the past is to cling to a lie.
Even more harmful, if we cling to the past (either its joy or its pain), we rob the present of its power and its pathos and its joy. Clinging to the past is like trying to live in the dream at the expense of the reality (like Cobb’s wife tried to do, tragically).
Which is not to say that our memories don’t have power. They do. They can inform us in our quest to know who we are. They can inspire us in our journey toward who we can become. They can gladden our hearts and give us a sense of history and continuity and community and rootedness. “As living memories we possess the greatest gift that one person can give to another.” That’s something I say in almost every funeral at which I preside. When we have a true and abiding memory of someone we’ve loved and lost, then, truly, they are part of who we are, forever.
Memory is powerful.
But memories are only healthy and helpful if we live them in the context of who we are, right now. Otherwise, the past holds its heavy hand over the present and capsizes the fragile craft of our being. When we let the past hold sway over today, then “The situation has become unstable,” as one of the characters in Inception says.
When we let ghosts from the past have command over us, then all that past enmity and hatred and anger piles up, and things become engorged and crusted over, and we lose sight of who we are and what we feel and what we believe and are experiencing, and pretty soon, we’re living past generations’ dreams and fighting their battles and human progress remains mired in the same old ruts of hatred and strife.
Inception reminds us that the ideas we have—the stories we choose to live within-- the myths by which we define ourselves—go a long way toward creating our own reality. We choose our dreams and visions, and our creative imagination is a powerful part of who we are. Inception reminds us that, to a great degree, we create our own reality. We all have deeply rooted beliefs that may determine how we will lead our lives.
But it also tells us that, at the very same time we are creating our reality, that others are creating their realities as well. As we spin our tales, others are spinning theirs. And together, we sleep and dream as one. The true Inception really has five billion plots and subplots—five billion dreams—all progressing and unfolding at once. But that’s too much, even for
and Hollywood CGI! But it is the miracle of living as part of the interdependent web of all creation.
And, like in watching the movie Inception, if we understand what’s going on inside that web half the time, we’re doing pretty well.
But sometimes, there come to us times—fleeting moments usually, when we do understand. When we stand alone at , staring into the darkness or the sea or the sky, all of a piece and all at peace. Or, they come to us as we sleep, and dream, and know, on a deeper level, why we are here. There come to us, if we are fortunate, those moments when we say, like the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu: “I did not know in that moment if I was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.”
Or, as Prospero exclaims in The Tempest:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with [the bliss of] sleep.
We are both human beings striving to be spiritual, and spiritual beings trying to figure out what it means to be human.
We are creatures both of the shadow and of the solid ground. Both of waking and of dreaming.
Perhaps the real challenge we face is not “inception”—not to plant our hopes and dreams in the minds of others; but rather, “conception”: the merging of all our dreams, one with another, in deepest sharing and genuine intimacy, in order to bring to birth new creations of truth and beauty and imagination: in our dreams, and in our world, both in our flesh and in our fantasy.