Mindfulness, Movies and The Karate Kid

06/17/2010 10:07 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm a mindfulness practitioner who just had a major teaching in humility from Hollywood. Kind of like a whopping kick in the head from Jackie Chan, or maybe a tug at my heart from Jaden Smith. Regardless, I got the message loud and clear -- it's time to pay more attention to paying attention.

"My focus clearly needs more focus," to paraphrase one of Mr. Chan's lines. But interestingly, it took an inspirational and emotionally charged story to break through my cool inner resistance. And, isn't that a lesson for life!

I'm talking about the way we slowly lose our self-awareness by rationalizing that we're sufficiently aware already. Put simply, the ego can convince the mind that "I'm attuned enough to just go through the motions; so there's no need to focus rigorously on self-reflection." That's a dangerous assumption -- and one that clearly increases the risk of all sorts of trouble.

Most days I try to meditate and practice mindfulness. Some days I don't actually "sit" (jargon for meditating), but nevertheless I do try to hold ethics in my heart and pay attention to what's happening in the moment. But tonight, while walking out of the theater, I recognized that trying describes my recent meditation practice more than doing. Bam, there goes another punch to the chest.

The bad news is that I could have done so much better. The good news is that I can "do" differently from now on. And, the interesting question is "how did The Karate Kid trigger such a powerful lesson?" I have a few ideas based on some of the movie's themes (and I promise, they won't spoil the story).

  1. It helps to have a Teacher: You know, a real Teacher, someone who knows you so well that there's nowhere to hide. I'm talking about someone who loves you so purely that no mistake can break the trust. Learn from a Teacher. If you have one, honor your Teacher. If you need one, start looking -- and take your time. An authentic spiritual teacher (because honestly, that's what it all boils down to -- no matter the discipline you study) walks the walk and talks the talk. Beware discrepancies; there are no exceptions to this rule.

  • The lessons you learn apply to life: Whatever particular discipline you study, the basic lessons generalize. If you're a musician, then you need to learn to hear the music in the score and listen to the music of your life. If you're a doctor, you need to heal yourself if you truly want to help your patients. If you're a martial artist, you need to extend the integrity, focus and honor your strive for on the mat, throughout all the moves of life off the mat. Strive for consistency so that your thoughts, speech and actions are constructive and ethical. Remember, when you find that constancy, you'll have a glimpse of fearlessness.
  • There's always more to learn: It really doesn't matter "if" you win or loose, or even "what" you accomplish. There's infinite room for refining "how" you do it. Okay, I admit it, watching The Karate Kid I cried and cheered, and generally lost myself in the moment. And, then, boom, I realized that the moral of the story hit me hard -- I'm nowhere near done learning, and that learning is about humility and humanity, about softening my own heart and generating compassion for others.
  • There are many truly wonderful moments in this movie, just as there are many wonderful moments in life. Sometimes we need the support of the camera's lens to focus our attention on the scene that is playing out right before our eyes. Maybe that's part of the answer -- that watching a movie, really immersing one's awareness within the movie -- can offer a shortcut to seeing familiar things differently. And, once we learn from the screen, maybe we have more confidence to look freshly at daily life.

    Movies can't innately be mindful, but audiences can. And audiences can also be mindless -- and self-righteous in the process (BTW: I include myself as I'd all but given up on Hollywood -- what with all the gratuitous violence, sex and stupidity). So I guess it's only right that a martial arts movie hit me hard enough to renew my dedication to mindfulness practice.

    No surprise, I suppose, that after The Karate Kid ended, I walked about of the theater seeing stars -- that is, having the presence of mind to see what was there -- clearly.