THE BLOG
02/28/2014 01:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014

Mindfulness in Everyday Life: Sitting in a Darkened Theater -- Movies and the Mind

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Sitting in a darkened theater, no one can see my face. Cloaked and hidden, I am in a private world. My stomach clenches. Droplets of sweat sit on my lip. My heart is pounding. The hero of the film is emerging from a critical situation. I hold my breath. He prevails, our hero, but, in fundamental ways, is forever changed: He is wiser, more heartfelt, more real. The good guy wins.

From my seat in the audience, I am also changed. In the movie in which I star, called "My Life," I am the good guy too, and as the house lights fade up, I sense that I can emerge from my critical moments triumphant, like the hero.

I have played out this scenario in the viewing of so many films: The Wizard of Oz, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, When Harry Met Sally, The Help. Everyone has a list of movies that have changed their lives.

Robert Rayher, senior lecturer in screen arts and cultures at the University of Michigan, explains that the "raw experience" of sitting in front of the screen can illicit strong emotional reactions. "Great movies, like other great works of art, can change the world for us," he says. "Some filmmakers consider in great detail how they want the audience to feel about what is on screen -- others don't. But the purpose of 'story' is always to bring the audience into the world, the hopes and fears, the triumphs and defeats of the characters. Investment by the viewer is crucial to the ultimate payoff of the movie."

My first memory of such a film was Love Story, seen with my grandmother when I was just a teen. I remember leaving the theater that night, the slick sidewalk reflecting a fresh rain. Walking down the street, we tightly held each other's hand. All these years later, that single memory represents the jarring, crystallized moment of realization that my grandmother would eventually leave me, falling prey to the same unforgiving contract of mortality portrayed so vividly in the movie. Like Oliver and Jenny, played by actors Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, I saw that my grandmother and I would one day grapple with that same crushing truth.

Understanding through metaphor. Truth-seeking through story. Just as the bards of ancient Babylonia would visit towns to perform and educate through storytelling, modern-day film informs our self-awareness and deepens our connection to each other. What we learn at the movies helps us to mark our emotional coordinates and more clearly know where we are and, therefore, where we need to go.

From the first frames of film created by British inventor and photographer Eadweard Muybridge in his 1882 loco-motion study, called The Horse in Motion, to Thomas Edison's invention of the Kinetoscope in 1892, through the days of the nickelodeon and Cecil B. DeMille's silent film era, then, finally, to the introduction of "talkies" in the smash hit The Jazz Singer in October 1927, movies have woven their way into the fabric of American life. Hollywood, the industrial and spiritual center of movie making, rose out of the lust and desires through which theatergoers silently thirsted.

From late 19th century celluloid to the multi-layered, digital images of today, real life becomes a mere substitute for life glorified on the film reel. Movies give voice to political commentary, national dialogue, and pursue explorations of self-discovery. Norma Rae (1979) showed the exploitation of workers and the power of the union, Schindler's List (1993) portrayed the plight of Holocaust Jews, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) documented filmmaker Michael Moore's view of President Bush and the Iraq war, and this year's 12 Years a Slave portrays the horror of slavery and roots of discrimination in America's history. Movies model the best of times and the worst of times, providing a subtle, unconscious blueprint for how to understand ourselves and our world, engendering in us, perhaps, a more mindful and compassionate way of being.

While it is true that movies may inspire rage and violence in an already psychopathological individual, as evidenced by John Hinckley's naming Taxi Driver as inspiration for his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, or mass shooter James Holmes citing The Dark Knight's Joker as his role model, movies, at the same time, have an intrinsic and unique power to heal.

Farmington Hills psychologist Dr. David Manchel has researched the experience of "emotional transformation through motion pictures" and says that there is great healing potential in what is called "cinema therapy" -- watching and discussing topics and characters in movies that impact us. "Often these stories reflected mythic themes, and these myths, in addition to entertaining people, often teach them how to deal with life's challenges," Manchel says. "Film viewers can learn valuable lessons on how to cope or work through problems when they identify with a movie character and see how he or she resolved an issue."

Almost everyone loves going to the movies, even though we may not know why. Movies can be comforting, movies can provide a much needed respite from the personal drama of our own lives, and movies are, for the most part, affordable. While many families are struggling financially, and may be unable to take a vacation, going to the movies together, for example, may prove a viable, meaningful alternative.

Movies can also provide a much-needed escape from the harsh world waiting outside the theater doors. "We may be able to see and accept something on the screen that we would tend to repress or disregard in ourselves," Manchel says, and so we are better able to face and come to terms with these aspects of our darker, shadow side. "There are no consequences when we enjoy watching a movie about a serial killer or some natural disaster where people die in horrible ways. We leave it all there in the cinema."

Going to the movies can be an inexpensive break for the family, a womb-like place to hide when life gets overwhelming, and it can capture and tell truths in ways that the mind more easily accepts and understands. Motion pictures play pivotal roles in political and societal movements, capturing the human moments that comprise a growing collective zeitgeist, teach lessons of historic import, and, as Manchel puts it, "remind us of the pure magic of being alive."

A version of this blog was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.

Follow Dr. Rockwell on Facebook, and Twitter @drdonnarockwell, and at her website: donnarockwell.com.