THE BLOG
12/03/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The Vital Spark of Hope Springs: The power of a box office flop

Ask anyone what they really want. If they're honest, they'll tell you "connection." Real connection, intimacy with life in every way, whether that is communing with nature or conversing with a close friend. And, if they're really honest, they'll admit that sexual intimacy is the most visceral way we all feel connected to life. Intimacy is the nurturing balm that allows the healing function of life to flow through us. That begins by being intimate with your own life. Soon you are capable of being naturally intimate with others and your "special other." Intimacy moves us from pain to pleasure, passion and peace.

For so many people today, that intimacy -- personal and sexual -- seems elusive. The brave new movie Hope Springs (just out on DVD) gives us a look at a marriage in which intimacy is absent. Tommy Lee Jones plays a straight-laced, upper-middle-class husband who's spent a lifetime providing for his family in all the right ways, including an upscale suburban home with all creature comforts. He shares that home with Meryl Streep, his counterpart as the classic middle American housewife. After some 30 years of marriage and raising two kids, you'd think it's now time for enjoying life, yet the spark of friendship and warm love has been drained from the relationship. They sleep in separate bedrooms and have become adept at avoiding the level of intimacy that sex requires. The juice of life has been replaced by socially prescibed roles and polite respect. I applaud its courage in facing these issues, especially in a Hollywood movie with two huge stars.

As we enter this scenario, Streep's character, Kay, is suddenly determined to find love in their relationship. But there is no indication that she has an intimate relationship with herself, let alone with her husband. As the story goes on and Kay arranges for them to visit a famous self-help author and therapist, she is revealed to be afraid of intimacy, too. For intimacy includes vulnerability, the fear of growing old, the shame of sexual failure, and the illusion of champagne and love songs. Tommy Lee Jones' Arnold tells the therapist that he has worked hard, provided a home, raised their children, and resisted cheating: He has done everything "right." Yet he has no internal relationship with himself, and no intimate connection with his wife. The squirming he does on that therapy couch is hard to watch, and you can't help but see the human condition right there in its wretched beauty. The respect they've achieved for each other is no substitute for the intimacy that Kay yearns for -- and Arnold too, in due course.

Hope Springs has utterly flopped at the box office, receiving mixed reviews (a few raves) and is swept under the rug for 2012. Yet no two treasured actors have put more of their exposed selves on screen to show us what a near-dead relationship looks like.

This film is subversive. It doesn't sugarcoat bleak therapy sessions or painful bedroom scenes one bit, because I believe the filmmakers are asking us to look at our own discomfort instead of running away from it. Here is a marriage that has no love, no sex, no intimacy, and is being sustained only by habituated behavior. Is our society ready for such a raw and real story?

Yet there is hope! Toward the last part of the movie, Arnold begins to feel overwhelming love for Kay. He fights for a table at a nice restaurant and books the fancy room upstairs. He may be trying for sexual intimacy, but he also appreciates his wife as a person in those scenes: I think he loves her for fighting for their marriage.

The movie speaks for the life force and the embodied self. Instead of running to the world of action heroes or liaisons with the beyond, it calls for actual intimacy at home. Here is every couple we've seen so many times sitting across from each other in a restaurant, saying nothing and looking finished. The movie zooms in on their famished spirits and their untouched flesh and breathes life into them.

I'm sorry to say Hope Springs has a Hollywood ending, all peace and light. The problem solved. But is it really? I don't believe such couples could move to romance so rapidly. The obstructions to life have been programmed into us for generations. A visceral change is needed beyond clever therapy sessions.

Intimacy with the embodied self is the centerpiece of yoga. This may not seem as thrilling as embracing another human body, but without it you can't really embrace life or another completely. As sharply reflected in this movie, I sense society's desire to acquire what I have written about in my book-- love, sex, and intimacy. But there is an impatience to skip the first requirement, personal intimacy, without which there is zero love, sex, or intimacy.

The daily practice of seven minutes of moving and breathing distilled from ancient yoga serves to reunite the male female polarities of your own body. Intimacy with self is the indispensable first step if you want real intimacy in your life. Sensitivity to your own embodied life then naturally flows to others. When you aren't equipped with this self-connection you fall, and your partner can't always catch you -- you'll wear him or her out.

In the context of yoga, intimacy refers to a heightened sense of perception, both sexual and nonsexual. It is your intimacy with body, breath and relationship (in that order). Enjoying the sound of auburn leaves crunching under your feet, the quiet patch of coolness beneath tree branches, or the warmth of your lover's body wrapped around you in a jigsaw puzzle of skin. The barriers between you and the beauty all around you dissolve. We need the practical tools to reclaim it on a daily basis. This is what I would like to add to this universal story that Hope Springs puts a bright spotlight on.