I’m a big David Bowie fan, after having fallen in love with him as a young teenager, watching Jim Henson’s film, Labyrinth. He played the Goblin King, a creature who was used to getting things his own way – he was all powerful, and the Labyrinth was his to control. Or so he thought.
It’s a wonderful tale, of a young girl coming into adolescence, of learning that life is not always what it seems, and that life is unfair. It’s also about making friendships along the way, about being kind and also familial obligations. There are so many ways to interpret the film, and I thought to look at it from a Zen point of view. It was interesting.
Our thoughts often control us, without our even realising it. These thoughts, these intangible things, have so much power over our lives. We believe in our thoughts so much, and hold to them so much. We hold on so tightly to our thoughts, and to ourselves. Who would we be without our thoughts?
Yet in Zen we try to realise the control that our thoughts have over us, by acknowledging them, by becoming the observer. Bit by bit, as we sit in meditation and go through our daily lives, we begin to see patterns emerging. We may have a thought about ourselves – I’m artistic. We tell everyone that, reinforcing that thought. Yet that is not all that we are – we may be good with animals, gardening, maths, etc. The repetitive thoughts, the ones that we say over and over again to ourselves, become a reality for us. Yet they are still thoughts, not reality. There is no substance to them.
Of course, not all thoughts are bad. We need to think, to work out problems, to get out of bed in the morning even. It is in the attachment to the thoughts that gives them a false substance, a false reality. It also can give us great pleasure, living in this fantasy land of our thoughts – it means the hardships of real life cannot affect us there. We are safe, in the bubble of our thoughts.
Most of us spend a lot of time being controlled by our thoughts – we never even realise it. Much like Sarah, the protagonist in the film, was being controlled by the Jareth, the Goblin King without her knowledge, we aren’t even aware of the power that they hold over us. They make us run around in circles, not getting anywhere, simply thinking, thinking, thinking – where is the doing? Where is the experience? We get angry at someone, and have a thought about that. Then we attach to that thought, and it can affect us for the rest of the day, week, year, or our entire lives. We all have emotional responses to situations, and thoughts about everything – but the attachment to them is where stumble and fall on each and every step. There is no progress – we’ve fallen down the oubliette of our thoughts until we are completely trapped in a small, dark and confined space.
Instead of simply experiencing the anger and then letting it go, we’ve become a prisoner of our thoughts about the situation. And all the while, the Goblin King laughs to himself, safe in his tower, loving to watch us run around in circles as the sands of time run out.
When we sit in zazen, however, we begin to notice our thoughts, our patterns of behaviour. By being the observer, we can take a step back from our thoughts and look at them without attaching to them. We can see the physical manifestations of them in our body as well – a contraction in our jaw, the hunching of our shoulders, our heart beating faster. By becoming aware, of thoughts, and indeed, of all our surroundings, we are better able to respond to situations than before. Sarah didn’t see through the illusion for a long time in the film – even though she was reminded by other characters, time and again, that nothing is what it seems. Slowly though, the illusion wavered, and the cracks in the false reality began to show. The bubble was broken, and Sarah was somewhat freed, for a time. When she finally saw through the illusion fully, and took the great leap into the unknown, literally and figuratively, that’s when she was able to come face to face with the Goblin King himself, to bring him out of hiding and face him in a final battle.
So, after much practice in zazen, after much meditation and time spent being the observer to all the thoughts that run around in our head, without getting caught up in them, we face them down. We say “enough” – we are not going to be controlled by them any longer. We see the thoughts for what they are. The thoughts fight back, with everything that they’ve got – Jareth holds out the most potent, alluring thing that we all hold so dear – our dreams. He offers them to Sarah, but Sarah now sees through the false reality. She then recites the final lines from her book back to the Goblin King, saying the powerful, magical words that will defeat him.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”
Those six words – “you have no power over me” is what can release us from the labyrinth of our minds, from the traps that our thoughts can create when we attach to them. We suddenly become free, to experience, to return to our pure self, to break loose of the chains and to truly live life to the fullest.
So, the next time we fall into despair, wishing our lives were different, we can simply say those six words – you have no power over me. When our minds are rushing around as we try to meditate, we simply observe them without getting caught up in them, and repeat you have no power over me. When someone says something nasty to us, we feel the emotion, we react (hopefully with compassion) and then we let the experience go, without attaching to it, simply by saying you have no power over me.
Then and only then can the Goblin King be defeated, and we freed from the labyrinth of our minds.
Though, I must admit, I’m sure some of us would prefer to stay in there with David Bowie 😉