Star Wars: The Selfless Force

By | January 1st, 2021
Posted in Longform | % Comments

Before we bid 2020 a final farewell, we share some of our favorite writing from the past year.  We wish all of you a happy and healthy New Year, with the hope for brighter days in 2021.  

What makes someone strong with the Force? After all, it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together. It’s an energy field created by all living things, from the enormous Exogorths and Purrgils, to yes, even the tiniest midi-chlorian. But why are some able to perform incredible feats with the Force, while other struggle with moving rocks? Why do certain people exhibit great power at one moment, but can never perform the same trick twice? Meditated on this I did, and I came to a conclusion. The key to unlocking the power of the Force, is selflessness.

In common parlance we hear selflessness, and we think, “Being really nice.” That’s not the kind of selflessness I mean. I’m talking about the annihilation of the self. Letting go of material attachments, connection, self regard. Accepting things as what they are. Seeing perfection in what is. Looking not to the past or the future, but existing in the now. That kind of selflessness. If we look to the Star Wars saga as a whole, we will see these lessons coming up again and again.

The Yearning of George Lucas

To start, let’s look to the beginning. I’m not talking about Luke or Obi-Wan, I’m talking about George Lucas. He was dreaming up Star Wars in the 70s, in a time when pop-Asian philosophy was extremely fashionable in certain parts of America. The Force borrowed notions from Taoism, Buddhism, New Age, and dialogue from Akira Kurosawa flicks. Dress that all up in the trappings of science, and you’ve got the outline of the Jedi religion.

Notably, there are two concepts that the Force leans on heavily. The first is tied into the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. I can’t think of an equivalent word in English but for me, it always conjures the image of a candle being blown out. In Buddhism, this is the end of the cycle of death and rebirth, when an individual reaches a state of peace. Depending on the specific tradition, this is achieved through wisdom, compassion, detachment from material want, and meditation.

We also should consider the Taoist concept of Wu-Wei, or nondoing. In many philosophies, inaction is credited to laziness or cowardice. Taoism takes the perspective that things are the way they are for a reason, and that trying to master nature corrupts perfection with human error. It’s easy to resist, to try to dominate. And the Dark Side of the Force is the quick and easy path. Much harder is the path of understanding, and the wisdom of acceptance.

It’s easy to picture a young George Lucas grappling with these ideas. Church attendance was on the decline, as was trust in the American government. Young folks were searching for spiritual fulfillment in new places. While making the prequel movies, Lucas looked back on his original ideas and remembered that he wanted to “awaken a certain kind of spirituality” in his audiences. He claimed it was distilled from the “essence of all religions.” That sounds a little grandiose to me. The Force was a specifically American distillation of specifically Asian religions. But then the ideas were attached to a story, and they took on something of a life of their own.

Okay, now we turn to the most famous of Jedi, Luke Skywalker. I specifically want to look to the turning point of his training to become a Jedi. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke makes the fateful decision to end his training with Master Yoda. He’s been doing Crossfit for at most, a couple of weeks in the Dagobah swamp, and feels compelled to rush off to save his friends. Yoda is not having any of this. “If you end your training now – if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil,” he says. And wow, that sounds pretty alarmist!

“And sacrifice Han and Leia?” Luke asks.

“If you honor what they fight for? Yes,” Yoda answers.

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Luke does not comply with his master. He goes off to Cloud City, loses a fight, and returns to Yoda a few years later. When Luke expresses interest in resuming his training, Yoda has completely changed his tune. “No more training do you require. Already know you, that which you need,” the Master says. And this is it, this is the key to understanding the Force. Not the code of the Jedi, but the power of the Force itself. When Luke left, he was lacking something. Now he understands it. What changed? Luke learned selflessness.

When he left to rescue his friends, he was ready to sacrifice himself for them. But that’s not true selflessness. He loved his friends in a material way. They needed to be alive and happy for him to be satisfied, and he was ready to fight and kill and die to make that happen. But now, he accepts the will of the universe, the will of the Force. He is embracing Wu-Wei. Luke is prepared to find strength in nondoing. Well, almost ready. There is one connection he hasn’t moved beyond yet.

“One thing remains,” Yoda says. “Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.” Luke’s final lesson is to test his last commitment to the world. He’s learned to love his friends selflessly. He understands that even if they are hurt, even if they die, his love will still be there. But he can’t accept what happened to his old man, and needs to test his last mortal bond. Confront Vader he does, and he even wins the fight. Not through strength of arms, mastery of power. Through Wu-Wei. He stops fighting, accepts his fate, and it is that acceptance that reawakens Anakin and saves the whole galaxy.

The will of the Force? Or a lucky break. Well, as one master would say, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.”

Heroes of the Light

Well, what about the other Jedi heroes? What about Rey? There are those who are critical of Rey’s perceived power, making comparisons to Luke’s training. After all, if Luke had to spend two weeks doing flips in a swamp to get his magic powers, isn’t it fair that the new girl has to do the same? Well bub, the Force ain’t interested in what you think is fair. Learning its power is not the same as taking a few mult-class levels in sorcerer. It’s a calling; a philosophy. That premise is asking the wrong question. It’s not about the physical training. To understand Rey’s power, we need to look at the differences between her and Luke.

Both grew up on desert planets, longing to see the universe. Both were the scions of problematic and powerful bloodlines, with a history of Force mastery. But Luke led a relatively conventional childhood. He had two parental figures in his aunt and uncle, and responsibilities on their farm. He had connections to friends, like Biggs Darklighter. That’s not the life Rey is leading when we meet her. She’s living the life of a hermit, with dreams of a family, and no friends to speak of. When people ask her who she is, she tells them honestly: “I’m no one.”

Luke has to learn to annihilate his self. Rey is already there. If anything she’s closer to Yoda than Luke, living in quiet isolation, with no connection to anything. In The Last Jedi she must overcome a trial of darkness, a tradition in the Jedi’s path to selflessness. And her lesson could not be more on the nose. The horror she must overcome is… herself. Thousands of her selves actually. And when she gets to the end of the tunnel, she is confronted with a mirror. The Force is asking her: are you willing to let go of your search for identity? Are you prepared to truly be no one?

Her conflict in The Rise of Skywalker reflects this journey (though maybe not its conclusion). She learns about her ties to the material world at last- and they are evil! She is a Palpatine. She longed for the comfort of a connection in the world, but the one she found sucks. And heavy-handed as it is, her journey ends and she achieves her true power when she accepts that she is who she is. That’s when she’s filled with the wisdom of all the Jedi who ascended before her, the selves that are not selves. The notion is a little bit undermined when she takes the Skywalker name in the final moments of the movie, but one would hope that she’s learned the true lesson of the Skywalkers, which is that real power comes from acceptance. There is wisdom in the now.

Continued below

You can see this lesson demonstrated again and again in the sequel trilogy. Many characters demonstrate great power in the Force, but it’s not because they learned a magic word. Their abilities come upon them at the moment they surrender. Rey battles Kylo Ren at the end of The Force Awakens with clumsy passion. She only gets the upper hand when he invokes the Force. Look at how her body language changes. She closes her eyes, let’s go of her hopes and fears, and suddenly she’s a badass warrior. Not because she like, downloaded fencing lessons. She’s an instrument of the Force. Its will (or Whills) supersedes her own.

How about Leia? We know she dabbled in Force mastery, but her true passion was in her connections to other people, something she was unable to reject. As a public servant and a leader, she was willing to self-sacrifice, but not willing to let go on the things that connected her to the world. But she did fly through a vacuum like a beautiful cosmic space angel. And what triggered that power? She let go, accepted her fate, but the Force was not done with her yet. It’s a contradiction sure, but all the best magic is.

Luke also has an important and difficult lesson to learn about acceptance. After all he struggled for and accomplished, he made a brief error with far-reaching consequences. In his despair, he tried to cut himself off from the Force, isolating himself not in acceptance, but grief and regret. It was only when he was willing to confront his relative smallness in the face of the vast galaxy that he was able to astral project, let go of his final feelings, and fade into peace.

I could keep going! The great Ahsoka Tano became powerful in the years after the Clone Wars, isolated from everyone that grounded her. But when she finally accepted the truth that the most important person in the world to her had become an agent of evil, she became the Star Wars equivalent of Gandalf the White. Kanan Jarrus feared his own power, and the consequences of failure. When he learned to trust others, he become one with the cosmic Force. His apprentice Ezra Bridger constantly struggled with letting go of those around him, but as he embraced destiny, he grew in power as well.

The Great Lie of the Dark Side

But what about the Dark Side? This really threw me for a loop. After all, the promise of the Dark Side is the opposite of the way of the Jedi. It’s all about embracing your passions, wanting your wants, giving in to your needs. The evil Force-users we see are all best characterized by a deep selfishness. If Force power is achieved through selflessness, how do you explain the great powers of Darth Vader? Well it turns out the bad guys, they lie.

Sure that’s the sales pitch. Anakin seeks dark powers to save the ones he loves. But he doesn’t. Padme dies. He sought a selfish goal, but ended up more isolated than ever before. This dude, who was so into love that he was willing to slaughter children in a misguided quest to protect it, ends up alone in a tube in a lava castle, only ever talking to people who utterly loathe him. Vader is alienated from his own body, numb to nearly everything. It’s dark, but Vader is the most selfless of all. He killed every part of himself and replaced it with… nothing. And that lets the dark side of the Force flow into him.

We don’t learn a lot about the inner lives of the powerful Dark Side disciples, but the same principle seems to apply. Palpatine strikes me as a guy who lives in the now. Dooku has his moments, but he’s a punk who is too materialistic to let go of his fancy solar sailer, and he went out like a punk. Maul’s quest for revenge destroyed his body, his family, and his home, and he was only bested when he encountered a master who was even more isolated than he was. Kylo Ren seeks to destroy his familial ties to achieve greater power.

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The old Sith Code from Star Wars Legends claimed that, “Peace is a lie, there is only passion/Through passion, I gain strength.” When you take the words of the bad guys at face value, they seem really appealing. The Jedi are over here telling you not to feel your feelings, of course you’re going to be drawn to the guys telling you that you’re perfect just the way you are. But every Dark Side follower falls into the same ironic trap. They end up in the same place as the Jedi, only instead of trying to get there on purpose, they do it through self-destructive behavior. Self annihilation.

Ultimately, this is all kind of distressing. I don’t want to do any of that! I like having loved ones in my life. I don’t want to be de-limbed in exchange for cool telekinesis. To be a good person, do I really need to be alone on a foreboding planet, forsaking all I’ve ever known? Absolutely not. The path of the Jedi is not for everyone. In fact I’d posit that for most, it would be… unnatural. Han is (mostly) a good dude, just one with a very strong sense of self. Same with Chewie. Leia dabbled with this philosophy, but concluded that she would rather do good through individual connections.

I Am One With the Force

For some, the selfless way of the Force is their destiny. Rey never asked for her power or responsibility, but found herself in those circumstances. For some it’s a choice. Luke worked hard to achieve what he did. For some, it happens in passing moments, as when Leia found the power to survive the cold of space. But for most of us, we brush up against mastery over the great underlying power of the universe, and then we decide to pursue other things. And we can still be good, we just don’t do it as awesome space wizards.

The extent of it is up for debate, but it is definitely true that there was a Russian effort to get Americans fighting about Star Wars in early 2018. You can call it absurd (and it is), or scary (it’s also that), or a little bit sad. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Because it was a recognition in the power of these ideas. Someone saw that in America (and elsewhere in the world), that people were drawing strength from a belief in Star Wars, and an understanding of the Force. To best us, they had to confuse us, and spread spiritual doubt.

To me, that’s proof in the success of George Lucas. He did awaken spirituality. He did it by appropriating some cultural beliefs, wrapping it up in the wondrous magic trick of movie making, tied it with a bow, and added some pew pew lasers just for fun. You can feel all sorts of different ways about the man, or the story he decided to tell, but I don’t think you can deny the power of the Force. In a world where organized religion can be hypocritical, people will inevitably turn to other sources for moral truth and spiritual enrichment.

So know this: to master the Force is to master yourself. To be free from suffering, you must first want nothing. To become truly powerful, you must first accept your powerlessness. To be connected to everything, you must be isolated from the distractions that are right in front of your face. Not all of us are going to become great Jedi heroes. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. First you will fail. But maybe one day you’ll succeed. Do or do not. Failure is the greatest teacher.

May the Force be with you.

//TAGS | star wars

Jacob Hill

Jake is from New York. He currently lives in Ohio. Ask him, and he'll swear he's one of those people who loves both Star Wars and Star Trek equally. He is the Multiversity Manager At Large. Say hi to him on twitter @Rambling_Moose!


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