A Disney Approach to Vedanta
Hello my dear readers! As some of you know, I am a huge Disney nerd. Once upon a time, I wrote my 65+page college thesis on princesses and feminism. Woof. In the past few years, I’ve acquired quite an addiction to yogic philosophy, but I haven’t lost my infatuation with cartoons. So when I studied at Carbondale’s True Nature Healing Arts with the infamous Ramji, it was only natural that his lectures resonated with a recent Pixar film, and thus the following article started to form. I’ve been marinating with his wisdom and tweaking this for about a year, and decided it was time to release my opinions out to the world. Here ya go, folks.
The Vedanta of Inside Out
A Conscious Look at Self-Realization through Disney Modern Culture
Disney’s Inside Out is the tale of a young girl whose emotions rule her day to day life. A cartoon plot with some serious life lessons may not appear like a futuristic approach to ancient Indian philosophy, yet the following discourse will shatter those judgements, illuminating ways in which we can learn about and apply these timeless teachings. In the very first scene, we see the impact of the emotional body on the human being, and why the Vedas describe many ways for us to conquer our waking mental state to see beyond the realm of maya (illusion). Joy, the first characteristic of the emotional body present at birth, appears into consciousness as a halo of white light, and thus begins the creation of our Jivatma, Riley. As Verse 27 outlines, “The physical body is born as a result of the karma from previous lives. It is the locus of experience for the individual and is made of gross matter, which evolved from the division and recombination of the subtle elements.”
Aka, we are all stardust.
We learn through the vehicle of a children’s movie the true essence of Vedantic translations. Sadashiva Samarambhaam: From the first Guru, pure existence/ consciousness. Shiva, or Bliss Awareness, is in every circumstance, which is why birth is dominated by this limitless force. Riley’s real nature is Shiva consciousness, the unborn and undying vibration; the actual birthing of this baby girl is not the Self, as explained in Verse 47, “The physical body is an object of perception, an inert assemblage. It does not exist before birth and after death. It gains new attributes every moment, making its nature uncertain.” The moment Riley, the physical Anamaya Kosha, is birthed into maya, this earthly playground, Joy is in her command center. Riley’s existence rests in samadhi for her first few moments of life, as Joy witnesses her parents’ love and the pure bliss that is divine oneness.
Because Riley has entered the veil of illusion, however, and is not self actualized, Joy is soon joined by the other command center figures: Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Verse 30 translates, “The subtle body is the individual’s tool for performing action. The individual, whose nature is actionless consciousness, is free of the subtle body but becomes an apparent actor when consciousness illumines the subtle body.” Riley is most literally the “apparent actor,” a servant to the dramatic ups and downs of her emotional tendencies. The subtle body, containing ego, mind, intellect, memory, ignorance, desire and action, produces a spectrum of emotions that steer Riley through life. These particular thought energies, or Manomaya Kosha, help to dictate Riley’s Core Personality by taking over her ability to respond and react to all situations. The film emphasizes that emotions will never lead her back to a state of consciousness bliss by showing the viewer how quickly they come and go. Through Vedanta, we know unstable states of mental health are all illusions, but humans have a choice to “walk through the prison door, and open the love window,” as Sufi poet, Rumi, recites. Emotions can be conquered through lifetimes of good action, right doing, and service to others. Although she is born of true love, Riley will be stuck giving her attention towards objects until she can Discriminate properly and release the ever changing emotions as captains of her vessel. This is her Karma, her reason for reincarnating on earth --to become the watcher and observer of the emotions, rather than the reactor.
“A power called Maya resides in limitless consciousness. It is unmanifest and it gives birth to the world. It is beginningless ignorance and is of the nature of the three gunas and beyond their effects,” warns Verse 31. Throughout her first few years exploring this lifetime, Riley creates memories in Maya based upon her mental responses, who all have individual colors assigned to them. Sadness is Blue, Anger is Red, Disgust is Green, Fear is Purple. Dependent upon the experience, the young girl’s memories take on a particular hue and are then stored in her Islands of Personality. For example, the viewer can see the imprint of Riley’s dad helping her ride a bicycle is a yellow colored orb, representing the Joy captured in that memory; this globe is then sent to reside on Family Island. Vendata moves through the subtle plot lines both in Riley’s Brain Headquarters and her waking state interaction with objects, unraveling the truth that all experiences are illusions, mere shifting objects. The movie shows this when perceived stress in Riley’s mind makes Sadness run amuck, causing her to focus only on what is going wrong. We witness this attitude all around us in present day; from television news shows, to journalistic publications, our country seems rooted in this layer of illusion. Countless liars have always led, countless sinners have always sinned. These outlets create specific, fear based realities in order to gain control over the masses. By constantly focusing on perceived threats with hatred and verbal violence, the media preoccupies the mind, preventing us from elevating consciousness and knowing our human unity. This, too, is a deception birthed from Maya, a test to our inner consciousness bliss to remember we are not separate. In turn, we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. When the ego is ruled by Maya, it is unable to discriminate. It is only through concentration on simple awareness that we can loosen the shackles of these imaginary chains. “Always and in every way focusing the mind on Awareness is called samadana; it is not pacifying or entertaining the mind.” When neither Riley nor the mainstream population can attain stillness, they are trapping their energy in the lower chakras and away from communion with the Unborn, Undying creator.
A big life event--moving-- causes complete confusion for the child, with deceit flooding her reality. Riley’s various attachments to luggage gone missing and fear of the unknown prevent Joy from taking command. In this way, we assimilate the Vedic approach that she has not developed Self Control, learning how to “Put the organs of perception and action in their respective places after withdrawing them from their respective objects.”
It is only with true love in the form of a goodnight kiss that Riley can calm the stormy seas of her emotional body and move more normally in Pranamaya Kosha (if “normal” is even the accurate term). Joy gets back in the league with control of dreamland after mom tucks in Riley, and helps her daughter move into deep sleep. Even here, however, the Vedas remind us that Riley cannot be her true bliss consciousness awareness. Verse 58-59 state, “[this state] manifests fully in deep sleep. It is experienced partially in dream and waking through the contemplation or gain of desired objects. It is not the Self because it is a modification of prakriti, depends on the mind which (is subject to the gunas) and acts as an upadhi, is the result of meritorious actions and manifests in degrees.”
The movie takes a major twist when Sadness destroys the color of a Core Memory, turning its gold sheath to navy. At the thought that Riley could suffer from a change in her perception of this particular memory, Joy acts quickly to protect her girl. This false assumption that Riley’s true nature is composed of her memories is contradicted by Verse 51, “The Manomaya Kosha is not the Self because it changes, begins and ends, is by nature sorrowful and is an object of perception. Awareness never appears as a known object.”
Joy’s attachment to constantly trying to fix things and make them better by making them “happy” is her ultimate distraction from allowing Riley to become self realized. Our pleasure or pain mentality is dualistic, an effect of our ignorance.
This up and down of Inside Out so closely relates to Vedanta’s basic teaching: we cannot be fueled by desire or fear. So often in our lives, panic from lack of control clouds our better judgement. We forget to focus on the higher self and react in ways we think will make ourselves or others “feel better,” just like irrational Joy does in the scene that turns Headquarters into a disaster zone. Her fight with Sadness creates huge mental destruction, and the two emotions get trapped into the darkest depths of Riley’s mind as a result. Her brain quickly goes haywire with the remaining commanders Disgust, Fear and Anger in charge. Personality traits decline as she changes completely to her outside realm. The audience watches painfully as Riley tears up with attachment to everything that was once important to her back home in Minnesota. As Verse 50 describes, “The organs of perception and the mind make up the Manomaya Kosha. It pervades the Pranamaya Kosha and is very powerful because it projects the seeming duality of ‘I’ and ‘Mine.’ It can differentiate names and attributes.” The vanishing nature of Joy and Sadness in this scene solidifies why spiritual seekers must not believe, nor place value, on the emotional sheath of our existence.
When Joy and Sadness disappear into Long Term Memory Loss, Riley’s personality is totally out of balance. Operating via the erratic Anger, sarcastic Disgust and clumsy Fear, her existence on earth is narrowed down from the entire spectrum of emotional experiences. She begins to alienate herself from her friends and ceases to find any pleasure from hockey or even family dinner. Vedanta is the path away from being like Riley in this sense; after we peel away the layers of illusion to remember we come from pure bliss consciousness, we are no longer a prisoner to the emotional body.
Vedic practices allow a witness-consciousness to emerge where the ego dies, making emotions null and void. Unfortunately, Riley is far from self realization, and starts listening to the depressing ideas that stem from Anger, Fear and Disgust. Trapped in her own delusions, Jivamukta is destined to sway to and from, between pleasures and disappointments. Luckily, Joy and Sadness start plotting ways to get back to Headquarters. We now see their homeward bound path as parallel to the spiritual quest one takes in life to return to God. Finding our way back home to harmony with oneness has no roadmap. The Vedic Verse 5 immediately addresses this: “Millions of actions will not produce Self-Knowledge. Actions can purify the mind for gaining Self-Knowledge.” We try, we fail, we rediscover, we falter, all the while blindly searching before we find a teacher to take us back home to faith. These lost emotions are searching for their home--heaven, Eden, the paradise from which consciousness first knew itself-- and will need a guide to get them there.
Joy starts to realize that her survival is up to her companion, who used to take an inferior role in their relationship. Although Joy may think Riley doesn’t have time to live with Sadness, Joy cannot operate without her and depends on Sadness to lead the way to headquarters. Verses 54-55 translate, “Intellect is the locus of the ‘I’ sense and is the individual, the one who thinks it acts. Because the impressions of the previous actions are ingrained, it performs good and bad actions and enjoys the results. It moves through higher and lower realms. From it come joy and sorrow and the three states of experience.” Of course, emotions are imperfect captains, and Sadness is destined to lead the pair into further confusion. Only when they accept their childlike innocence and ask for help from an imaginary friend, Bing Bong (right!? Who would have guessed he was a guru), can the two emotions start their true hero’s journey home.
Like most epic sagas, their return trip is not without its roadblocks. Just as a warrior of the mind must cut the cords of reliance to outside stimulation in the yogic path, the cartoon characters face their own losses. Riley’s islands start disappearing one by one, with Goofball and Friendship being the first to go. Navigating the scary realms of Abstract Thought, Imaginary Land, Dreamland, and the Subconscious lead to darker fears. While Bing Bong appears as more of a hassle than a help (of course, ignorance is the best teacher), the command center does not have much luck, either. Inductive reasoning is a far beyond concept for Anger, Fear and Disgust. Riley’s mind crumbles and her existence in the outside world is greatly threatened as she loses memories and is unable to think rationally. We see the heart of Vedanta in Disney’s sad but glaringly honest message. The scenes start to mimic the depressive state of Riley’s mind, depicting grey sidewalks below, grey skies above. A mind cannot be clear and able to tune into God when the thoughts run wild. Depression is a leading cause of death for this specific reason. Joy knows there is not a second to lose, but is repeatedly crushed when she clings to imaginary pleasures. It isn’t until Bing Bong sacrifices himself and frees Joy from from Memory Loss that she is able to go save Riley. In a final defeat of the ego, we release blame and guilt towards others so we can find it in ourselves to feel anything at all. Joy ceases to blame those around her for her delay in returning back to Headquarters, even though it means Bing Bong will fade away permanently from Riley’s memories. This circular lesson of non attachment resurfaces quite often in our lives, as Maya proves over and over again that it is not outside factors which are in charge, but our own internal compass.
It is up to Sadness--ultimately, not Joy--to motivate Riley out of her darkest moments and realize her True Self is not divided from her parents. A big moment of honesty and acceptance of sadness leads the family to deeper connection and trust, knowing they are all in this together. This bizarre satisfaction stemming from negativity often comes from traumatic moments in our lives. When we question all the actions from others or refuse to let ourselves feel sad, we fall into the darkness and isolation. To return to the light, we accept all experiences and ignorances as lessons. The “hardest” situations in life can be the ones that teach us the most about ourselves, because they contradict our egoic plans to conquer. Being thrown in jail, getting fired, suffering from sickness--they may be some of the most inspiring, yet difficult challenges humans face. “These too, are your gifts,” states Japji, an Aquarian Sadhana chant in the Kundalini tradition.
Sublimating energy from the animal body into the angel body, focusing on divine consciousness bliss, we are able to release the labels of “good” or “bad” to see all life as happening for us, rather than situations happening against, or to us. Crying and hugging her parents on the floor, Riley returns to her foundational self, at one with all that has transpired. What was once grey and dreary regains color and life in her Headquarters. “I think it’s all beautiful,” exclaims Joy as she witnesses new Islands of Personality cropping up in Riley’s mind. Although our main character may not achieve full Self Realization by the end of the movie, we see the plot wrap up Vedic lessons with its own perfectly imperfect bow. Riley and her emotions are determined to allow whatever comes up to simply be, acting from a state of divine awareness consciousness bliss. In this state of acceptance, she is able to receive life lessons and move more harmoniously through the world and in deeper connection with her family.