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The Theater of Experience


“Did you have a good life when you died? Enough to base a movie on?” -Jim Morrison

While trying to describe the nature of emptiness and form, Ramana Maharshi once used the analogy of a movie theater: your entire life, all your experiences, thoughts, and memories, all your quiet victories and deafening defeats—everything you have ever known is something like an epic movie, being projected upon the empty screen of consciousness. This screen was present before the movie ever began, is present during the entirety of the film, and remains present long after it ends. As vivid and intense as the film ever gets, the images on the screen never affect the screen itself—if an image of fire is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any warmer; if an image of water is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any wetter. The screen remains radically untouched by the film, while somehow touching everything in the film.

And yet, when we are so fully engrossed in the dancing images of our lives, it can be very difficult to notice the screen itself, even though it underpins every experience we have ever had. In what might be described as an existential suspension of disbelief, we no longer notice the permanence at the very core of consciousness. Rather than identifying with the eternal presence that we truly are, we tend to identify with the sounds and visions of our relative existence—seeking refuge within the film itself, losing ourselves in the characters and story arcs and special effects. Seldom do we notice the empty screen that lovingly embraces all we have ever seen, heard, tasted, or felt; the empty expanse upon which the living light of reality is cast.

Of course, noticing the ever-present nature of the screen does nothing to enhance or diminish the quality of the film itself. Simply observing the screen does not suddenly make The Godfather interchangeable with Gigli—a good movie is still a good movie, a bad movie is still a bad movie; even more so you might say. All it does is help us to no longer be subject to the film—if we are watching a horror movie, we can experience fear, but not be subject to fear. If it is a love story, we can experience longing and heartbreak, without being subject to either. By transcending our identification with the film, we are able to engage and experience it much more deeply than ever before possible, simply by virtue of being able to bring an awareness to the film that cannot be found anywhere within the film itself.

Continuing to notice the empty screen and the film together, we slowly begin to discern the fact that, in the simplest act of viewing, in that very moment of observation, there is absolutely no difference between the two. That is, the distinction between the film and the screen is understood as the final obstacle of the dualistic mind, a secondary product of the experience in and of itself. They are profoundly not-two—inextricable from and irreducible to each other, yes, but somehow utterly the same nonetheless. To paraphrase the famous Zen koan: “When I hear the bell ring, there is no bell, and there is no I—there is only the ringing.” Empty consciousness and the ornaments of experience become indistinguishable from each other, as the film and the screen are both devoured in the carnal embrace of form and emptiness—at which point you step out of the theater altogether, feeling the crisp night air against your face.

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