Avatar and Healing the Split

Written by Tayria Ward on January 18, 2010

Over the weekend I saw Avatar for the second time, accompanying a friend who really wanted to see it. Themes in the movie resonate with much of what I have worked on for the last decade. The book I am writing, as yet untitled, is a re-writing of my doctoral dissertation,  Reawakening Indigenous Sensibilities in the Western Psyche. It is about the split between the indigenous ways of sensing and knowing inside us and the development of the ego and the Western structures of mind; two very different, apparently opposed, operating systems.  The major tool that I use for doing this healing work with myself and others is dream analysis, learning the language of the dreams of the night.

The most fascinating image for me in the movie was the chamber for traveling between the worlds. The protagonists go to sleep in one world and wake up in the other. That is exactly how dreams of the night work, unbeknownst to most scientists who study dreams, much to my serious aggravation. The dream world is just that, a world we enter, an autonomous realm of seeing and experiencing. We go to sleep in this world and wake up to life in that other world. As humans have evolved we have split off remembering or respecting this, to our detriment I believe. Just as in Avatar, we wake up in this world we call “real”  to eat, work, crap, make records and logs, laugh, smoke, do whatever it is that we do, and then return. Indigenous people do not split the realms as we do; they know that both are real and interface each other, and that dreams reveal crucial experience and information. To ignore it is to self-destruct, as we are doing. The beauty of the movie for me is the demonstration of this.

Ever since I was little any time life was hard for me I wished I could be asleep. My mother came in to ask me why I was crying in my crib one day and I responded, despairingly, “I’m awake!” It was so sad I guess. As a 6 or 7 year old, stuck on a horse in a pounding hail storm with miles yet to go before we were home, Mom quotes me as crying and saying, “I wish I were alseep!”  For the last few years I have been struggling with a sleep disorder; it is very difficult to get to sleep and even more difficult to wake up once I am asleep, like I am in a coma. Sleep clinics, medications, serious attention to Jungian analysis, nothing has been working to heal this problem so far. Every day I feel like a lone pioneer trying to resolve it, and am starting to think that this must be part of my calling. Yet it is difficult, and I know that I really must find the way to improve. (The quote for today in my book of daily readings from the poet Rilke says: “The tasks that have been entrusted to us are often difficult. Almost everything that matters is difficult, and everything matters.”)

I feel my particular struggle is emblematic somehow of the split that we collectively suffer between our indigenous and enculturated selves and between our sleeping and waking selves. Maybe without knowing I have put myself into a test tube to work on this; my life and my self have become an experiment to see what might be done.  The only medicine that I haveso far found essential in helping me is the concept of non-violence. I become angry and upset with myself on both ends of the problem – for not being able to do the simple thing of getting to sleep, or the simple thing of waking up. The more judging or impatient I get with myself, the worse the problem gets. The more compassion, curiosity,  tolerance and persistent attention I am able to apply the more I feel I am getting somewhere. It is not an easy tension to hold.

James Cameron has hit a nerve in the collective psyche in both Titanic and Avatar, each immense blockbuster hits. Both demonstrate in their own way the hubris, cluelessness and tragedy of the Western imperialistic standpoint of mind and its catastrophic, heartbreaking consequences. As a student (and doctor) of depth psychology my supposition about why so many millions of people flock to these movies over and over again is because seeing them is like staring into a mirror of our own personal and collective unconscious, and we’re trying hard to see who we really are and how to work out our difficulties. I think Cameron is elucidating and resolving splits in his own psyche brilliantly by telling these stories, and is giving us the opportunity to do the same along with him. Every artist is doing something similar, really. Art, like dreams, help to reveal and heal the split. Art and dreams come from the same or similar realms.

The song lyric “Breaking up is hard to do…  They say that breaking up is hard to do, now I know I know that it’s true.” has always sung itself in my mind as “Waking up is hard to do.” Literally and figuratively, it is hard to do. I’m working on how to make it less difficult. May the gods continue to assist.