And Back In Again

Inside Out a film by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen

Some years ago, my wife and I would emerge from a movie and say, “That was very Buddhist.” We nearly always agreed. It seemed that movies were starting to reflect Buddhist values, or perhaps that, since we had both started studying Buddhism, we picked up on them. Buddhism actually just describes a certain truth about life, so that any movie that is true to life should reflect it, but some do so more overtly than others. “I [Heart] Huckabees” was the all-time greatest of the “very Buddhist” movies. I’ve noticed that in recent years we don’t say this anymore. Maybe we’ve absorbed the truths to the point that they don’t stick out so much, or maybe movies are no longer as true to life.

If we did make that statement, however, I know we would have made it for Inside Out, the new animated feature from Pixar. There is a famous truth in Buddhism, Everything Is Mind, and if a movie ever illustrated that, it is Inside Out. What actually happens is trivial: an eleven year old girl named Riley moves from Minnesota to San Francisco because her father has gotten a new job; the family arrives in the city and find that the new house isn’t all they were hoping for, and their furniture keeps not getting there; they have trouble adjusting to the surroundings, especially she to her new school; she tries bravely to bear up but finally admits to her parents that she misses Minnesota. That’s about it. What a great plot for a movie! Try pitching that to the execs out in Hollywood.

But Inside Out is actually about Riley’s mind and what it does with this situation. We see scenes from Riley’s life, but mostly see the inside of her mind, where five key emotions—Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger—deal with whatever comes up. These emotions are the stars of the show. They’re kind of like the Seven Dwarfs, if I may allude to a great classic from the past. Maybe Joy is more like Snow White.

I have to admit—somewhat sheepishly—that I’ve never understood the statement Everything Is Mind. Are the great teachers saying everything actually is mind, or that we make everything into mind, or that our minds take over everything? At this point in my practice, I’d be more convinced by the statement Everything Is Body. Zen teachers try to get us away from our conceptualizing minds, where we make everything into an idea, and into our bodies, which face reality as it is. We do a better job of that when mind and body are one, and that’s the direction that practice takes us in.

Inside Out shows us the workings of the mind, and if the filmmakers had to simplify things to just a few emotions, they picked well. Four are negative reactions to situations we don’t like. Anger is where we react violently, rejecting it, what Chogyam Trungpa would call Aggression. Disgust is where it physically repulses us (the new apartment is dirty, and has some vermin around. Also, the local pizzeria puts broccoli on pizza, which would disgust anyone). Fear might more accurately be called anxiety, all our imaginings of terrible things that might happen in the new situation. And Sadness is collapse in resignation, all the air going out of us. It’s a prelude to depression.

Reigning over everything, trying to keep the other emotions in check, is Joy, which the film seems to indicate is our natural state. Joy is not happiness, which involves getting what you want (out of the question when you’re an eleven year old moving to a new place). Joy is more like the status quo, joie de vivre, a natural interest in and energy about life. Joy has her work cut out for her in this situation. And she is intimately connected to sadness, who is a fat slug. Joy constantly hauls around Sadness, tries to perk her up, give her some energy. She should send her to Weight Watchers.

As weird as it might sound in the 21st century, I think joy actually is the basic human state. That is as startling a statement as another one which I also agree with: according to Vajrayana Buddhism, the natural state of the body is bliss. Whereas happiness, as I said, is getting what you want, joy is being present with things as they are. There’s nothing wrong with happiness; we all like to get what we want. But it is a temporary state; it is relative (often we only get part of what we want, or immediately think of something more); and it is at odds with joy (if we’re trying to get what we want, we’re not fully present with things as they are). No one, not even the richest person in the world, is constantly happy (oddly enough, it seems that rich people often aren’t happy at all. They can often think of something more that they want). But it is theoretically possible to be constantly joyful. Joy for me is a physical feeling. It’s possible to feel joy while you’re feeling pain. It is very much akin to the bliss that the Vajrayana says is our natural state.

Joy in Inside Out is a perky busybody who is constantly trying to cheer the other emotions up, shut them up, divert their attention. Sadness, her exact opposite—an utter lack of energy—represents her greatest challenge. I don’t agree with all this as a strategy. It’s as if Joy is the eleven year old girl who was always lively and perky and optimistic, wanted everybody to dance and sing and have a pool party with root beer floats for a snack, while Anger is like the eleven year old boys who jerked off too much and smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank beer and were always trying to French kiss Joy, or feel her up.

The Buddhist strategy is to allow feelings to come up and to be with them, let them express themselves, feel them fully, all the while knowing there is a basic Joy behind them. You know that because you feel it, even as you’re feeling them. Joy is the act of feeling them. It allows them to happen. It just isn’t sucked in. It doesn’t disappear.

I do think that, in having Joy be intimately connected with Sadness, the filmmakers get it right. Without wanting to give away too much—I’ve already given away the whole plot—Joy and Sadness spend a fair amount of the film in the vast recesses of the mind, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger in charge. I don’t think it’s wrong to think that an eleven year old girl in this situation would be full of anxiety, often disgusted, and furious. But the key to everything here is not Joy, but Sadness. Sadness is what Riley is actually feeling—the other emotions are stand-ins—and it is not until she admits that that she begins to turn things around. She’s been trying to be happy to please her parents, hasn’t wanted to let them know she was sad. It’s only once Riley really feels her sadness that Joy can do her work. Once Riley does that, she’s back in the natural state—feeling things as they are—and Joy returns.

The obvious question is how much the largely juvenile audience can get all this, but that’s true of a lot of animation. Even in the old days when I used to watch Bugs Bunny with my son, there was a fair amount that went over his head—though he loved what he did get—especially in a classic like “What’s Opera, Doc?” Just to select an example wildly at random, there’s a moment in Inside Out that alludes to Chinatown, and I don’t think the kids in the audience got it. I’m not sure how many parents did. But my friend John Paredes suggests that, even though the children aren’t getting what the adults are, they might be getting other things the adults aren’t. There are levels of understanding.

We actually chose this movie to please my Japanese Anime obsessed brother in law (he was beaming at the end, as if he’d just seen a masterpiece), and I’m glad we did, even if we skipped a ballgame to do it. The animation itself was stunning. We’ve come a long way from Elmer Fudd.

Now there was a guy who never gave in to sadness.