Transformation in the Ring
Sufi sheikh Kabir Helminski explores the spiritual transformations and moral dilemmas present in 'Million Dollar Baby.'
BY: Interview by Jesse Kornbluth
"Million Dollar Baby," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood as an aging trainer and Hilary Swank as his protegee, is a boxing movie that's not about boxing. What is it about? That question has generated intense conversation from commentators who see a political message in the film as well as from moviegoers who find themselves deeply moved for reasons they can't quite explain. We asked an admirer of the film--Beliefnet blogger Jesse Kornbluth--to interview Kabir Helminski, founder and director of the Threshold Society and a Sufi scholar who has, among other books, translated the poetry of Rumi. [Spoiler alert: This interview explores the dramatic turn at the end of the film. If you haven't seen the movie but plan to--and the "surprise" hasn't yet been revealed to you--you may want to wait and read this after you see it.]
What was the appeal of "Million Dollar Baby" for a Sufi sheikh and Rumi scholar?
Someone invited me to see it. When I heard what it was about, I thought, 'I don't want to see a film that glorifies a sport that fundamentally disrespects the human body.' After I saw it, I realized it did not glorify or romanticize boxing, nor hide its consequences. But it did lead me to a better understanding of what attracts people to boxing. And it clearly showed the consequences--both the virtues and the price you pay. But most importantly for me, it was both a fascinating human drama and an allegory for the essential spiritual process.
What is that process?
Recently we've been reflecting on the Sufi teaching about the words of Muhammad: "Die before you die," Rumi says. "You have lived in agony for so long. You've prolonged it, because you've forgotten the fundamental matter-- which is to die." We die to one form to be reborn in another. Unless we move to a new state we don't get transformed. The willingness to do that is the essence of spiritual training.
Where do you see that in the film?
At the end, most dramatically. Maggie winds up in a state of artificially maintained existence. Which brings us a moral question: should life be sustained at any price? It's not a simple matter of euthanasia. She has lived her life--she's aspired and achieved. So she sees no reason to cling to a nominal life. Her willingness to die is a metaphor for the willingness to be transformed.
What other metaphors do you see in this film?
Many. That's why I liked it so much. It works on many levels: the highest level of transformation, then the sense of a lived human life, its pain, wounds, and moral dilemmas. And at the heart of it all the presence of yearning and aspiration. The greatest thing art can do is awaken aspiration. By that, I mean the aspiration of a human soul to work within the imperfect conditions we find ourselves in--and the opportunities this "imperfect" life offers.