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Peaceful Warrior“–the movie version of the novel, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” written by former Olympic gymnast turned bestselling author Dan Millman–hits theaters up and down the West Coast this weekend. (Over the course of June, it will make its way East as well. To watch some clips from the movie, click here.)

As a former serious gymnast myself, I was impressed with the fact that “Peaceful Warrior” faces head on the fears–both real and psychological–that gymnasts struggle with, especially as they move higher up the competition scale. Olympics TV broadcasts often glorify gymnastics, sensationalizing the extreme disappointments and the exciting and unexpected successes (especially of the women), but fail to truly explore the mind games competitive gymnasts face on a regular basis. It is not uncommon for gymnasts to conjure up all sorts of demons regarding especially difficult moves, as is the case in the movie, where viewers are privy to the nightmares Dan (the main character) has about his routines on the rings.

I remember vividly the fears I associated with particular flips on the beam; with the enormous concentration needed for vaults; and with hitting the spring board just right, to get enough height. I remember playing these moves over and over in my mind, imagining myself crashing in all sorts of horrible ways–in a manner similar to the visions Dan has of himself falling from the rings and mangling his body.

In my case, as the mind games got overly intense and the fears grew too enormous to withstand, I eventually quit. Yet the plot of “Peaceful Warrior” turns instead on Dan’s chance encounter with a man at a local gas station whom he learns to call Socrates (played by Nick Nolte). Socrates teaches him how to quell the demons with Eastern philosophy and a range of Zen meditation techniques (which sometimes come off rather “Karate Kid”-like).

Through Dan’s relationship with this mysterious man who doles out wisdom left and right–such as, “You are not who you think you are”–to a confused and, at first, resistant Dan, Dan learns to master his fears, become the moves of his routines, and overcome a potential identity crisis involving the loss of his Olympic dream and his future as a gymnast. The movie is ultimately of the inspirational genre, yet rather than have it turn on the simple theme of “the comeback,” it explores the notion of becoming spiritually centered as foundational to the possibility of a comeback.

Be warned: Viewers may cringe at the inevitable and rather corny allusions to “The Karate Kid,” as well as the familiar, cliched philosopher-sage advice continually emerging from the mouth of Socrates. (It gets a bit over the top). But the way the film develops the relationship between becoming spiritually centered and finding success in life–particularly in sports (and most specifically, gymnastics)–is intriguing nonetheless. The story is sure to have athletes, both former and current, reflecting on their own self-conjured mind games and demons, and whether Eastern philosophy and meditative practices might be helpful in conquering these common psychological struggles in the world of competitive sports.

Whether she’s kissing Madonna, marrying a childhood friend in Vegas, or filming her own so-awful-it’s-funny reality show, Britney Spears never fails to make for great sound bites and magazine covers. But, for me, the high points of my Britney fascination have been the ones connected to religion.

Britney was raised Southern Baptist, and she talked often in the press about wanting to adhere to its moral tenets, like waiting until marriage to have sex. Next up was Kabbalah, which Brit got interested in thanks to her friend and idol Madonna. More recently, paparazzi snapped photos of Britney taking her newborn son Sean Preston to get a Hindu blessing. There were even rumors of her getting involved with Scientology. Not long afterward, she publicly announced that she was done with Kabbalah because “her son was her religion.”

Like Madonna, Brit seems to know that you can never go wrong with some religious controversy, especially when you need to get the heat off of your personal life. And she’s had a lot of heat in the last few weeks, as she and hubby Kevin Federline have allegedly separated and she has been investigated by the L.A. Department of Child Services. How does a girl cope? If she’s Britney, she posts a poem on her Web site. It’s a free-form “buzz off” to someone (Federline?) peppered with Biblical references like this one:

You come to me now
Why do you bother?
Remember the Bible
The sins of the Father.
What you do
You pass down
No wonder why
I lost my crown.

Illegible rhyme scheme aside, is Britney using Biblical references to give insight into her psyche? Are the “sins of the Father” metaphorical, or is she dissing Federline’s parenting skills?

Later on, she writes,“My crown is back / And it’s way too high.” This could be an allusion to Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and an indication of her own personal torment. Or she could be talking about her hair, since the Bible refers to a woman’s hair as her “crowning glory.” If Britney worships her son, perhaps she sees him as Jesus and herself as the Virgin Mary, complete with halo, as if she’s in a Renaissance painting. But that’s just my own speculation, of course. Maybe it’s all just a clever way to compare herself to her idol, Madonna, instead of the actual Madonna.

Regardless of what my BA in English and I might think of Britney’s literary efforts, I appreciate that she’s trying to deal with her feelings in verse. And I’m looking forward to her next religious incarnation. Has she tried Mormonism yet?

Discrimination. Genetic engineering. The Federal government invading private citizens’ privacy. What has made the “X-Men” comic books and their recent adaptations on the big screen (“X-Men,” “X-Men United”) better than the average superhero-action-adventure fare is the way the mythology and backstory of these genetic mutants with supernatural capabilities manages to address serious issues that are spiritually and culturally relevant.

The pursuit of tolerance and truth continues this weekend with the opening of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the third and (supposedly) final chapter in the film series. In the film, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the rest of the mutants once again defend humanity against the evil Magneto, even while they themselves are the victims of hatred and bigotry–but this time with a twist. The X-Men are unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to become “normal.”

With the help the latest recruits, The Beast and Angel (one has apelike strength and one has wings), the X-Men face the resurrection of a former teammate turned foe, Jean Grey. Possessed with the cosmic power of the Dark Phoenix, Jean Grey is now a force of evil and destruction. In an attempt to save the world one more time, the X-Men accidentally discover a potential cure that would treat–and ultimately eliminate –genetic mutations. Gone would be the X-Men’s outcast status, but gone, too, would be their superpowers. By morphing into the ordinary, the X-Men realize that world peace may be possible–or not–but their own identity and purpose would be potentially lost forever.

Sound like a lot for a “popcorn” movie to take on? Well, it is. There are truly fascinating moments worthy of discussion in this film, but they are often buried under the onslaught of spectacular special effects. National landmarks are blown-up and fight sequence after fight sequence overshadows the important ideas that are given only sound-byte lip service sporadically throughout the story. There is also a lot of low-brow humor that betrays the charm of Wolverine and some of the other mutants, which was evident in the previous films.

In spite of “The Last Stand’s” shortcomings, I still recommend the film, and I don’t think die-hard “X Men” fans will be too disappointed. Any movie that dares ask you to think about how you can be kinder to others–while you are watching bridges and buildings being blown to bits–beats out that other blockbuster movie about some albino monk beating himself up over a convolated conspiracy any day.

After nearly three decades out of the musical spotlight, Yusuf Islam–formerly known as Cat Stevens–is back with the promise of a new album. Inspired by growing tensions between his beloved religion and the West, the singer-songwriter will be releasing a collection of songs that he originally worked on 20 years ago, according to the BBC.

The new album will be released on the 40th anniversary of Islam’s first record, “I Love My Dog,” which came out in November, 1966.

After he converted to Islam and changed his name in 1977, Yusuf Islam dropped out of the music world and became involved with London’s Muslim community by becoming a teacher and founding a popular Islamic school. Since his conversion, Islam had released several albums of spoken word and religious music (some of which I have and love).

He re-released his hit “Peace Train” in opposition to the Iraq war and has consistently spoken out against Islamic extremists as being contradictory to the peaceful nature of the religion. I can’t help but think his activity on this issue inadvertently led to the strange incident in 2004 when the U.S. refused his entry to this country (when he was coming to receive a peace award from a group of Nobel Peace Laureates) on grounds that he was “a threat to national security.”

So why, after so long, is Islam returning to popular music? In his true humble style, Islam told The Independent that “there were 100 reasons for leaving the music industry, not least because I had found what I was looking for spiritually. Today there are perhaps one hundred and one good reasons why I feel right making music and singing about life in this fragile world again.”

I can’t wait to hear this album.

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