2016-06-30

"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.

In boxing, as in the spiritual realm, you can't train yourself--you need a teacher, a guide. Do you also see the metaphor of the gym as a temple and Frankie as the sheikh?
Yes. Maggie had the humility to surrender totally to a teaching and a teacher. In fact, she paradoxically demanded it. At the same time, she had the wisdom to follow her instinct. At the beginning, remember, she surrendered to her task, not to Frankie. Frankie trained her. But her role as aspirant was equally important. She was in some sense a self-made champion. And a dominant champion. It's thrilling to see how much better she is than her opponents--winning fight after fight in the first round.
There's a meeting between the seeker and the divine helper that produces something miraculous--what the Greeks called "metus," a skillfulness we might have but not possess. And the trainer isn't necessarily the best fighter--but he has the knowledge to bring the seeker to their true station, their own level of excellence. Maggie needed that knowledge from Frankie--and also to go beyond it. Maggie, who has lost a father, gains a new one. Frankie, who has lost a daughter, gains a new one. But because of the differences in age and experience, I feel his risk is greater. Do you?
They're both drawn to a sport that has its own karma. There are spiritual laws. And the breaking of those laws has consequences. Divine grace operates at every level of life. We pay the price for our unenlightened actions and, at the same time, the grace of God operates through them--and it's all motivated, sustained, and guided by the energy of hidden love. Maggie loved fighting. And she had to learn to love herself. Maybe fighting would have just been a stage to be transcended if it hadn't been her end, but that would be another story, wouldn't it?

And Frankie?
He's a master. But he's aspiring too--to read Yeats and learn Celtic and find a slice of great pie. Then he gets called back to teach in a form he thought was over for him. He knows how hazardous the sport is, yet he can't resist the Divine Destiny presented to him in the form of Maggie's aspiration. The master needs the student.

When Maggie asks Frankie to help her die, Frankie goes to a priest for advice. If he had come to you, what would you have told him?
I could say, "First of all, I don't know for sure. This is a profound moral dilemma. But I'd ask--what are you holding on to by keeping her alive compared to what she might gain from having her soul released from the cage of her body? Because by this time, she is more soul than body. And we sometimes lose what we cling to--and truly possess what we release. Rumi had to lose [his friend and fellow poet] Shams in physical form to find Shams in his own heart. Something has to be sacrificed. Might it be that the beauty of your love would be even more alive and real if you set her free?"

In Real Life, of course, Maggie would petition the court for permission to be taken off life support, and the court would rule, and a technician would pull the plug. But that's an anti-dramatic ending. In a drama, this had to be resolved by Maggie and Frankie--which makes a ceremony of her dying, don't you think?
Maggie had to ask Frankie as a friend and mentor--and a mentor is ultimately the greatest friend. And she asked him something very big. Precisely because it was a moral dilemma, it was an act of great generosity on his part. Part of him will always carry that burden--and also the grace. In ending Maggie's life, I thought, Frankie also ends his own. After the movie, what do you think happens to Frankie?
Just as Maggie is released to another form of life, it is natural that Frankie also "dies" to his career in boxing. It may mean he opens up a shop and sells the best cherry pie in Oklahoma. We don't know what his new life is--and I'm content with not knowing. Frankie's freedom is facing the unknown. Even hardened moviegoers weep buckets at the end of "Million Dollar Baby." Who are we crying for--Frankie and Maggie, or for all the hurt in our own lives?
Tears are a recognition of truth. Not the effect of sorrow, not sentimentality. Those tears are beyond joy or sorrow.

It's hard to believe we're talking about a Clint Eastwood movie.
No, it's just right. You see pride and resistance and stubbornness--classic Eastwood traits--but you also see humility and a life transformed. It's very much like another iconic role in another film about transformation: Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca." Instead of clinging to Ingrid Bergman and stealing her from her husband, he sends her off with him. And in that moment of sacrifice--of apparent loss and spiritual death--he gains her as an eternal love within his own substance. As Rumi says,

I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I ever less by dying?

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