Something that not many people know about me is that when I was five
years old I was a dog for one week. It’s true. I went to see the movie
Lady and the Tramp and for seven days afterward I barked at cars and
sniffed fire hydrants. Until, of course, I went to see An American
Tail and became a lonely mouse searching for my family. But there was
one film character whom I identified with as a child that has never
left me. His name is Bastion.
A creative boy with an imaginative mind, Bastion is told by his
serious father that he must “grow up” and stop fantasizing. Faced with
the death of his inner world, Bastion’s subconscious embarks on a
journey that plays out in the reading of a magical book: The
Never-Ending Story. (Also the title of the film)
A story within a story, the book tells of a world in peril, Fantasia.
This world, a reflection of Bastion’s own creative world, is
disappearing due to the all-consuming “nothing.” In order to save
Fantasia from the nothing, a young plains warrior, Atreyu, is called
upon to embark on a journey. Atreyu serves as an alter ego for
Bastion. He is a protagonist in story and for our purposes an avatar
or vehicle to take Bastion on his journey of the soul.
Speaking of journeys of the soul, according to Tantra Yoga, the soul
or jiivátmá is a drop of consciousness in an infinite ocean and that
drop carries with it samskaras or potential reactive momenta. These
samskaras are more commonly known as karma and are the seeds of the soul’s
journey in each incarnation. But in order to express these samskaras, the jiivátmá needs a vehicle. And so it takes a body at the
right time and place, suitable for the expression of its potential
reactive momenta. Just like Bastion needs Atreyu to experience his
journey, so too does the jiivátmá need an ego to identify with.
As a storyteller, my job is to engage the audience. I need
to get them into the story and make sure they stay there. How do I do
that? The key is identification. According to yogic science, the aham
is the subjective part of mind that says, “I am…” You could be a doctor, a
scientist, male or female, Russian or Greek. But the part that
identifies whatever you are is this aham. So I call that moment when the audience identifies with the main character of a story the “aham
In his book Story, Robert McKee refers to this as “Like Me.” “Deep
within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared
humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of
course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something
about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of
recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the
protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.” (Story, Robert
Another aspect of the “aham moment” is naiveté. A certain amount of it
is necessary for any journey. Nobody likes a know-it-all, especially
an audience. We identify with those who do not know, who possess some
misconception about the world and misguided expectations. This is
essential for opening up a gap in expectation (which I will discuss in
another post). It is what propels the protagonist forward on her
journey. The word “naive” comes from the Latin word nativus, which means “natural” or “born.” Think nativity scene, a birth. We join a protagonist in his
naiveté at the birth of his journey, just as the jiivátmá is birthed
into this world with a body it can identify itself with.
Returning to Atreyu’s journey, he must suffer all sorts of maladies to
achieve his goal. But what exactly is his goal? In order to save
Fantasia, Atreyu must get in touch with an earthling child. All good,
except he doesn’t have the slightest idea how to do this. When he
arrives at the palace of the empress, Atreyu is dejected and feels as
though he has failed. But the empress comforts him since she understands
that his journey was the goal.
Atreyu: “My horse died, I nearly drowned, I just barely got away from
the nothing, for what? To find out what you already knew?”
Empress: “It was the only way to get in touch with an earthling… he
has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And
now he has come here with you.”
What is the point of all this suffering? The suffering is the point.
It is the story. The conflict and resolution. If the resolution of the
story was the goal, then a movie would skip to the end sooner and
leave audiences in a dark room for the remainder of the two hours.
But that’s not what we paid for. We want the bumps, the shakes, the
ups and downs, so that we can struggle along with the character and
learn what it is that he/she has to learn.
As Fantasia is a thought projection of Bastion’s mind, Bastion serves
as Paramashiva or the Supreme Consciousness for that world. By
enacting the drama, Atreyu engages Bastion’s witness-ship, his
identification. From a yogic perspective, this is our greatest
power. Identification is what allows us to use our bodies, our lives
for whatever purpose we wish. Be it for denigratory goals or noble
pursuits, we, through our dramas, hold the attention of a great
audience. In our personal lives we can continue to identify with the
drama and our tiny roles in it, or we can identify with the witness.
Who are we? Atreyu or Bastion? Or are we one and the same? Atreyu is
Bastion embodied in the world of Fantasia. Only by realizing and
awakening to his power, can Bastion understand the effect he has on the
world of Fantasia and how that affects his own world. As Albert
Einstein said, “Imagination is more important that knowledge.” So too
is identification equally important in the pursuit of awakening. This
is the role of the protagonist in any story.