The “Yoga” of Fight Club

I thought an easy way to get back into soapwriting would be to start with something on the lighter side. Often enough, surprising things come out in my yoga classes and a few weeks ago it was the 1999 film adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club. It is a remarkable movie that offers extremely insightful commentary and criticisms of modern society and it’s misguided priorities. I hope it hasn’t gone under the radar of pop culture over the past 15 years. The following list is just a survey of some of the themes and is in no way exhaustive (the film has plenty of gems). I should point out that the central theme throughout the film is about consumerism and attachment.

On Appearances: Often in our practice we get carried away with form while neglecting substance. Appearances can be misleading and are quite hollow without any internal support. In one scene the narrator and Tyler Durden board a bus; on seeing a standard men’s underwear advertisement, the narrator asks Tyler, “Is that what a man looks like?” to which both chuckle.

On Attachment to the body: Of all things, we identify most strongly with our physical body and thus we often have difficulty seeing ourselves beyond only that. There is a great scene where the narrator is brushing his teeth and is dismayed after he pulls out a tooth with his fingers. “Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart!” is Tyler Durden’s casual response.

On Attachment to objects: The main theme of the film revolves around the narrator’s lack of fulfillment despite consumer success. We also identify with pleasurable objects but what kind of pleasure do they bring us and why do we pursue them? The central thread of the film: “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” “The things you own end up owning you.”

Fight Club (1999)Edward Norton and Brad Pitt(Screengrab)

 

On Perspective: We can keep life in perspective by remembering death. A Momento Mori was a device used largely by Western Medieval philosophers and mystics (but also right into modern times). It is a Latin expression meaning: “Remember, you are going to die”. It functioned as direct reminder of your own mortality and often came in the form of a human skull kept for the purpose of reflection. The concept figures in other traditions as well, notably in Hinduism and Sufism (often practiced by visiting graveyards or cremation grounds rather than keeping a skull). In Sufism the concept is called dhikr al-mawt (I have a great Sufi story about that but for another time). Tyler Durden very poignantly reminds us that “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.” and “You have to know, not fear, that someday you’re going to die.” There is another powerful scene where Tyler threatens to murder a store clerk if he doesn’t go back to school. After leaving the clerk, Tyler tells the narrator “His (the clerk) breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever had.”

On Mis-Identification: As noted above, we identify so strongly with our body and our goods, that we forget who and what we really are. If we mistakenly identify with these things, as they change for the better or worst, so do we. If we can recognize that we are something far more real, everything can spin around us but we never loose our footing. “You’re not your job; you’re not how much money you have in the bank; you’re not the car you drive; you’e not the contents of your wallet; you’re not your fucking khakis!

On the Ego: One of the most explicit comments made by the film is in the split personality of the narrator/Tyler Durden. Their relationship shows how we are our own worst enemy. We are the narrator and our ego (ahamkara) is Tyler. They are the best of friends but in the end all Tyler cares about is his continued existence and the subjugation of the “real” narrator. The final scene is powerfully symbolic as the narrator is only able to free himself from Tyler by figurative suicide. He has to kill Tyler to be truly free.