Ever since I saw The Force Awakens, I can’t stop thinking about, well, the Force. I’ve seen the movie twice, once for the dose of nostalgia, and once to see exactly how the use of the Force evolved for the new humble and talented heroine, Rey. I recall, from both viewings, a trauma mashup when it comes to the Force; a strapped-down heroine subjected to violent telepathy, assaulting voices calling to her from the hidden, enchanted light saber, and a climactic use of psychokinesis that brings her light saber to her hand, mid battle, right on time.
I don’t remember a link between trauma and the Force in earlier films. That the Force only rises when the hero is being violated.
I was little, seven, when the Star Wars franchise began. The idea of accepting the Force as a possibility, along with light sabers and Jedis, was not difficult for children like me. It was easy. At seven I had no concept of personal power in the world, of how our consciousness actually affects things. Children have no limit to thoughts about what might be possible. Yes, tone of voice and suggestion can change the mind of a Storm Trooper. Yes, Jedi mentorship and respect for the Force is how battles are won. And I wasn’t even a Star Wars geek.
If the Force felt more real in 1978, both on screen and in our collective psyche, it was because the power of the mind had recently become a cultural conversation. The 1970s and early 80s marked the heyday of positive thinking, the merging of Eastern philosophy with Western introspection, and the US fascination with self-improvement. Several decades later, self-help and personal growth are enormous industries. But something has changed.
Here I am, 30 something years later, watching carefully constructed scenes with our heroine grappling with the Force, and something about it doesn’t feel right. Whereas the Force was once fluid and organic for Luke Skywalker, it now appears to Rey as sudden and unsolicited. The Force is evoked only when she is under assault, threatened, and once even literally bound. I am watching, but I don’t want this viewing experience, either time. I want the Force to feel special and significant. I want it to feel mysterious, to stop time with its presence as it once did when the Star Wars universe began. The Force did not attack Luke Skywalker in the earliest film, a New Hope. He was allowed to cultivate it, privately, profoundly. The Force allowed him to reflect; to grow. The Force allowed Obi Wan Kenobe to die with grace. In this film, the Force merely allows Rey to fight back.
I want Rey to feel the Force, to wonder, to be given a voice to ask questions. I want the Force to fit her like a glove, but there is no time. The universe is under siege. There is no time for reverence, for any understanding of it whatsoever.
There’s a moment when Finn says to Han Solo something like, “We can do it, we’ll use the Force!” and Han Solo rolls his eyes, saying, “That’s not how the Force works!” Big laughs followed in the theater, and then the silent truth: no one else in the film seemed to know how the Force worked, either and there was no time to learn.
Our culture has changed since 1978 when consciousness was a ubiquitous idea in popular dialogue. As general understanding of science has increased throughout the public, thanks to technological advances, we as a culture have become fixated on measuring brain waves, on discovering how the amygdala works, on saying yes only to machine-measurable truths. We are almost exclusively gear-focused, skeptical all over again about unorthodox mind-body connections unless we can find it in an ECG or an MRI.
The Star Wars cosmology seems to know this; that the Force will seem hokey and hard to believe unless reframed in a new context, as a result of certain behaviors or situations. This reminds me of the Western praise of yoga as a tool to keep us off blood thinners. Or a company’s push for employees to meditate to increase productivity. Higher consciousness cannot just exist in our day and age: it does not look good on a spreadsheet. It must be quantified.
It is why I think we are asked to identify with Rey’s understanding of the Force through her trauma. Trauma is a condition we all feel. We don’t wonder if it changes us, our behavior, our thoughts. We know. We have all kinds of science proving the effects of trauma. It hurts, destroys, and lingers, often through generations. There is no question that trauma prompts physiological reactions.
Rey, as an abandoned girl, copes with her previous trauma as most survivors do: by becoming strong, self-sufficient and invulnerable. But when under duress and strain and danger at present, which happens a lot in this film, the Force awakens in her in the form of telepathy (mind reading) clairaudience (hearing voices), and psychokinesis (moving and influencing objects with her mind). This, too, is true about trauma: psychic experiences often result from the threat of physical and psychological danger. Telepathy, hearing voices, and even psychokinesis can develop when one must anticipate the behavior of a predator, respond to imminent danger, or influence the chances of survival for a loved one. Of scientist and consciousness expert Rupert Sheldrake’s sampling, some 70% of psychic experiences involve warnings of imminent harm.
Skeptics will agree the evidence for telepathy and other psychic phenomena meet normal scientific standards; that the data proves the existence of extended consciousness, and that our current logic in the field of mental capacity is not the whole story. But the idea remains radical, too hard for many to grasp in these days of routine brain imaging and CT scans.
Trauma is not the only condition of psychic experience, but culturally, it is where we are in terms of acceptance.
The creators of the Star Wars cosmology seem to know this, too. Am I glad that Rey gets to use the Force, that she can call a light saber with her mind and wield it successfully in battle? Heck yes. Perhaps by the next franchised film release, the public will have taken another step towards understanding how the Force –consciousness--actually awakens in our world, and not only when we’re in danger.