The Dollhouse and the Dharma

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Eliza Dushku, DollhouseSo far there’s only been one episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, so perhaps it’s a bit early to be talking about overarching themes, leitmotifs, or its deeper meaning, but this is a show I’ve been long anticipating and so my mind was primed right for the start to resonate with any thematic elements to do with identity and selfhood – for that (I confidently announce, based on one episode and a trailer) is what Dollhouse is about.

But first to step back a little. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is most famous as the creative force behind (in chronological order) the seven seasons of the hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the somewhat less well-known five seasons of Angel, the science fiction cult classic Firefly (which didn’t quite complete one season), and the three-episode web-based mini-series, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Do you sense a pattern in those descriptions?

Whedon, although superbly creative, has not been faring well. His material has gotten no less brilliant over the years, and in fact I’d argue that Firefly is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, but in terms of popular exposure, he’s not been doing well. Is Dollhouse his last chance to show he’s a fit for prime-time television? Or has prime-time television been showing that it’s incapable of recognizing real talent? Either way, Whedon and Whedonites are surely hoping that Dollhouse will be a hit.

So was it? To be honest, the first show did not quite ever sizzle. The acting seemed a little off, the script was not electrifying, and the first show had a lot to do, introducing the main characters, the show’s premise, and a single-episode storyline, all inside 50 minutes. That was a lot to pull off in a show that you might have expected to start with a two-episode pilot that would allow the director to do all three of these things thoroughly. But at least the program showed promise, and that’s enough to get me, at least, to tune in next week.

But this isn’t exactly meant to be a television review, so let’s get onto the show’s theme and how it relates to Buddhist practice…

The premise of Dollhouse is that a private organization is hiring people out as programmed tools to meet the needs of its clients. The show starts with the show’s star, Eliza Dushku, in an interview of sorts. It’s pointed out to her that “actions have consequences” — a very familiar teaching in the Buddhist world, where that phrase stands in as a modern restatement of karma. Dushku seems pressured into taking on some kind of role, but as yet we don’t know what that is, nor do we know what she’s escaping.

Dushku plays “Echo,” who is one of the reprogrammable agents hired out by the Dollhouse to do whatever the clients want. Echo can have her brain rewired to be — so far — the perfect girlfriend for a wild weekend of fun, or an “experienced” hostage negotiator. In principle she can be anything or anyone. This isn’t just the downloading of skills and knowledge that you see in the movie, The Matrix, but the imprinting of the personality culled from a real person, or even from a collection of people, complete with personal memories going back to babyhood (at one point we see Echo having an imprint removed, and we see her thoughts rewind to the point where a mother is bending over a crib).

If the owner of the personality imprinted on her brain had asthma, then Echo will have asthma, bringing up the fascinating question of the relationship between the mind and the body, and the powerful effect that beliefs can have on our physiological responses. If the “original” was abused as a child, Echo will have the memories and feelings associated with those events. These were elements that proved to be crucial to the plot of the first episode.

When Echo is in character she seems to have some awareness of her programmed role; she talks about getting her “treatment,” which is what the programming process is called. It’s unclear exactly what her understanding is of what a “treatment” consists of, but it seems that in her programmed state she has no awareness whatsoever that she has another life between “engagements.” In fact, between assignments she drifts around the Dollhouse in a childlike state of innocence, blankly serene, naive, and being talked to as if she were a rather slow child. Her normal personality — which we discover at the end of the show through a home movie to have been bright, intelligent, and irreverent — has been erased.

I suspect however that not all of Echo’s original personality have been removed. This is a show, I believe, about Echo attempting to find what is real inside her. After a fake date near the start of the date she remarks “It’s not often you find something real.” In her Dollhouse life, of course, she never finds anything real — at least not about herself.

However it may be a trace of her “real” former curious self that leads her to wander around in parts of the Dollhouse where she’s not supposed to be, and that leads her to witness another girl getting her first “treatment.” An image of this flashes back into her mind while she’s in character, bridging the gap between her programmed “engagement” personality and her wiped “Dollhouse” personality, or non-personality.

There are no signs yet of her original self, but at least we’ve seen that the Dollhouse’s programmer cannot create an absolute firewall between the different facets of her life. I predict that in future episodes we’ll see more memories or “echoing” across the boundaries of her various lives, including memories from her original life.

Echo, I expect, will be engaged in a search for her “original self.” In Zen Buddhism of course there is the idea of the “original face.” This phrase comes from the koan, or existential question that is inaccessible to rational understanding, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” The “original face” is our essential nature, which is emptiness. This rather puzzling concept points beyond the self-definitions we have that are based on an attachment to impermanent factors such as thoughts, feelings, memories, and cultural conditioning.

We all have an idea of who were are that is based on these things. And yet our feelings, thoughts, and even our memories change. So our sense of having a self that is in some way continuous and stable is delusive. Like Echo, we believe ourselves to “be” the personality we currently have. If we tend to be rather serious, we think that’s who we are, as if we could never be anything different. A bad-tempered person might say, “That’s just the kind of person I am.” We get attached to particular configurations of mental states and we identify with them. We think that they constitute, in some absolute sense, what our identity is. But when we observe the mind in meditation we discover that every aspect of ourselves arises, exists for a while, and then vanishes.

We also discover through practice that even powerful personality traits can vanish. I have a friend who became interested in Buddhism in the following way: He had an employee who was very prickly and hard to work with. And over a period of just a few weeks she became much mellower and relaxed, and a pleasure to be around. He was curious about this and asked what had happened to her. “Meditation,” someone told him. “What kind of medication?” he asked. “No, meditation.” A major aspect of a person’s personality had just changed. She was in some sense a different person.

Through introspection and the mental “treatment” that meditation, mindfulness, and ethical practice can bring about, we can reprogram our personality — not in quite the same way as happens with Echo, but in a way that can make a real difference in our lives.

Through meditation (and in other ways as well) we can become more aware that we in fact don’t have a “personality” at all, but that we have a variety of “sub-personalities” that are in often conflict with each other.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human argues that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.

It’s as if within us there are various characters who can take the helm of the self and steer us in different directions, depending on which one is in control. The sub-personality that thinks at night that we’ll get up early in the morning to go out running is not the same sub-personality, often, that we wake up with. And we can seamlessly switch from one sub-personality to another, with no awareness that this is taking place. We do this, often, by rationalizing. The self that wants to lose weight gets shoved aside by the self that likes eating pizza, and the pizza-loving sub-personality tells us that we’ll do some extra exercise tomorrow. Usually that’s enough to stop us noticing that our priorities have shifted 180 degrees.

I’ve written about this before, and suggested that ethics can help us develop more of a unitary self:

For example the five or ten precepts … provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a way that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

I also pointed out that both samatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight) meditation lessen the tensions between sub-personalities:

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy. The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

And that brings us back to the notion of the original face, or what we are once we realize that we are not in any ultimate sense the impermanent and insubstantial currents of sensation, thought, and emotion that pass through us. In attaching to impermanent and aspects of ourselves and believing them to be permanent and substantial, we are fundamentally failing to understand who we are. To see who we really are we have to look for our “original face.” The “us” that these things pass through is, perhaps, our “original face” — the true self.

To recognize our true face is to become spiritually Awakened. When this happens we no longer identify with the contents of the mind, but instead we recognize that we are the space in which experiences arise. We can therefore experience joy, suffering — any experience, really — and remain in a state of peace.

Perhaps, rather than (or as well as), Echo discovering that she was born in such-and-such a place, had such-and-such a name, had experiences a, b, and c, and options x, y, and z, she will come to the realization that these things don’t define her anyway. Perhaps she’ll find her original “self” and realize that it’s in some sense no more hers than any of the roles she played. Perhaps she’ll see beyond the flow of impermanent sensations, thoughts, feelings, and memories, and perhaps she’ll see that she’s essentially undefinable. Perhaps by the end of the show she’ll have seen her original face. I’d like to think so.

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