What It Means to Be a Jedi

A philosophical and spiritual analysis of what it means to be one with The Force.
By  · Published on December 15th, 2017

A philosophical and spiritual analysis of what it means to be one with The Force.

Before we contemplate what it means to be the last Jedi, we need to understand what it means to be a Jedi.

There’s a lot of Star Wars lore behind the Jedi, so let’s just get this out of the way, I am not going to talk about midi-chlorians because I don’t think that’s central to the core message of Jediism. Why do we have to demystify faith? At the root of the Star Wars story is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The archetypical hero’s journey that intersects with a pastiche of other thematic and philosophical elements to create something extraordinary. Myth, faith, and fandom are bigger than midi-chlorians and kooky sci-fi science. Why quantify faith?

That said, we can come to understand the Force and Jediism by understanding the nature of suffering, the place of emotion, the nature of impermanence, and the role of the Force.

The Nature of Suffering

To be a Jedi, we must understand the nature of suffering. In Star Wars, there is a lot of suffering. The Empire destroys Alderan in front of Princess Leia. Luke’s Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen die horrifically. Anakin’s mother dies brutally at the hands of some Tusken Raiders. Rey lives on Jakku in relative squaller picking apart the carcasses of long-dead ship wrecks trying to muster up enough bits and bobs to get decimals worth of food. The message of all this suffering is clear: suffering is a part of life and intrinsic to life is suffering.

Suffering and the acknowledgment of it is integral to Buddhism. Instead of changing the world through force to lessen suffering, Buddhism holds that you must conform yourself.

The central figure of Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha’s mother dreamt that he would either be a great ruler or a great spiritual man. His father wishing to force the hands of fate coddled him in luxury hoping to craft his son into a great ruler. However, four trips at the age of twenty-nine awoke Siddhartha to the suffering of those around him. Siddhartha saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a happy man begging for change. In essence, Siddhartha witnesses that all men get old and die, but some persist in joy anyway. Siddhartha then undertakes his spiritual journey eventually coming to craft the four noble truths.

I could not do these teachings justice in this small amount of space, and it would be disingenuous and disrespectful if I claimed I could. The inadequately abridged version of the noble truths is as follows: suffering is inevitable, suffering originates in your mind, you can stop suffering, and there is a pathway to ending suffering. This fourth noble truth, which there is a pathway to ending suffering, outlines the Middle Way or eightfold path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. There are three thematic sections to this path: good moral conduct, meditation and mental development, and wisdom or insight.

To overcome suffering, we walk the eightfold path. So too, to overcome suffering Luke must walk the path of a Jedi. He must meditate under Yoda’s instruction and lessen his desire for attachments that would lead to suffering. Luke knows suffering and heads out on an adventure where he reaches a new spiritual awakening. He comes back a different person in tune with the cosmic Force of the universe. Luke did this as Yoda taught him, by emptying himself of the superfluous attachments and focusing on his training like meditation.

Luke is not a mindful person before his training. He spends a lot of time wishing he was somewhere else and behaving as such. Yoda states, “All his life as he looked away to the future the horizon never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” The Force is about mindfulness used to be present in the universe. Mindfulness as a step toward overcoming suffering and rising above oneself and their cravings to be a part of something greater. However, like in Buddhism, it is a reaction to suffering that makes characters who they are.

The Proper Place for Emotion

If part of being a Jedi is knowing that life is suffering and that suffering is just one experience in the entirety of all galactic experience, then being a Jedi is also understanding that you suffer as all things suffer and that is inevitable and normal. Thus, your reaction to suffering should not be governed by blind emotion.

Yoda tells Anakin in the prequels, “You must let go of everything you fear to lose.” Yoda is attempting to get Anakin back on his Jedi path. Part of Anakin’s fall in the prequels is his strong feelings for the Padme – it’s Natalie Portman honestly who wouldn’t—and his fear of death. He fears that the Padme will die and there is nothing there to stop it. Further, he’s upset his mother has died and longed to bring her back to life. He’s afraid of suffering and death and will do anything to avoid it.

This brings us to Kylo Ren, Kylo is a lot like his grandfather. He’s governed by strong emotions and all of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a testament to that. The Last Jedi trailer even shows Kylo having yet another tantrum and destroying his cool Sith-y elevator. Kylo Ren is the great grand apple that fell from the tree and hit every emo branch on the way down. He hasn’t embraced emptiness, Siths never do.

When people say that Kylo is emo they are not wrong. Maybe this is why the younger fandom is so enamored with him. Kylo’s reactions to things are much rawer than his great-grandfather Anakin as Darth Vader. Kylo is angry in that impotent way that teenagers are angry. Younger Anakin is pretty much a flighty teenager as well. The Jedi don’t want to train him because he’s already a flighty pre-teenager. So why is there an aversion to teenagers when it comes to Jediism? Well, if you are trying not to be governed by emotion, your teen years are not an ideal time to start. Teenagers are a bad demographic to train in harnessing passion because they are just starting to discover passions.

Contrast this to Luke, who’s older but learns to go with the force and embrace things that are out of his control. Yoda has taught him to empty his mind and have strong emotions but not to be overcome and destroyed by them. Emotions are transient and ever-changing. Anakin was torn asunder by his emotions. They made him easy to manipulate. They sent him off to battle his mentor and fell into magma. To force choke the very wife he was petrified would die. Darker, Sith based emotions caused Kylo to idolize his grandfather blindly and destroy panels and rooms in his damn spaceship. Thus, to be a Jedi is not to be swayed by emotion.

To obtain, enlightenment as Jedi we empty ourselves. We purge ourselves of harsh feelings. You understand that you are just a mere part of the universe not the whole sum of it.

The Nature of Impermanence

Star Wars speaks to this impermanence of time. That you can conquer and conquer, but you will fall. You will hit a wall, and then Daisy Ridley will come with her goggles and pick apart your mighty works for scraps as you despair. What makes Siths, so Sith-y is their desire. The Empire and the First Order have insatiable desires to conquer, but the thing about being governed by strong, fickle emotions, like ambition, is that no amount of conquering will ever be enough. As Buddhism notes, suffering for want is insatiable. Nothing will fill that void. No conquering, material possessions or power will ever be enough.

This reminds me of Thor: Ragnorak in that way. In Taika Watiti’s meditation on colonialism, Hela desires to conquer but it is hinted at and then stated that the bad thing about conquering is that it never ends. The battle to control everything is unstoppable and neverending. You are never done conquering until your empire falls at the expense of its people.

So in a way following Jediism breaks that pattern. Things aren’t us versus them. Everything has value and is worth protecting and appreciating because it is all connected to the Force. You don’t move a ship out of a bog because you will see it, you move it because you draw upon the universe to do it. Midi-chlorians be damned!

Connection to the Force

We know that our reaction to suffering makes us go to our destiny and it is how we react to that destiny that makes us who we are. Rob Hunter, quoted Star Wars: The Last Jedi saying that the Force is “the tension, the balance, that binds the universe together.” We know that to be a Jedi you need a deep connection to this tension, and it must remain balanced. George Lucas has even stated that faith is the act of remaining balanced.

The connection to the force is strengthened through a refusal to be governed by one’s transient emotions, and dedication to something more substantial than oneself. In a way, the Force is distilled so that it can withstand the transient. The Force is like being in tune with the great river that is existence. In the writings of Lao Tzu, water is a metaphor used to denote adaptability, resilience and connection. In the comment section of the 25th Anniversary translation of the Tao, a comment states that:

He who lives the Tao acts in his life and dealings as water acts in nature. Water does not resist, yet it conquers all; it is tasteless — suggesting the invisibility of the Tao — yet life-giving. It moves through all that lives and in movement remains clear and pure. It is supple, flexible, and humble; it does not compete…

Being one with the Force is about being flexible and flowing with the current of life. The Force is the underlying connection with all life that alleviates pain. To be Force-sensitive is to feel the weight of the world. To hear the hum of it and to understand that one is just small part of the world. In the same way that a person understands their place when they reach Nirvana, to understand the Force Jedi must enter a similar state. (Nirvana is “a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth.”)

May the Force Be With You, Always

Star Wars is a religious Rorschach test. Everyone can look into it and see their religion. That’s the brilliance of it. George Lucas doesn’t see Star Wars as profoundly religious. He sees Jediism as a faith devoid of the sociopolitical landscape. He boiled faith down to its fundamentals. So when we talk about being a Jedi and the Force, we talk about the abstracts of faith. So if the hero wears many faces, so does faith.

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Writer and law student.