The ads for Disney-Pixar’s new animated film, Inside Out, invite you to “meet the little voices inside your head.” You meet them, as it turns out, as color-coded little avatars of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear, jostling one another to work the buttons and levers of the personality’s control panel in—ahem—Headquarters. The film is visually stunning, consistently hilarious, and often moving. But does it jibe with the experience of those of us who sit down on cushions and meet the little voices in our heads every day? How consistent is the film with the insights of Buddhadharma?
In many ways, very consistent. The scenes set in the world outside the protagonist’s cranium are pretty darn true-to-life, especially for a Disney movie—no Enchanted Kingdom or Cave of Wonders here. The 11-year-old protagonist is not an eyelash-fluttering princess but Riley, a scrappy junior hockey player. As the teachings of the Wheel of Life (bhavachakra) make clear, a down-to-earth perspective is a prerequisite for the enlightenment journey: only the ordinary human realm, not the fantastic realms of celestial beings or hungry ghosts, offers a path to liberation.
Riley’s journey begins when her family leaves their idyllic Minnesota home for gritty, urban San Francisco, where her father is a partner in a shaky tech startup. She faces the trials of a dilapidated house, a new school, and unfamiliar new impulses of prepubescent sarcasm and rebellion. “The fear of the Lord,” saith the prophet, “is the beginning of wisdom,” and the loss of security is typically the beginning of one’s dharma quest. Riley has lost her friends, her parents’ undivided attention, and her assumption that Dad will always make enough money. The Buddha’s own quest began when his peek outside his childhood palace walls revealed that his father could not insulate him forever from suffering and death.
In sharp contrast to this slog of an outer world is the inner world, where most of the action and all the visual magic take place. Veteran Pixar writer-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, aided by the usual army of graphics wizards as well as a panel of psychology professors, create an ingenious neurological Candy Land. Freshly minted memories are glowing translucent balls that roll in from the world of outer perceptions. Short-term memories, in keeping with the findings of neuroscience, are shuffled to long-term storage during sleep, and crucial core memories are fed into a kind of nuclear reactor that powers the theme park islands of Riley’s personality, such as “family,” “goofball,” and “hockey.” Each memory ball is shaded with the hue of its attendant emotion. But if, say, Sadness gets her hands on a joyful memory, its emotional color changes from gold to melancholy blue.
In fact, there’s an ongoing tug of war between the frenemies Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler doing her best shrewd pixie) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith, the dumpy, bespectacled saleswoman of The Office). One by one, Riley’s memories of her joyous, edenic childhood take on the blue hue of nostalgia and loss as Sadness leaves her fingerprints on them.
Still, Joy is clearly the de facto chairwoman of the board. The others defer to her, except when they get carried away, most dramatically in the case of Anger (the deliciously volcanic Lewis Black). This accords nicely with the dharma. We’re not always driven by emotions, but, when we are, it’s best to give Joy the wheel. True joy—the joy that comes from deep in our being—is intelligent, skillful, and compassionate. If you’re not convinced, five minutes with the Dalai Lama will likely change your mind.
But Joy can’t drive solo, as both our heroine and her parents must learn. Every time Riley’s father calls her “my happy girl,” it becomes more evident that he’s attached to the one-dimensional sweetness that she now has to shed. All the emotions, including the so-called negative ones, must be respected and included as components of a mature, integrated person.
The film contains both clever bits and beautiful bits, many of them encountered when Joy and Sadness—in a sly echo of 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and every other mismatched-buddy action film—form an uneasy alliance to undertake a mission outside Headquarters. They meet a mischievous crew who drop a maddeningly catchy commercial jingle into Riley’s mental processes at arbitrary moments; everyone, especially meditators, knows that torture. There’s also a long interlude with Riley’s half-forgotten imaginary childhood friend. If you get through his departure with a dry eye, you’re stronger than I am.
But perhaps the film’s best dharma lesson is its simplest: that the voices inside your head are just voices inside your head. When Riley is on her way to her first day of school, and Fear starts listing all the disasters that can befall her, it’s not reality talking and it’s not Riley talking—it’s just Fear. That knowledge is liberating: having labeled the feeling, we’re no longer completely in its grip. When Disgust or Anger or any other emotion starts pulling the levers and twisting the knobs of behavior, it’s not you; it’s just a feeling that has hijacked your speech and action. The whole film, then, can be seen as an exercise in Vipassana labeling: When anger arises, we clinically note, “Ah, anger,” and thus are not caught in it.
Still, from a dharmic point of view, something is missing. It’s the crucial thing: Nothing. There’s no recognition of shunyata, liberative empty space—the vast no-thing within which consciousness manifests. Without that, all of existence is just gears within gears, the mechanistic view to which dharma is the antidote. The film draws an astute picture of the components of conditioned personality with which we mistakenly identify. But it omits what’s behind the personality, which is unconditioned, inexpressible, inconceivable, boundless, birthless, and deathless, but 100 percent experienceable. This is the good news of dharma. Ironically, back in 1937 the Disney folks got it right when they named the little voices Happy, Grumpy, Dopey, and so forth, then showed how the dwarfs bring their lives to fulfillment. Rather than just dig in the diamond mines of material accumulation, they have to welcome into their cottage the unconditioned, pure nature of awareness, personified as Snow White.
The film is premised on the notion that awareness resides inside the head. But a few minutes of close attention to our actual experience effectively dispels that notion. It’s just an illusion of perspective, generated because our major sense organs happen to converge on a point in the middle of the skull. If we’d been built with our ears on our knees and our eyes on our elbows, we might make movies about meeting the little voices inside our limbs. And in fact the head, like all our body parts, is something we’re aware of—it’s an object of awareness.
Which leaves us with a koan: Is awareness inside your head, or is your head inside awareness?
Look and see.