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"Soul:" A Psychedelic Adventure Into Meaning

Disney/Pixar go on a psychedelic adventure in pursuit of the big questions.

Note: Spoilers ahead

The new Disney/Pixar film Soul boldly ventures into the afterlife, the great-before, and what gives life meaning, turning one man’s life into a psychedelic adventure.

The film stars Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who dreams of playing in nightclubs in New York while suffering through the off-key, languid efforts of his middle school band students at his day job. Just as Joe is about to get his big break, he accidentally dies, and finds himself on a conveyer belt, along with all the recently departed, being drawn towards the proverbial light (drawn, it seems from subjective descriptions of 5meo-DMT and near-death experiences). Unwilling to surrender the dream that was about to come true, he fights his way out of the void, falling through a seemingly ketamine inspired geometric landscape, into the soft and amorphous world of the “great before,” where souls are cared for by doting cubist nannies and mentored to develop a personality before coming to earth to be embodied by a new human being.

 Andrew Penn
Source: Photo: Andrew Penn

It is in this world, where Joe is assigned to mentor a “difficult” soul named “22” (voiced by Tina Fey) who has become prematurely embittered after repeated failures to find the “spark” which will permit her human embodiment. Through a series of unexpected plot twists, Joe and 22 are forced to learn from each other and from people whose lives did not go as they had imagined but yet are still happy. 22 learns to surrender her cynicism and risk experiencing joy and Joe realizes that joy may not arrive from accomplishing that which he dreamed of, but rather, by appreciating each quotidian moment, be it a hot slice of pizza or watching a leaf drift slowly to the ground through the golden light of autumn.

The film arrived on our laptop screens (for those of us who cannot yet see it in theatres), at exactly the right time. Not only has a year filled with the death of 400,000 Americans to COVID-19 left many of us contemplating the afterlife, it has also been a year of thwarted plans and dreams. With stay-at-home orders in place, many a vacation, a pivotal performance, or a career-advancing presentation have been postponed until some indeterminate point in the future. We’ve been forced to make our peace with the insides of our homes and the insides of our heads. For those of us who imagine life as something that exists “out there,” this curtailment of movement felt constraining. The message of Soul is really a message of mindfulness – can we notice, appreciate, and savor the beauty in the world, as imperfect as it may be? In our noticing, we may not find happiness, but perhaps we find what Aristotle called eudaimonia ("good spirit”/”blessedness”/”fulfillment”).

Eudemonia permits for both purpose and suffering to exist in the same breath. The psychedelic inspirations of Soul are more than just aesthetic. This film also introduces the nonduality of “both/and” in lieu of “either/or.” In my work researching psychedelic-assisted therapies, I’ve noticed that the change that occurs in patients after undergoing one of these experiences may not be a complete alleviation of their depression or their trauma, but rather, a different relationship with their painful experiences. Patients appear to be able to accept certain aspects of their experience that they heretofore were unwilling to face (something that acceptance and commitment therapy has worked to adapt to psychedelic treatments).

They often describe that when they engage rather than avoid these painful experiences, be they the traumatic loss of a spouse or the legacy of a lifetime of depression, that the degree of suffering they experience from these events is reduced. They can feel joy while at the same time they can grieve loss. Additionally, when we are able to refocus our energies onto what really matters to us in life, to align our lives with our values, eudemonia naturally arises. When we realize that happiness is not a destination, either in this world or some other place beyond this world, but rather the pleasure that we experience when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the current of the flow of our lives, to feel all of it, then we only need to open our eyes to realize, like Joe, that paradise can be found here on earth.