[Be warned, this is a spoiler alert. If you intend to read the book or see the film and don’t want it spoiled, read no further.]
Life of Pi brilliantly illuminates the complexity of our human story.
I read the book several years ago, but hearing the story today for a second time with the help of director Ang Lee’s magical big screen skills and Surah Sharma’s phenomenal performance, brought clarity to the mastermind story-telling of author Yann Martel .
In the drama of Pi’s shipwrecked journey at sea, we find a parable of three levels of awareness in the human story.
The first level, “ordinary awareness,” brings to stage four characters in a lifeboat: Pi, his mother, the Japanese sailor and the French cook. The stress of abandonment at sea with no hope of rescue brings out the “monster” in the cook who kills the sailor to use his body for bate as well as food for himself. Eventually the cook preys on Pi’s mother while Pi is forced to helplessly watch from the raft. The suffering gets the best of Pi who then takes the life of the Cook.
We can all relate to life filtered through “ordinary awareness.” People and circumstance unfold in our everyday life and we react and respond. Some days and seasons of life are incredibly challenging. Turns of events can cause unspeakable suffering. At times, we feel we can’t take it anymore and the worst comes out of us. Life is about survival.
The second level, “spiritual awareness,” again brings to stage four characters shipwrecked at sea in a lifeboat: Pi, the orangutan, “Orange Juice,” the zebra, the hyena and the tiger. The orangutan represents his mother; the zebra, the sailor; the hyena the cook; and the tiger is Pi.
“Spiritual awareness” allows one to grasp with the deeper meaning of what happens at “ordinary awareness.” By reading the human story through allegory, we gain some detachment from the human drama, making it a bit easier to contend with the subtler qualities and behaviors of the characters. When one is detached, one is less likely to get swallowed up in the ego cravings and animal-like motivations that so easily trap us in “ordinary awareness.” The story at this level is about how to co-exist and not destroy one another. Life is about cooperation.
Filtering life through “spiritual awareness” is a bit more difficult for us. It doesn’t come natural for most of us. We need disciplines like meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, etc. that help harmonize the mind, heart and body and cultivate an inner observer, or in Christian terms—give space for Holy Spirit consciousness. So we can see the world with the mind of Christ. In this way we navigate life’s circumstances and difficult people with more grace, mercy, forgiveness and hope.
The third story within the story reckons with “divine awareness.” And this is the narrative that the book and film spend the majority of time in. At this level we see Pi contending with the Tiger and the Tiger is himself. This was the most compelling of the stories within the story and indeed is the one most worthy of a published novel and feature length film. And yet, this is the story within our story that can be so hard to be present to.
“Divine awareness” is the gift of contemplation, non-duality, oneness. This is the way Christ lived and invited us to follow, “I and the Father are one.” In Life of Pi “divine awareness” illuminates the human condition’s true and false self or higher and smaller self.
At the level of “divine awareness,” Pi is forced to reckon with his lesser self, the tiger. Like our smaller self, the tiger cannot be tamed, but can be trained. At the level of “divine awareness,” everything belongs. We cannot rid ourselves of our “tiger;” we must befriend it. But the friendship is one of severe reverence and respect; not naivety.
Through detachment, perspective and disciplined repetition, Pi’s higher self won his rightful place on the territory of the boat. While at sea, the tiger was always with Pi, but over time, after having been trained, the tiger no longer dominated Pi. It was there, always with the possibility of trying to overrule Pi. But as the shipwrecked journey continued, Pi grew in confidence and maturity and kept the tiger in its place. Life at this level is about oneness.
The carnivorous island represents a place of respite and refuge for us during our human journey. Sometimes the struggle at all three levels of awareness can take its toll on us. We tire out. We think we can’t take it anymore. We start to lose hope. We need to rest. But if we linger too long in the land of refuge, it will devour us. We’ll lose the very self we were fighting so hard at sea to hold onto. We must not tarry after rest has done its work. We must buoy up the courage to set out to sea again. Rest and refuge helps us recover the reserves of hope. And hope leads us back into the human journey and the fight for our soul.
In the end, we can live life at whatever level of consciousness we want. Like the novelist in Life of Pi, we can choose whichever story we like best. But if we choose the story at deeper levels of reality, like the novelist does, we just may find ourselves closer to God. Pi Patel’s closing mystical remark to the novelist echoes in my heart, “And so it is with God.”