“Do you understand? The spirits will always have a place in this world, as long as you- and humans like you- create one for us.”
“But how can you be sure we’ll do that? How can you know?”
“I don’t know, young Avatar. I hope.”
-Lady Tenhai speaking with Aang in Avatar: The Rift (Part 3)
We live in skeptical times. We are seeing a profound shift in our popular consciousness towards scientific reasoning, and hard facts, as the preferred basis of thought and public policy. The benefits of this are countless, and beyond quantifiable value- silly, unhealthy, and even downright destructive superstitions are vanishing piecemeal throughout the world, it is becoming easier than ever before to collect and add to the vast pool of knowledge that humanity has collected over the course of our existence, and our ability to understand the fundamental laws of nature and the universe has exploded to levels previously unknown.
But something can easily be lost (indeed, is being lost) in this rapid transitional process- the importance of spirituality to a healthy and full existence, from the individual to the collective level. With so much of our focus these days on the external proof of the senses, trying to live spiritually in accordance with religious or faith practices is dismissed by many as frivolous, or childish, or ignorant, or simply useless. Religion and faith, we are told, are things dead or dying, no longer fit for a modern world. Faith or philosophical doctrines are at best quant, and at worst, destructive. Therefore, best to slowly remove such things from our popular consciousness.
Avatar, in both its concept and its execution in TV show/comic book form, rejects this as something positive or inevitable. At its innermost core, Avatar is more than just a series of coming-of-age hero adventures with a wacky bunch of teens, their kids, and their grandkids in a realm of animated fantasy. It is that rare example of something successful, popular, profitable, and mainstream that beats against the current of the times, that dares to say that cultivating a spiritual philosophy and resolutely holding on to hope and optimism, no matter how dark the times, is not only important and helpful, but is indeed essential if we genuinely wish to see a better tomorrow.
Given the wealth of spiritual material worked into every level of the film, from the broad strokes of the plot to the tiniest features in the artistic designs and lore of the world, a full tackling of the religious/philosophical material in the show could easily fill several semesters’ worth of college seminars, but for now, let’s consider one particular spiritual practice that takes center stage throughout much of both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra; meditation.
Meditation serves a number of crucial purposes within the Avatar world, with perhaps the biggest one being that it is the primary method for the Avatar to travel back and forth between the spiritual and physical world. Since there are only a handful of direct portals between the worlds, when the need is great enough, the Avatar must sit down where they are, be present in the world, and go deep within to enter into the other realm. This is not just something the shows treat as a side detail- it is often an absolute necessity for Aang and Korra to retreat from the human world for a time to seek answers for their troubles. I am thinking especially of Aang’s visit to the Koi Fish during the siege of the North and his encounter with the lion turtle (preceded by an extended round of meditation) just before the arrival of Sozin’s comet in TLA, and Korra’s struggles to find her own inner connection with the spirits in Books 2 and 4 of LoK.
Think about how drastically at odds this approach is to not just American animation, but American visual media in general; even in the thick of a battle, our heroes often realize there is a need to not throw themselves into the fray just yet, and that a better solution (or better help) could be just around the corner if they take a few more moments to seek it out within the greater connection of the two realms of the Avatar world. Just hopping in and busting heads isn’t enough. Doing so requires patience, mindfulness, and a strong spiritual connection with the greater universe, and having these qualities at the forefront of the story sets it far, far apart from the hectic, animated climaxes of so many of the superhero shows and movies currently clogging our cinemas.
But the show brings in meditation in other ways as well, especially in The Last Airbender. Aang is a kid, impish, impulsive, and fun, but also a spiritual nomad trained in various meditative practices, and we see him utilize them constantly, not just for emergencies or official Avatar business. He uses them often just to deal with daily frustrations or negative emotions, or to try to sort through emotional turmoil. It is not an abandonment of the outside world, or a way to repress or cast out emotions, but simply a way for him to handle everything more constructively, to hold himself back a bit when he senses his first instincts might not be the right ones to follow. And, above all, it is his way of constantly refreshing his spiritual connection to the world around him, how he comes to peace with everything in his life.
The most refined example of this is found in “The Guru,” already on the record as one of my favorite Avatar episodes of all time. Aang is taken through a series of intense meditative practices to unlock the power of each of 7 chakras of the human body and psyche. Chakras that, by the by, aren’t just thought-up fantasy powers ala the chakra in Naruto, they actually exist and are studied extensively. Each of them deals with a different spiritual aspect of a person, and to unlock each one, Aang has to delve deep within himself to identify the core qualities and characteristics of his being. This includes the bad, his fears and regrets and worries, but also requires in equal measure identification of the good- his loves, his hopes, and his confidence. It’s the closest the show gets to having a single, unified religious philosophy, even though the creators have gone on record as saying they never tried to create such a thing, because it touches on just about all of the core things living a life of faith and spirituality requires- openness to the bad and the good inside oneself, having the wisdom and sight to identify which is which, and finding within this journey the strength to do the right thing.
There’s another aspect to how meditation and spiritual elements are used in Avatar I’d like to call attention to briefly- how they can be used to strengthen optimism and hope, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The quote I included at the beginning of this post, found towards the very end of Part 3 of The Rift, is a key example of this; the story of this particular graphic novel revolves partially around the struggle to reconcile the oncoming tide of modernity and change with the timeless need to find room for (and, of course, balance with) the spirits and their world.
At the time of this exchange, one spirit, Old Iron, has abandoned his ancient form, convinced that the age of spirits is over and that they no longer have a place in the world of humans, directly accusing Aang (and, by extension, the entire existence of the Avatar) of facilitating this by always siding with the interests of humans over those of spirits. Aang, taught to revere the spirits by both the air nomads and his training as the Avatar, is distraught and worried by this, wondering if what the old spirit says may be true. However, another spirit, that of the Lady Tenhai, appears to him and says that she believes that the other spirit is wrong- there IS still a place for spirits alongside humans, and vice versa, and even though the connections between the two are often broken or harmed by human error or arrogance, they can always be repaired and rebuilt, even if a beneficial and balanced outcome is never guaranteed.
That last point is one of the best examples I can think of that testify to the brilliance of the storytelling we’ve gotten from both the shows and the comics over the past 10 years. Avatar deals with a lot of heavy, complicated, and messy material, including PTSD, genocide, colonialism, WMDs, and post-conflict reconciliation. It does them all justice too, treating them with nuance, and never talking down or over-simplifying things for the viewer. Even when the show is at its most kid-friendly, it still deals with itself (and us) maturely and intelligently. But despite this, it never stoops to providing easy answers or cop-outs for any of the problems brought up. Korra’s recovery from PTSD is arduous, long, and exhausting. The first of the comics dealt with the difficult and messy fallout of the Fire Nation’s colonial policies and the hurt feelings preventing post-war reconciliation. Mirroring our own world, Avatar eschews simple solutions, outright telling us that sometimes, the only way to move forward is to jump head-first into an ocean of uncertainty and dubious outcomes.
The key (and Lady Tenhai recognizes this as well) is that humans must want to work for a solution to problems both physical and metaphysical; we must want to create space for both, and must make the effort to make it possible for both the material and the spiritual to live side-by-side. The outcome is never guaranteed, but Lady Tenhai still sees reason for hope simply because it is possible for people to change, and as long as people are able to change for the better, things can always improve over time.
None of this is anything revolutionary, of course. Avatar may not be the launch point for a new wave of spirituality-infused children’s TV. It could, of course, but it will be years yet before we can properly judge the full cultural impact of a franchise a mere 10 years of age. Nonetheless, even if nothing else were to come of this, for what it is, it is a breath of fresh air, a collection of tales that take a different tack from most of modern entertainment. Avatar is a masterwork of storytelling and adventure, but I also love it for how it nurtures spiritualism as part of its world and characters as well, encouraging thoughtful reflection over all aspects of existence, and not the cold abandonment of some to the favor of others.
This is important because, ultimately, there is no life without faith, regardless of the form said faith takes. When we just look to the surface of what we observe and claim it as the whole, we see only the superficial divisions of the world, thin dividing lines between existence and empty space, living and non-living matter, plants and animals, humans from other animals, and individuals from each other. We forget faith, and are unable to move, though we live in the illusion of perpetual motion.
Think about it- we only get out of bed in the morning because we are able to find the faith within myself that the day will be wonderful, that good things will happen, and that we will survive it to see another. If that faith were not there- if we could find no reason to believe that standing up and getting dressed could not lead to something positive, we would not move. We would wither, and die.
But we do not. We rise, we eat, we live, and we grow. We do this because we have an inherent, instinctive faith in tomorrow. And our going through this life is enhanced, and improved, and made more joyous when we actively seek out our inherent faith and look for the paths that strengthen and enhance it. Through this, we cultivate the spirit as well as the body, and by tying this to an enduring hope of a better tomorrow, we make our world anew with each breath we take.
Avatar deserves praise for a great many things, but for me, chief among them is that it does its part to try to get each of us, young and old, to be more thoughtful and mindful of the spiritual side of life, thus enriching both ourselves and those around us. And God bless it for that.
**For Part 1 of Avatar Month, click here
**For Part 2, here
**For Part 3, here
**For Part 4, here