The Human Condition:

The Original Jedi Mind Trick – May 13, 2018

Volcanic opening

Supposedly, in the Star Wars universe, the Jedi knights could control the thoughts and perceptions of other people in order to slip through the world without conflict or incident: “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Whether they used telepathy or simply changed the appearance of the world and the other person’s apprehension of it—rippling the Force to their own advantage—it was a neat trick.

My parents taught me something similar, except it didn’t work on other people. It was a form of mind control directed at yourself. This is nothing new or exotic: we see posters all the time, more than ever on social media like Facebook, advising that you can’t change what happens to you, but you can change how you feel about and react to it. Like the Jedi Mind Trick, it’s a Zen thing.

A story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones concerns two monks walking down the sidewalk in the rain. They come to a corner where a beautiful geisha in her fine silk kimono is dithering about having to cross the muddy street. The older monk says, “Come on, darling,” picks her up, and carries her across. This horrifies the younger monk, who fumes about it as they walk along the next block. Finally, he cannot contain himself. “You know we’re not supposed to have anything to do with women, let alone geishas. Yet you handled her in a very familiar way.” The old monk turns to him in surprise. “Are you still carrying her? I put her down back at the corner.”

The world may exist in itself—objective data and incidents do exist outside your field of perception—but how you perceive it, what you make of it, and how it affects you is the Jedi Mind Trick. You can stare into the open caldera of an active volcano, or walk the steaming lava fields of Kilauea, fear fire and death, and become paralyzed. Or you can experience these things and see their wonder and beauty. Your response shapes the world.

When I worked in the Kaiser organization, one of the many stories about its founder, Henry J. Kaiser, came from the end of World War II. He heard at a dinner party that the U.S. government was putting up for sale some aluminum smelters it had built along the Columbia River to supply metal for manufacturing aircraft as part of the war effort. The war was over and the smelters were being sold as surplus. Now Kaiser knew nothing about aluminum. But when he got home that night he called his vice president in the iron and steel business, Tom Price, and asked for a report on the aluminum business. Kaiser wanted it on his desk by eight o’clock the next morning.

Price didn’t know anything about aluminum, either. So, according to the story, he went to his children’s encyclopedia and looked up about mining bauxite (which is just a form of dirt that concentrates a common mineral, alum), then chemically processing that dirt into pure aluminum oxide powder (Al2O3, also known as alumina), and electrolytically smelting that powder into aluminum metal. Clearly, just owning the smelters was not the whole business; you needed facilities in two or three areas. For example, the smelters had to be near a ready source of electricity, which the dams of the Columbia River were already supplying, while the mines might be a continent away on ground rich in bauxite, and the chemical plants could be anywhere in between where it was profitable to operate them. Tom Price copied this all down in a couple of handwritten pages. Kaiser read them and bought the smelters the next morning.

The difference between what the government was going to let go as surplus and what Kaiser wanted to buy as the core of his new business was vision. They were the same smelters either way. But the government was through building airplanes for the war, didn’t want to pay to run the smelters anymore, and was willing to let them go for scrap. Kaiser saw how this lightweight but strong metal had served in one application—becoming fighters and bombers—and was willing to bet that it could be useful in any number of other applications, from lawn furniture to house siding to soda cans and the trays for TV dinners. He wasn’t the only one to see this business, but he saw the opportunity and was willing to act on it fast.1

Henry Kaiser had a positive outlook on life. When he was in the cement business, he wanted to paint his trucks pink, even when other officers in his company suggested a more sedate gray-and-green pattern. “Pink is a happy color,” Kaiser responded. People also said that his negotiating style was that of the “happy elephant”: when confronted with opposition, he would just lean and smile, lean and smile, until he got his way. That man understood the Jedi Mind Trick; it just took longer than waving your fingers and speaking in a reassuring voice.

Another aspect of the Mind Trick is not letting personal hurts matter you. A scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia has Lawrence demonstrate to some young officers how he puts out a match with his fingertips. When one of the others tries it, he exclaims, “It damn well hurts!” Lawrence smiles and replies, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

The world is full of burning matches and a lot worse. One is reminded of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” As a fully functioning human being, we can either dwell upon them, take offense, file a grievance, and nurse a grudge,2 or we can accept that being alive in the world comes with an infinite number of bumps and stings, hard looks and rude responses, and we can let them roll off as if we were personally coated in Teflon.

And when we die, as we all must, we can look back on that life as we pass out of this world. Whether you believe that you will go to some elsewhere mystical place, a heaven or hell, or that you will simply go out, like Buddha’s candle flame or Lawrence’s match, you can bet that you yourself will definitely be beyond caring, and probably be beyond even knowing, what effect you had in life and whether it was positive or negative. In that situation, your life as you live it here and now in this world can either be a futile waste, just one more surplus human being taking up space and consuming value, like those government smelters, or you can see the same sort of opportunities for a better future that Henry J. Kaiser saw all around him. You can make your space in the world as big and happy, as pink and elephantlike, as your imagination allows.

The trick, as Lawrence would say, is not seeing fiery death in the volcano but seeing the beauty of nature that surrounds you. The rest is simply walking the path that you see.

1. Another Kaiser venture after the war, when he tried to turn the business of making Jeeps into a car company to go up against General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, didn’t work out so well. But then, Kaiser also knew the motto of every venture capitalist: “You pay your money and you take your chance.”

2. Or to quote the painter Paul Gaugin: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge—and has to content oneself with dreaming.”