In May 1989, I met Brother David Steindl-Rast for the first time at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, a humanistic psychology conference center since the early 1960s. He was leading a seminar; one of the participants, John Doty, who I had known from a film seminar that we attended together at Esalen in 1986, introduced us.  Even though I had known of his work, including Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, I was not prepared for the immediate connection we mutually felt about film as a vehicle for spiritual experiences and development (as opposed to escapist entertainment).   I said that I was interested in how film could facilitate contemplation as seen in Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu, and Brother David responded that the monks at the monastery watched films to help with meditation.  From this one-hour conversation hatched our first film seminar that we co-led together on “Film and Contemplation” in 1990.  We were so deeply moved about the experience that we have continued to co-lead film seminars every year (except 1997-2000 when Brother David was not conducting seminars).  During these five-day residential seminars, about 6 to 10 films on a particular spiritual theme would be shown and discussed focusing, on the participants’ own personal experiences of the film.

I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to teach with and learn from Brother David during these seminars, which I consider the most meaningful activity in my professional life and the highlight of each year for me personally.  I have been enriched in the process of deciding on spiritual themes that spoke to us, selecting and sequencing the films to be shown and conducting the seminars where the participants shared their personal experiences with us.  Brother David and I would view many films prior to each seminar, discuss them through email and arrive at our final list.  We would each have our own creative ideas for certain films that often agreed, but we would go through discussion to fine tune the list, which sometimes changed as the seminar happened onsite. We selected films that not only illustrated certain themes, but also were considered artistically great films that touched our souls deeply.  Such films would often depict characters who both experienced an epiphany that led to a transformation of consciousness and embodied the Hero’s Journey myth described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  We also paid close attention to the sequencing of films so as to invite the participants into the process:  more inviting and gentler films on the first day and more difficult and complex films on the second and third days. The films take on a cumulative effect as the seminar unfolds and our collective attention focuses on the films in the contemplative setting of Esalen, undistracted by the everyday world, senses opened and sharpened by the Pacific Ocean.

I remember especially our seminar, “Healing through Gratefulness:  A Film-viewing Adventure,” from July 7 to 12, 2002, announced in the Esalen catalog as follows:

Gratefulness is the key to joy – the key to a happiness which does not depend on what happens. We hold that key in our own hands, but we need to learn how to use it. There is no better place to practice gratefulness than Esalen, and no better medium to explore it than film. This will be the 10th film-viewing seminar that Francis and Br. David offer together at Esalen. Receiving carefully prepared handout material about the films, viewing them on state-of-the-art home theater equipment, discussing them with others in a group, and reflecting on them by yourself under a tree by the ocean – all this greatly enriches the experience of exploring a topic through cinema. Our topic: Healing through Gratefulness. What gratitude does for you is as important as what it does for others. It calms your fears, strengthens your courage, opens your heart for adventure – gratefulness heals. We will see about eight films, made in different countries and at different periods – each of them chosen for being brilliant, all of them showing various facets of gratefulness. Whether you are a sophisticated film buff, or simply enjoy a vacation with movies, you are in for a film-viewing adventure. Better still: you are apt to live more gratefully – and so more joyfully – long after you have returned home. Suggested reading:  Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, by David Steindl-Rast.

About 30 people from all walks of life attended this seminar.  Many had been to our seminars before; all were passionate about film.  The seminars consisted of the films shown on home-theater equipment, elaborate handout packets of information about the films and discussion among the participants.  The handout packets included material gathered in earlier years from the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Pacific Film Archive (University of California, Berkeley); in later years, internet websites like The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) have provided easy access to additional documents. For each film, I would select an assortment of outstanding reviews, critical analyses, literary sources (i.e., short stories) as well as information about the actors, actresses and directors.

The processing of the film viewing has developed over time to involve the following steps: After the showing of the film, we remain in silence for a few minutes with the lights turned down; for the next five minutes, participants are encouraged to write or draw in their journals; and then, we would gather in a circle and go around sequentially asking each person if they wish to share for one minute the one image or scene that especially moved them.  In this way, we saw the film through the eyes of the other participants. Finally, we would open up the discussion focused on our collective experience of the film.

For our “Healing Through Gratefulness” Esalen seminar, we selected the films listed below.  From Monday through Thursday, two films were shown and discussed (generally one in the morning and one in the evening); there were bonus films at 10pm. On Friday morning, film clips from the week chosen with the audience were shown to summarize the week.  From our experience in leading the film seminars, the more seriously dramatic and complex films are best shown and processed in the mornings leaving the evenings for somewhat lighter films.

SUNDAY evening:  Introductions of participants, orientation to the seminar theme, and short film clips to demonstrate the processing of the film viewing.
1) Clip from Titanic (US, 1997)
2) Clip from The Wizard of Oz (US, 1939)

3) The Straight Story (US, 1999)
4) Il Postino (Italy, 1994)
5) Bonus film – City Lights (US, 1931)

6) Twenty-Four Eyes (Japan, 1954)
7) From Mao to Mozart (US 1980, 2001) (DVD version also had  a 20 minute short on a return visit to China 20 years later)
8) Bonus film – Divided We Fall (Czech Republic, 2000)

9) Tuesdays With Morrie (US, 1999)
10) Strangers in Good Company (Canada, 1990)
11) Bonus film – The King of Masks (China, 1996)

12) The Road Home (China, 1999)
13) Mareclino pan y vino (Spain, 1955)
14) Koyla (Czech Republic, 1996)

Clips of the highlights of the films of the seminar

The Sunday evening film clips are meant to be little appetizers for the week’s feast of films.  The Titanic clip was of the 101-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) at the end of her long remembered story of the love affair between her and Jack Dawson that began at sea a few days before Titanic sank.  She tells the captivated, tear-filled fortune hunter crew that “he saved me in every way a person can be saved.  I don’t even have a picture of him, only in my memory.”  One sensed the profound gratefulness she felt for Jack.  The Wizard of Oz shows the transformative journey of young Dorothy (Judy Garland) as a cyclone takes her from familiar Kansas to the magical land of Oz. Wishing to return, she begins to travel to the Emerald City where a great wizard lives. On her way she meets a Scarecrow who needs a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who desperately needs courage. They all hope the Wizard of Oz will help them.  Working together, they survive many trials, and at the very end of the film Dorothy returns home by clicking her red ruby shoes three times. The clip showed Dorothy’s heartfelt gratefulness for: 1) the help of Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion just before she clicked her heels to leave the Emerald City; 2) Immediately following, her parents and friends upon her return to Kansas.

The seminar began perfectly with The Straight Story in which Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar) played a 73 year-old man who drives 500 miles on a tractor lawnmower to reconcile with his ailing brother, who had suffered a stroke.  It was filmed along the route that the actual Alvin Straight traveled in 1994 from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.  Along the way, he meets ordinary people who helped him on his journey from which a winsome sense of gratefulness emerged.  The film’s dramatic climax is at the end of the film when both elder brothers meet after his long odyssey.  Alvin’s brother Lyle has tears welling up in his eyes as he is surprised and grateful for the tremendous effort Alvin made to visit him; their eyes look upward to the stars.

Il Postino is a tender comedy about the friendship of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda living in exile on one of the Liparian islands in rural Italy and a simple villager who becomes a postman.  Set in the 1950’s the film shows how Neruda helps the postman Mario (Massino Troisi, who died immediately after the film was shot) experience life and love through poetic metaphor.  The gratefulness of the postman, seen throughout the film, is never quite reciprocated by Neruda until after the postman’s death in a final epiphany.

City Lights is one of Charlie Chaplin’s great masterworks.  Chaplin is the tramp who helps a blind flower girl first by purchasing her flowers while masquerading as a man of wealth.  As his compassion for her grows, he becomes determined to find the funds to save her from eviction and eventually to travel to Vienna for an operation to enable her to see once again.  The ending of this film, first shot by Chaplin and to which the entire film is but a prelude, shows the final meeting of the flower girl and the tramp.  Although her vision has been restored, she believes her benefactor was a rich man, not a tramp.  She recognizes Chaplin only when she goes to give him a coin as he tries to scamper away.  She is shocked, moved and then profoundly grateful.  There were no dry eyes in the audience during this scene, one of the greatest in all of cinema.

Twenty-Four Eyes is a Japanese film by Keisuke Kinoshita.  The 1950s was a time of great Japanese films by Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Kon Ichikawa imbued with Buddhist aesthetic sensibilities of the beauty of the transience of life.  In the first part of this film, we see the increasing fondness of 12 first-grade students (hence, 24 eyes) for their young women teacher on the island of Shodoshima on the Inland Sea in 1928.  It culminates in their singing the traditional “The Song of Farewell” at their graduation from elementary school, which expresses the students’ gratefulness for their teachers.  The second part shows the inevitable losses as World War II approaches and recedes.  Finally, after the war, the surviving children, now young adults, meet their teacher in a very moving reunion that moved all in the audience to tears.

From Mao to Mozart, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary feature film, traced the journey of the great violinist Isaac Stern to China in 1979, as it was just re-opening to the West. This film showed him teach young students, in their teens and even younger, about Western music.  Incredibly, Isaac Stern returned to China in 2000 to meet some of these same students, and a 20-minute sequel of this trip is on the DVD.  Their gratefulness for all they have learned from him was seen abundantly in both films.  A documentary film on Tuesday evenings often help to ground the theme of the week that we have experienced up to then through the feature-length fictional films.

Divided We Fall is a richly humanist look at the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia that tells the story of a childless Christian couple who hid a Jewish concentration camp escapee David in an alcove of their apartment at great risk to themselves.  While the gratefulness of David for the couple is clearly felt throughout the film, there is a most surprising twist in story at the end when a Nazi collaborator is most grateful for David’s existence to save his own life from the conquering Russians.

Tuesdays with Morrie is based on Mitch Ablom’s best-selling memoir about his real-life visits to his former college teacher at Brandeis University (Massachusetts), Morrie Schwartz, as he dies of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).  Made originally for television and starring the great actor Jack Lemmon in one of his last roles, it showed the growing gratefulness this pupil had for his teacher as he conveys the importance of living meaningfully everyday in the face of death.  We often schedule on Wednesday morning a more contemporary film that we believe will fully engage the participants.  Not surprisingly, it was the emotional climax of the seminar as will be further discussed later.

Strangers in Good Company provided a refreshingly humorous and leisurely change of pace.  This is much appreciated on Wednesday afternoons after the morning films. It shows eight elderly women stranded in the Quebec countryside when their bus breaks down.  While awaiting their eventual rescue, they come to rely on their innate skills to survive in a deserted house, see the beauty in the smallest things and find gratefulness for their lives and for each other.

The King of Masks was a surprising hit as a bonus film.  Set in 1930’s Szechwan in rural China, it first showed the attempt of an aging childless street performer Wang to transmit his legacy through the purchase of a child who he thought was a boy.  Learning that the child was a worthless girl in this rigidly patriarchal society, he discards her, but his compassion led him to take her back as his helpful companion.  Her gratefulness is joyously evident. Consequently, when Wang is jailed unfairly, she risks her life to save him in a most moving climactic scene.  Near the end of the film, beautiful lines — “The world is a cold place, but we can bring warmth to it” and  “A drop of compassion deserves a wellspring of gratitude” — summarize all that happened.

The Road Home shows the developing sense of gratefulness that an adult son has for his recently deceased father.  The contemporary story frame, set in the late 1990s, is shot in black and white as the son travels to rural China to visit his elderly mother who insists on a traditional burial ritual.  At first hesitant to pay the expense, the film opens up into glorious color to an extended flashback of the charming love story between his mother (Ziyi Zhang in her radiant film premiere) and father as well as his devoted teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.  These memories eventually galvanize his efforts to sponsor the ritual and even teach for one day at the school, acts of profound remembrance and gratefulness. Note the two  “Titanic” wall posters in an early black and white scene; it
foreshadows the theme of gratefulness for a remembered person, though dead, who lives on in our hearts as expressed in the title song “My Heart Will Go On.”

Marcelino pan y vino is a story of a young Spanish orphan boy raised by Spanish priests in a monastery.  The boy’s gratefulness is seen at touching moments not only for the priests but also for the Christ figure.  Miracles do happen!

Kolya, winner of the 1997 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar award, tells the story of a middle-age Czech bachelor, once a renowned cellist, who befriends and takes in a Russian boy.  The setting is 1989 before the Velvet Revolution.  It paints in charming detail their growing care and love for each other.  They have transcended boundaries of age and nationality to find gratefulness in each other.  A fitting way to end the seminar!

From this common film-viewing experience, everyone in the room had their own individual epiphany of remembered love and caring, not in isolation, but in a spiraling upward of wondrous awe that we all could palpably feel.

Brother David brought many important qualities to this seminar:  his keen intelligence about the topic of gratefulness, his delight and joy in seeing the film images and his reassuring presence encouraging us to stay with the present moment so that we could process together the spiritual meanings that were evoked.  Gratefulness for kind and loving relationships experienced in the film-viewing brought back memories of our own personal relationships, bringing forth in us our own gratefulness like bells echoing in the still air:

1) Gratefulness of family members for each other (siblings in The Straight Story and child/parents in The Road Home),

2) Gratefulness of the younger/less fortunate for older/compassionate ones, reciprocated (City Lights, Divided We Fall, The King of Masks, Marcelino pan y vino, Kolya),

3) Gratefulness among strangers (The Straight Story, Strangers in Good Company),

4) Gratefulness of students for their teachers and mentors as described next.

Tuesdays with Morrie was the emotional climax of the seminar for several reasons.  First, although not consciously arranged by Brother David and I, it was the fourth film that week showing the evolving relationship between teachers and students; The Road Home the next day would also touch on this theme.  Whereas Il Postino affected us at a more sensation level and Twenty-Four Eyes and From Mao to Mozart touched us at a more feeling level, Tuesdays with Morrie brought us to the spiritual level.  Our experience of gratefulness of the students for the teachers in the previous three films echoed with the deepening gratefulness of Mitch for Morrie’s insights about life.  Initially, Mitch was like so many of us in the seminar: leading hurried lives with little room or time for appreciating the important things in life–meaningful work and relationships.  On the other hand, Morrie represented the archetype of the Wise Old Man, a sage who brought spiritual wisdom and mediated the divine in the face of his own mortality.  Through watching this film, we experienced the rapture of finding again a teacher and mentor from the past, re-connecting and learning about the beauty of the transience of life, and finally the great sadness in seeing Morrie dying, which only magnified the feelings of gratefulness. This process heightened our gratefulness for not only Morrie, but also for all the teachers seen in the films previously and then quite naturally the gratefulness for all the teachers with whom we have studied with in our collective lives.  From this common film-viewing experience, everyone in the room had their own individual epiphany of remembered love and caring, not in isolation, but in a spiraling upward of wondrous awe that we all could palpably feel.  Of course, the living presence of the one teacher that brought us all together–Brother David, who provided a vivid embodiment of this archetype of wisdom earned through experience–greatly heightened this sublime experience of gratefulness.

I was reminded of Joseph Campbell, a most important teacher for me who directly influenced my film seminar work at Esalen. I remembered the first seminar I attended at Esalen in May 1978, a five-day one on “Hinduism and Buddhism in Oriental Art,” taught by Campbell.  At the end of the seminar, I had the profound epiphany that my purpose in the world was to bring together East and West.  Looking back now, I believe my work with Brother David at Esalen has become a living manifestation of this epiphany.  Where other than in California would a Chinese-American psychiatrist born in San Francisco and a Benedictine monk born in Austria come together to lead film seminars!

Fortunately, this seminar and the other ones live on not only in our poignant memories for those that attended, but came alive again in 2006.   In celebration of our 15th Esalen film seminar together (and Brother David’s 80th birthday), we had chosen to present a 7-day retrospective of great films that were highlights of past seminars (July 28-August 4, 2006).  Entitled “Renewing Wholeness:  The Spiritual Experience of Viewing Great Films,” the themes from all of our seminars included (listed in the order of the films shown):

+  Integrity
+  The quest for wholeness
+  The inner child
+  Animals, angels, and other spiritual allies
+  Forgiveness
+  Gratefulness
+  The spirit of humor
+  Faith and resilience
+  Contemplation
+  Serenity
+  Nirvana and salvation
+  Exuberance, creativity, and delight
+  Film and the remembering of love

During this seminar, we showed two films that Brother David and I share as our first and second favorite films of all time, which we have shown at several of our seminars.  The first is Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa, which is about an elderly man’s transformation of consciousness as he realizes that he will die in six months from stomach cancer; “Ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese and herein lies the paradox of this profoundly moving film.  The second is Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu, which is about the serene acceptance of the transience of life through a contemplative, compassionate love of the now.

More film themes you might want to explore:

Twenty Favorite Films from the Esalen Film Seminars 1990-2011

Twenty More Favorite Films

Exploring Nirvana and Salvation
Learning to Forgive
Renewing Integrity Through Film: The Vision of Truth
Exuberance, Creativity and Delight
Renewing Wholeness: The Spiritual Experience of Viewing Great Films
Families in Film
Intolerance, Social Justice & Reconciliation
Wisdom & Compassion
Imagining the Feminine
Films Envisioning a Hopeful Future
Guiding Lights in Film:  Inspirations to Live By
Transformative Journeys in Film: Awakening to the Eternal Now
Love in Film: Relationships for Life
Zest, Vitality and Humor in Film
From Oppression to Freedom: Social Inequality and Justice in Film
Love in the Families Among Us in Film
Through Compassion to Serenity: Mindful Viewing of Japanese and Western Films
The Resilience of the Family in Film: Epics of Love, Loss, and Recovery

Francis G. Lu, M.D., is the Luke & Grace Kim Endowed Professor Emeritus in Cultural Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. As of 2014, he has co-led 30 film seminars at Esalen, 24 of them with Brother David Steindl-Rast.

Br. David Steindl-Rast