The Mysticism of Disney/Pixar’s “Soul”

This film has many wonderful mystical themes on the nature of the soul, the afterlife, premortality, and the meaning of life.

In recent years Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios have tended to explore the deepest questions of human existence in their computer-generated film stories. In many ways such entertainment media has become our modern myth-maker, as traditional organized religion is in rapid decline, putting into symbolic forms and narratives what it ultimately means to be human.

From Pixar’s side, Inside Out (2015) explored the nature of human emotions. Coco (2017) explored the nature of mortality and the afterlife. I have written specifically about the mysticism in Disney’s Tangled (2010), and Frozen I/II (2013/2019, parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Pixar’s latest production of Soul (2020, produced by Pixar released by Disney on Disney+), is no exception, delving into the metaphysical questions of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going, but mostly the former two. There are spoilers ahead.

What is the soul?

Soul is traditionally defined as “the incorporeal essence of a living being.” This has also sometimes been referred to as the “spirit” in a living being. Its etymological roots come from the Old English sáwol, referring to the spiritual or immortal principle within a person. Some have thought the Germanic origins of the word refer to “coming from or belonging to the sea (or lake),” as the belief systems at the time thought of souls coming out of and returning to lakes or seas, the “Old Saxon sêola (soul) compared to Old Saxon sêo (sea).”

Intriguingly, historically it has been closely associated with the mind or psyche, the Greek ψυχή (psūchê, from ψύχειν psýkhein, “to breathe”), referring to the “mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, qualia, memory, perception, thinking, etc.” The ancient Greek philosophers thought that this soul/psyche in humans was divine.

The soul seems to be that which precedes our mortal embodiment, and which survives its death or disembodiment. It is the continuing strand or link which is the timeless essence that transcends all the temporal forms, and yet also permeates them. It is the underlying reality of our being in the world, our body-mind deriving its being from that deeper being or essence.

One common metaphor or analogy of the soul in mysticism, which reflects the word’s origins, is that of the ocean which rises temporally into waves. The ocean is the essence, the ultimate unchanging reality, and the waves are its temporal manifestation, its particularized expression. Our body-mind is like the waves, the temporal forms, but we rise up out of the deeper ocean of Being or God.

A more modern metaphor, which seems closer to the reality, is perhaps found in Quantum Field Theory (QFT). This theory suggests that the cosmos is permeated by universal fields, or perhaps even a single unified field (as in Unified Field Theory, or UFT), and that what we see as “particles” are the excitations of that field. Particles are “excited states (also called quanta) of their underlying quantum fields, which are more fundamental than the particles.” The field is the fundamental, unchanging, universal, invisible, unmanifest, transcendent, ultimate, essence of reality, and all “things” arise from that field as expressions of it, as varying excited “states” of that one unified field.

A Great Before?

The key seems to be that what is immortal in humans is that underlying essence, that fundamental unchanging universal reality, from which each and every body-mind emerges as a localized expression. The soul is not any particular body-mind, but the underlying timeless essence that gets shaped into each body-mind through conception, gestation, birth, and life.

This is where Pixar’s story breaks down a little bit for me. In Soul, the soul of the person is depicted by a simplified green shape that exists in a Great Before. In that place the soul learns its personality, and develops itself until it is ready to go to Earth and live life. Many of my Mormon friends are excited about this depiction, because it mirrors their religious belief in a premortality, a place where we all lived before we were born here, a la Saturday’s Warrior. But I think this can be misleading.

I suggest that our personality, and who we become in life, is not preordained, and has no real existence prior to our birth and development in life. Our ego identities, the persons who we think we are, are something that develops here, while we live, and they have no premortal existence. There is no Great Before as depicted in Soul, in my view. The ego identity is part of the temporal expression, part of the wave rising up from the ocean, part of the excitation of the unified field, part of the localization and particularization of the underlying essence of reality. Life is an expression of soul, each life being a beautiful incarnation, instance, emanation, manifestation of the Eternal One, or Singularity.

Sometimes this mystical insight is expressed as each instance being “a soul,” and that these souls have an immortal nature; they exist before life, and continue to exist after. But I think this is a limitation of our understanding, and doesn’t reflect the deeper reality of things, the deeper reality and oneness of soul. Soul is not many, but ultimately One, at-One in the One.

The “Great Before” of mysticism to me seems to simply be that underlying timeless essence itself, what has been called by many names including God, the Divine, the One, the Singularity, the Highest, the Great Spirit, the Ultimate Reality, the base reality, Love, nonduality, the Monad, the supreme Being, Truth, etc. We are not actually anything separate there, but rather simply the One itself, God itself.

I cannot fault Pixar too much for this, as it is quite impossible to depict such a mystical before, which is why all the great myth-makers must use such symbols to point to it. As long as we don’t take it literally it can help us consider what may have come “before.”

A Great Beyond?

The movie Soul also briefly depicts a Great Beyond, that place we go to after we die. They chose a common symbol from near-death experiences, and many mystical experiences, of a great white Light, seemingly at the end of a tunnel, toward which all souls move, and which they eventually merge with in the end, becoming one with the Light itself. The protagonist of the Soul story doesn’t want to go there quite yet, feeling as though he has unfinished work to do in life, dreams to achieve, and so he runs away from it, ending up accidentally back in the Great Before.

This I was much more pleased with in Soul. As I have cataloged here on this website almost fifty times to date, many mystical experiences include this kind of exceptionally bright white Light, above the brightness of the sun, even being like trillions of suns in brightness. Nothing is brighter. The founder of my spiritual background in Mormonism, Joseph Smith, likewise experienced this in his initial mystical experience called the First Vision, and he seems to have associated it with the God of the Christian tradition, the “Father,” and the “Son,” Jesus Christ. I’ve suggested before what I think this Light is that is seen.

It seems to me to be a symbol for the Ultimate Reality itself, God itself, the Light of Being, the essence of Reality that is realized directly in mystical experience. It is the Light, the Love, the Truth of the Divine, and of Reality. It is our ultimate Identity. When the duality of the ego-self comes to an end, either in ego-death mystical experiences or at physical biological death, we return to the oneness of that nondual One. This is what people seem to “see” when they near death, when the ego is coming to an end, when they transcend the self. The veil of duality becomes thin, and they begin to “see” what they actually are. Ultimately, they don’t see this with their eyes as something objective outside of them, but rather they see it in their soul, as their own essence, as their own being. Consciousness sees itself, becoming aware of its own ultimate nature. They become the Light because they are the Light, and I think this has much truth in it, as I wrote about earlier today.

The meaning of Life?

But Pixar’s Soul is about more than just the Great Before and the Great Beyond. It bravely tries to distill what the meaning of life is, why we are here, what we are doing, what we are trying to accomplish. Joe thinks it is to become a great Jazz musician, to become famous perhaps, to make a living as such a renowned musician. This initially seems to be the “spark” that is the reason a soul gets sent to Earth. Realizing his “dream” is what he thinks it means to live, and he struggles with everything he has to return to life so that he may realize this dream. But this ultimate purpose gets questioned. Is his purpose for living really to become a famous musician?

Beautifully, Joe’s soul goes to a mystical place called “the Zone” which is where living people’s souls go in meditative states of consciousness, where people go who are in euphoric flow states of their passion, and also where lost souls go who are broken and need rescuing. There he meets a group of (intriguingly) sea-faring mystics who wonderfully call themselves “Mystics Without Borders” who help rescue lost souls, and can help Joe.

In the excitement, Joe’s soul jumps back to Earth together with another soul, 22, although Joe’s soul gets trapped in a cat, and 22’s is in Joe’s body. 22’s soul has never come to Earth before, because it never found its “spark” or supposed reason for living in the Great Before. But now, on Earth, 22 comes to directly experience many of the small wonders of life, like eating pizza, and including the breathtaking beauty of a simple maple seed. It is these simple but marvelous wonders that finally convince 22 that she wants to live, she wants to go to Earth. They are the “spark” for 22 to live, the small and simple things of living. Life itself becomes its own reason. 22 has a chance to live, but Joe convinces her that he should go back to Earth instead.

Joe still thinks he needs to fulfill his dreams. He returns to his body and gets to play with a famous Jazz musician, one of his ultimate dreams. But once he’s done that and it’s over, he feels empty and disappointed; perhaps that wasn’t what he was looking for after all. In one of the more mystical moments of the film, the famous Jazz musician shares a piece of mystical wisdom she once learned with him:

I heard this story about a fish.

He swims up to this older fish and says,

“I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.”

“The ocean?” says the older fish, “That’s what you’re in right now.”

“This?” says the young fish, “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”

This story about the fish living within the very thing it is looking for is a common one among mystics, helping us to realize we already are in that which we are looking for, we just haven’t recognized it. We haven’t discovered that the One we are looking for is the One who is looking. We are looking for our own Self, beneath the veil of the ego-mind, even pure Consciousness itself. We are already That. The philosopher and mystic Alan Watts even wrote a short children’s story about this metaphor, The Fish Who Found the Sea.

This seems to be the turning point that changes Joe, a mystical epiphany, and he comes to realize that life is not about reaching any dream state, becoming anything great, or doing anything spectacular, but realizing that he is already in that which is most desirable, beautiful, and ultimate, but just didn’t know it. He was looking for an ocean he was already in, but he just wasn’t aware of it. Now he was becoming aware. He was waking up.

Life’s “spark” is not about fulfilling any dream, but in simply living life, in experiencing it fully, in all its glories and sorrows, beauty and ugliness, in becoming fully aware and conscious of it, in the present moment, of consciousness itself, of willing life for life’s sake, in realizing that you are Life, you are the beauty of the maple seed. That eternal essence of soul that underlies the world has become you and the whole world, has expressed your mind and every body-mind in the world, to experience itself in many selves, to live its Self. This is the essence of mysticism, coming to this soul-shaking realization and awakening, for the soul to wake up to its Self in and as the whole cosmos.

Joe then goes home to play on his piano, where he enters a flow state of consciousness, and thus goes to “the Zone,” where he meets up with the mystics to go rescue 22, who has become a lost soul. Having been rescued himself, Joe becomes a savior, a mystic, to help rescue the lost soul, 22, to help her realize her “spark” was also life itself, “regular old living.” This recalls the symbolism in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva who saves suffering beings, and of the Christ who descends into the underworld or hell to rescue suffering souls, to raise them up to life again. He uses the maple seed to remind 22 about life itself, that her “spark” is that she is ready to live. And then, he seems to tell himself, “you’re pretty great at jazzing.”

He’s already jazzing, he’s already doing it, he’s already living, and that’s what he’s meant to do—to live. Joe is given a “second chance” at life, like Richard Rohr’s “second half of life,” and this time it will be life itself: “I’m gonna live every minute of it.”

A Mystical Movie

Many movies touch on mystical themes and the metaphysical, but this is one of the most mystical in recent memory. I’m happy that Pixar and Disney are making such movies, as they can act as the myth-making meaning makers, spiritual metaphors that we are in need of today, helping to fill the growing void of traditional religious institutions and their aging myths. I’m sure Walt Disney would be very pleased that Disney has continued to be involved in such movie making. This film is, indeed, about the mysticism in Walt Disney’s Soul:


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