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Buddhistdoor View: Buddhist Dimensions of Inside Out


When a children’s movie catches the attention of one of the most respected writers in contemporary Western philosophy, it can only mean that the movie is unusually intelligent and engrossing. Pixar’s Inside Out is the first animated film from a major studio that presents the human emotions—specifically Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—as protagonists, rather than the girl these emotions reside in, Riley Anderson. Writing in The Guardian, Julian Baggini muses that the film “. . . reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person. The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. . . . [your brain] is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.”

This film heralds a gradual opening of popular Western media and culture to the idea of the “three marks of existence” in Buddhism: impermanence (anitya), no-self (anatman), and suffering (duhkha). It is a completely new way of articulating (to children, no less) a richer, more complex understanding of the human person.

In this story, the five emotions work together to look after Riley and manage her reactions to external stimuli inside “HQ”—her head. HQ is visually located in the “sky” of her mind and overlooks a vast labyrinth called Long-term Memory, where memories in the form of orbs are stored. Orbs of core memories, or formative experiences of Riley’s life, are stored in a central hub within HQ itself. Most memories (including the core ones) are touched by Joy so that they are bright gold and happy. Other memories are touched by Sadness (blue), Disgust (green), Fear (light purple), and Anger (red). 

The external narrative—the one that audiences usually see in a movie—is simple, almost boring. Riley struggles with moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, making new friends at school, and coming to terms with losing her old life. The real action goes on inside her head, when to Joy’s dismay, Sadness, who feels like she serves no beneficial purpose to Riley (in contrast to emotions like Disgust, who protects Riley from broccoli, or Fear, who compiles copious notes on possible risks to Riley’s everyday activities), starts touching the Memory Orbs, turning more and more of Riley’s memories blue. Later on, it is revealed that Riley needs Sadness to express her inner difficulties and articulate her distress, therefore serving a vital purpose for her well-being, but none of the other emotions at this stage can understand why.

By several twists of misfortune after Joy tries to stop Sadness touching the orbs, they get lost in Riley’s various mental spaces outside of HQ, such as Imagination Land (complete with an Imaginary-boyfriend Generator), the Abyss of the Subconscious, and Dream Productions. With Joy and Sadness missing, Anger, Fear, and Disgust do their best to help Riley cope with her increasingly unhappy life. For example, befitting his purpose and personality, Anger argues that the only way for Riley to be happy again is to run away from her parents back to Minnesota. However, they just end up making her react to the world with burgeoning anger, fear, and disgust.

Anger prepares to make Riley react angrily. From
Joy inside the labyrinth of Long-term Memory. From

A resolution is reached when Joy realizes that Sadness needs to touch more of the Memory Orbs. As much as Joy wants to see Riley happy, she can’t be the emotional driver of every event. But in gratitude for her newly acknowledged importance, Sadness also invites Joy to touch the memories she is holding, so that Riley can feel meaning and happiness in the process of grieving. By the end of the movie, Riley’s Memory Orbs are no longer a simple mix of five colors: each ball is variously touched by the emotions, resulting in a beautiful array of “mixed emotions” and marking the beginning of growing up.

Not surprisingly, this animated movie is the most sophisticated children’s film in recent memory and has been critically applauded in many reviews. It turns traditional storytelling on its head: instead of telling us what the protagonist feels, it tells us what the emotions are making the protagonist feel. Of course, our brains aren’t populated by anthropomorphic or Platonic representations of concepts such as Joy or Sadness. Nevertheless, this children’s film is an example of meta-storytelling, in which the motivations for the narrative (usually the protagonist’s emotions or conflicts) are abstracted into their own story (the emotions’ adventures inside Riley’s head).

Baggini, like many other critics, observes that by being “made up” of the five emotions, the traditional fictional character has become a composite construction of various mental components, just like we are in the real world. He also notes that apart from deconstructing the myth of the unified self, Inside Out also presents these components as impermanent. HQ overlooks five islands attached to Long-term Memory that reflect fundamental aspects of Riley’s personality: friendship, honesty, family, goofiness, and hockey. But as the emotions struggle to manage Riley’s inner world, these islands crumble and fall away (for example, Friendship Island collapses after Anger makes Riley react furiously to her Minnesota friend’s apparent happiness despite her departure). However, by the end, new islands are formed: for example, the new Friendship Island now has a “friendly argument section,” indicating a collaboration between Joy and Anger.

The emotions enjoying one of Riley’s memories. From

Just as we see in real life, some of the things that “characterize” who we think ourselves to be endure—but others fall away, hopefully to be replaced by new, more complex and enriching “islands.” Baggini concludes: “What it all adds up to is a picture of the self as something which coheres into a single narrative but which has nothing permanent and unchanging at its core.” Our no-selves are forever in flux, engaged in a never-ending process of shedding what we once were and reforming into a new identity.

The ideas of no-self and cognitive impermanence should open up new avenues into exploring how a contemporary story (be it through the medium of live action or animation) can be told. There are no antagonists in Inside Out—the conflict (or the reason for the story to exist) all happens within, inside Riley’s head. The fundamental problems of the world, according to Buddhism, are also within, not “out there.” Nevertheless, understandably, there are philosophical differences between a Pixar film and 2,500 years of insight. The Buddhist explanation for the world’s unhappiness is much more complex. In Buddhist phenomenology, sentient beings are made up of the five skandhas, or aggregates (mind and matter being considered inseparable, unlike in Cartesian thought): form (rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (samjna), mental formations (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana). These aggregates become the subject of expanded commentary in the Abhidhamma literature of early Buddhism and the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. If Riley’s happiness depends on the interplay of her emotions, Buddhist liberation depends on the Buddhist insight of understanding the “empty” nature of the aggregates: that they are impermanent, composite, and interdependent.

If there were any “villains” to be scripted in a Buddhist version of Inside Out, it would be the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion—the factors inhibiting our well-being and blocking our path to enlightenment. For now, it’s too big a question to ask how such concepts might be brought into an animated film, but the high stakes and existential conflict in the Buddhist teachings would make for a children’s story that is both immersive and educational. 

See more

Inside Out: a crash course in PhD philosophy of self that kids will get first (The Guardian)

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