The search for enlightenment is part of the human experience. It’s the reason for religion, the basis for a billion self-help guides, and the excuse for so much of our own inner turmoil. We want to believe there is some purpose to life, that within a realm of a million minor difficulties and rewards, there’s a big picture plot as to why we exist. Of course, many would argue that faith is the opiate of the masses, that organized belief has done more damage than good, and that within a time frame encompassing thousands of years, priests and prophets have provided very little to further our understanding.
Now, two new DVDs from Alive Mind Media (a copy whose ad copy stresses their commitment to releasing “specialty documentary programming in the areas of enlightened consciousness, secular spirituality and culture”) hope to dispel some myths while making the mysteries of spirituality a whole lot less enigmatic. So…Help Me God centers on Simon Cole and his cross-country quest to discover the power and glory of a Higher Authority. His genial, 52 minute road trip takes him all across America, exposing both theological acceptance and fundamentalist rage.
Meditate and Destroy focuses on former bad boy turned author and Buddhist teacher Noah Levine. As much a teaching tool as a mini-biography, we learn of the drug addled and crime filled life that transformed this self-proclaimed punk into a force for good in the realm of spiritual guidance. While Levine’s story has much more dramatic punch, it is frequently compromised by director Sarah Fisher’s desire to hard sell the man’s ‘ministry’ and teachings. Cole, on the other hand creates a Religulous like experience in which questions of dogmatic inconsistency provide fodder for humor - and occasional insight.
Indeed, So…Help Me God accomplishes the basic tenets of its set-up. Cole comes across as good natured and genuine, never openly confronting his hosts like HBO pundit Bill Maher did during his documentary. Certainly he lets the subjects spewing hate hang themselves with obvious clarity (a family of rabid homosexual hating zealots are exposed for the robot minding morons they are), but he also wants to understand and experience the substance of religious devotion. After speaking with all manner of types - Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Buddhist, etc. - he decides to confront his quandary head on. Setting up a tent in the desert, he explores the reasons and the need for faith. His last act revelation falls in line with the rest of So…Help Me God‘s direct designs.
Cole also does a great service to those who truly feel the need for God without all the organized and ritualized trappings. The doubters deliver arguments just as compelling as the converted, while hot button topics like choice, sexual orientation, and Biblical interpretation also receive a fair and balanced treatment. The only downside here is the length - at 52 minutes, Cole just scratches the surface. He puts across a fairly flawless preamble to what could be a much longer and more sophisticated overview (Satanists, Wiccans, and Atheists are left out of the mix, for example). Still, by shining a light on the need for answers within a world striving to complicated and confuse, So…Help Me God becomes a telling individual explanation.
Oddly enough, Mediate and Destroy does the same thing, only in a far less compelling manner. No doubt about it - Levine is a persuasive presence. Taking after his noted father (both have a marvelous gift for gab and the prescient application of same) we see him speaking to various groups and gatherings, all the while focusing on the journey through Hell he put himself through as a youth. In between are talking head interviews that expand on what Levine teaches while supporting his updated dynamic. The biographical elements are a bit scattered, our subjects tales of youthful indiscretion and crack fueled violence supposedly showcasing how far he’s come. While they offer such sustenance, they often become unnecessary reminders.
His entire persona, from the punk rock patina to the amazing body art, suggests the entire battle without getting into every detail. Even better, when Levine starts counseling a specific group of individuals, his examples and heart-felt anecdotes deliver the message loud and clear. During these specific scenes, when others explain their pain and suffering, Meditate and Destroy really finds its purpose. We can see how Levine’s words move and inspire these people and the battles scars they all carry just beneath the surface makes them just as compelling as their teacher. Sometimes, the backstory blinds us to the teachings inherent in Buddhism, but as a way of getting the too hip and the too insular into spirituality, this is a fascinating film.
Indeed, what both So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy do best is remove the smug, self-important aura off of faith. They argue that people don’t have to be part of some centuries old community to get in touch with their own inner light. Cole specifically shows that forging your own path, investigating and dissection the various approach to religion might just be the best way to discover what’s really important to you. On the other hand, Levine has clearly found something that works for his always tenuous sobriety. And since he comes across as both serious and enthusiastic to share, we fall into his words and thoughts with ease. While So…Help Me God is the much more pleasurable experience, Meditate and Destroy goes deeper into the question of belief and its halting, healing power.
Still, one can see a viewer sitting through each of these films and finding fault with many issues. Indeed, for someone living in the pragmatic and the practical, the notion of turning over any control, even a small amount of metaphysical or psychological, would seem specious. And when Cole discovers the truth about his quest, we often wonder if that’s the reality behind the various versions of faith. Still, as Noah Levine points out over and over again in his teaching, life is not about unqualified happiness. It’s about suffering, and learning how to confront and defeat said struggle on a daily basis. For most, religion is a plausible panacea. As So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy disclose, there may be better ways toward achieving peace outside of such strict convictions.