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A closed eyelid fills the screen. Suddenly it swings wide open, and the pupil, at first dilated, immediately contracts, as if reacting to brilliant light. That's the first shot of the first episode of Lost, ABC's phenomenally successful dramatic series, now in its second season. Several variations of this image recur in later episodes—a tantalizing hint that somehow the show is an allegory of the process of awakening, of opening to the light of awareness. More hints will follow.
In the next few shots we see the owner of the eye, a thirtysomething man in a suit and tie, incongruously lying on his back in a bamboo grove. Then he remembers or realizes that he has just been in a jetliner crash on a tropical island and starts running toward the screams of other survivors; the story lurches into action, and after that it never stops lurching. Following in the long and winding lineage of Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Gilligan's Island, and Survivor, Lost presents the tribulations and improvisations of the marooned as they cope with the loss not only of civilization's physical amenities but of the veneer of civilized behavior.
We see friendships formed or broken over a jar of peanut butter, rival factions, shifting loyalties, hidden agendas, kidnappings, clubbings, the old bamboo-shoots-under-the-fingernails torture, end-of-episode feel-good reconciliations and redemptions, and, hey, look—a message in a bottle. There are also frequent flashbacks to the pre-crash lives of the passengers. They include a doctor and an engineer as well as a washed-up rock star, a former Iraqi Republican Guard, a slacker lottery winner, and a murderer or two, who together certainly represent a richer if only slightly more realistic cross-section of society than the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, the professor, and Mary Ann. Aside from the token funny fat guy, the plane seems to have specialized in carrying attractive people, and the passing weeks on the island have miraculously scant effect on their hairdos and makeup.
But Lost holds our interest with those teasing glimpses of a cosmic and possibly dharmic dimension. Occasionally punctuating the passengers' struggle to survive are such perspective-busting developments as the appearance of a polar bear in the jungle, the crash-induced healing of a paraplegic, the recurrence of an apparently mystical sequence of numbers first on the slacker's lottery ticket and then in several other improbable places, and the discovery of an abandoned bunker that houses some sort of clandestine project straight out of The X-Files, complete with aging computers stamped with the logo of the mysterious Dharma Initiative—a logo that also turns up tattooed on the skin of an attacking shark.
What's going on here? Is mainstream TV really making a meaningful foray into the Buddhist world? Or is it merely rummaging through the thrift shop of Buddhist terminology for the odd hat or trinket in which to play dress-up? The last time the word "dharma" was prominently featured on a network series, it turned out to mean a cute blonde hippie girl married to an uptight yuppie named Greg. Certainly at least one of Lost's writers seems to have some real knowledge of Buddhist practice. The apparatus in the Dharma Initiative bunker includes a doomsday machine that requires its caretakers, in order to fend off catastrophe, to watch a counter and vigilantly reset it every 108 minutes—maintaining mindfulness in increments of 108 being a familiar activity, of course, to anyone who has used a standard 108-bead mala to count off repetitions of mantra.
The show's finest actor, Terry O'Quinn (check out his brilliantly creepy starring performance in the 1987 thriller The Stepfather), plays its most interesting character, named John Locke. Like his British Empiricist namesake, Locke insists that we live in a tabula rasa universe where we are ultimately free and unconditioned. In initiating the young boy Walt into the mysteries of backgammon, which Locke introduces as a form of wisdom more ancient than Christ's, he teaches him that the dualistic struggle of dark and light is a mere game—a perspective unavailable to the others on the island, who are caught up in life-or-death factional clashes. Locke also finds Walt's beloved lost Labrador by fashioning and blowing a dog whistle—accessing higher frequencies—and when the others run to seek shelter from the rain he sits calmly on the beach in his usual cross-legged posture, an implacable shaven-headed bhikkhu welcoming the weather with outstretched arms.
The first episode's most haunting moment occurs when Locke opens his mouth and its interior seems to glow a supernatural fluorescent orange. A moment later we realize that he's merely chewing gum, but the point has been made that the mind-blowing cosmic and the homely quotidian are one and the same. With that foundation laid, and thanks to O'Quinn's gravitas, when flashbacks reveal Locke as a loser—a pathetic, womanless, boss-pecked cubicle jockey, complete with polyester tie and cheap Andy Sipowicz-style short-sleeved dress shirt—we accept his emergence in the forward action as the macho paramilitary survivalist of his own dreams, the warrior-sage who may well prove the salvation of his people. Yes, even schmendricks like us may rise to be bodhisattvas.
But Lost's deepest dharmic resonance is probably the experience of lostness itself. Ironically, as the characters struggle to get unlost, viewers tune in precisely to get lost—not only to hang out vicariously on a lush uncharted island a thousand miles off course somewhere between Sydney and L.A., but to get good and disoriented by the ever-twisting, ever-widening plot. To plunge into lostness is to plunge into mystery, to run off the narrow rails of reason into the wide realm beyond, where one hand can clap and jungles can harbor polar bears. It's a setting forth, out of the insulated palace of the comfortable and familiar, into the (initially) scary actual world, where nothing is permanent or certain. This is what, in another tradition, is called the fear of the Lord and the beginning of wisdom.
To be lost is to be stripped of the cozy but confining assurance that you're on course, on a tidy, logical trajectory from Point A to Point B. If you're really going somewhere new (toward enlightenment, let's say), any concept you have of the destination or the path when you set forth from your point of departure (ignorance) is necessarily an ignorant concept. So, with any practice that's going to really help you get there (meditating, chanting, studying sutras, relating to a teacher, and so forth), somewhere in the middle of the process you must get lost to your concepts, disoriented, discombobulated. In fact, to do anything right, to do it so that it becomes a means of awakening, whether it's writing your novel or playing your saxophone or falling in love (why do you think they call it "falling"?), you must become so hopelessly lost that wherever you come out is somewhere you could not have conceived of when you went in. Just say, "Huh?"
In the droll Tin Pan Alley song "Let's Get Lost," there's a verse that begins, "Let's defrost in a romantic mist / Let's get crossed off everybody's list." To defrost out of rigid self-definition, to get crossed off all the lists of who's who and what's what, is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Whenever we practice (every moment, ideally) we must be willing to get lost, to cast off the moorings of what we know or think or think we know. In that sense, Lost, with its ever-deepening mystery, has provided a kind of mass-audience quasi-meditative experience. How long its creators can maintain the mystery, without resolving it into mere rational explanation or exhausting the audience's patience, is another question. For now, get lost while you can.
Dean Sluyter is a teacher, Buddhist prison chaplain, and sometime film critic. His latest book is Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies. deansluyter.com
Image: John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) enters a mysterious series of numbers, a task that must be repeated every 108 minutes to fend off catastrophe. © 2005 ABC, Inc., Photo: ABC/ Mario Perez.