The Shawshank Redemption: lessons about hope and the healing power of mindfulness

shawshank

If you ask my family or any of my close friends, they will tell you that one of my favourite movies of all-time is The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and the indomitable Morgan Freeman. I possess two copies of the movie on DVD (one is blu-ray format). I have seen the movie easily over 30 times. In the past, I’ve found myself turning on this movie if I’ve had a frustrating day at work, botched a law school exam, or simply just to feel inspired.

Now, in my last post about the film “The Way”, I expressed how I believed that the protagonist father, Dr. Tom, underwent a transformation from the beginning of the Camino – the Way – to the end of the film where he scatters his son’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean in his memory. He participates in this transformation, I suggest, through a practice of mindfulness – that is, a focus on living in the present moment without regard to external pressures, worries, trauma, or stresses of the past or future.

That is because the future arrives at precisely the moment that the present moment is in front of us.

Mindfulness is a “radical act of love”

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is generally regarded as a leading expert in mindfulness (and whose life’s work on this topic I am only just beginning to unpack through my own becoming-through-mindfulness in the last 6 months), has described the practice of mindfulness as a “radical act of love”.

When I first heard Dr. Kabat-Zinn utter this phrase “radical act of love”, I admit I was somewhat unsure why he chose the word “radical”. Radical in what sense? Is mindfulness something of a marginal activity that only extreme types of people participate in? How radical can sitting alone and focusing on one’s breath really be?

As I think about this phrase more, I am drawn to the story of the fictional main protagonist – Andy Dufresne (played by Robbins) – a prisoner at the Shawshank prison in Maine who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

Andy Dufresne

When we first see Andy arrive at the Shawshank prison in 1947, there is precious little that gives him hope he will survive two consecutive life sentences in this Kafka-esque penitentiary. He and his new fellow inmates are herded through the prison, they are greeted by the Warden, Mr. Norton, who professes to be a man of God and the Bible.

Red

Andy stands out like a sore thumb amidst his fellow inmates; he is tall, clean-cut, lanky, and introverted. Ironically, it is a clever and resourceful man named Red (played by Morgan Freeman) who first bets that Andy will be the first to implode inside the walls of Shawshank – but then is the first to befriend Andy.

As I suggested in my post on “The Way”, I believe that the three friends whom Dr. Tom encounters along his journey to the Santiago de Compostela are guardian angels who are placed in his path to help guide him to the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Camino.

Here, I see Red as also a guardian angel who is called on to serve as Andy’s companion. He quickly forms an enduring friendship and bond with Andy, in the early days of his arrival at Shawshank. We see Red as an improbable companion to Andy, providing comfort and fellowship when Andy is thrust into challenge after challenge; each one requiring him to survive and overcome a period of great personal adversity.

In one scene, we see Andy as part of a group of his fellow inmates selected to do repair work on the roof of the prison. Andy overhears one of the prison guards commenting to another guard that he fears his ex-wife is going to take everything from him. Andy approaches the guard and tells him that he overheard his conversation. The guard recognizes Andy (as he is about to throw him off the ledge) as the accountant who murdered his wife. Andy responds that he can help the guard to avoid giving his ex-wife anything on the condition that he would provide his fellow inmates with beers.

In the next scene, we see all the inmates enjoying their cold brews courtesy of the prison guard (but really because of Andy); yet, when the camera zones in on Andy, he isn’t drinking or socializing. No, Andy is not doing any of that. He is, just, smiling.

Every single time I have watched this movie, I always smile back when I watch this scene. I could never really explain to myself why I savour this scene so much. Until now.

It seems to me that what we see in Andy’s smile is another example of a tangible manifestation of the practice of mindfulness – of not doing, but being in the moment. Here, we see Andy completely content that the day has turned into a good day, perhaps even a great day. There is no focus on the past, or the future. There is just the fleeting moment of the present, which he – and indeed we – savour, for only just a few seconds.

It’s important that the audience understand that this moment of pure mindfulness is a significant turning point in the film. Why? Because I believe it serves as a foundation for Andy’s ultimate plan: to escape Shawshank prison. I explain why below.

The Warden of Shawshank

Recall that mindfulness is not about doing (in the sense of doing by distraction or worrying); it is simply about being (in the sense of being self-aware). And being in the present moment (which is fleeting).

As the film progresses, we see Andy’s most difficult period of transformation-through-mindfulness through his encounter with the madman who runs the Shawshank prison: Warden Norton.

As we learn through the film, Warden Norton plays an essential role in Andy’s trajectory – and ultimate escape – at Shawshank. He is early on Andy’s advocate, providing him a job in the Warden’s office doing the books. But when Andy learns of the Warden’s involvement in a money-laundering scheme and tells him he is on to him, Andy is instantly discarded by the Warden, threatened by him, and thrown into solitary confinement where he will languish for weeks.

When Andy gets out, he is weak and hungry, but alive. We know he has survived solitary confinement, but we don’t know how he did it. I suggest to you that he did it by focusing on the simple fact that he knew he was alive, that he knew he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, and that he would be free from Shawshank by his own making in the here and now.

Andy’s escape from Shawshank is a pure and radical expression of mindfulness

Following this scene, we see Andy in the prison yard wandering by himself. He sits down next to Red. He asks Red if he’s ever heard of a place called Zihuatanejo. Red says no, he hasn’t. Andy says this is where he would go if he ever got out of Shawshank. He tells Red to promise him that if he ever got out, he would find his way to a giant willow tree in the hayfield in Buxton, Maine, like the ones described in Robert Frost’s poetry – and retrieve a box there under a stone that has “no business being there” and follow the instructions. Red agrees. But, Red is worried. To him, it’s as if Andy knows something is going to happen to him, and Red is terrified of this. He tells his fellow inmates that Andy is acting and saying weird things.

In this last conversation with Red, Andy announces that there’s two choices for everyone: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

The next morning, Red learns that Andy has escaped Shawshank prison after years of digging a hole through the prison walls with a rock hammer, his efforts concealed with a poster of Rita Hayworth. Andy crawled hundreds of feet through the underground sewer system into a river where we see him finally lift his hands into the air as the rain pounds down on him, liberating him from the chains of imprisonment.

Andy could quite easily have accepted his fate within the walls of Shawshank; he could quite easily have placated the Warden and been his servant all the rest of his days in the prison. But, what we see in Andy’s final trajectory is a choice to live over dying. And not just to live, but to live purposefully in the here and now.

That is why in the final chapter of the film, we see Red make the same choice as Andy – to live presently, and with intention. For Red, his decision to live is borne out of the bonds of friendship – and a promise- he made to Andy.

In mindfulness there is hope

Red finds his way to the willow tree in Buxton, Maine, and comes across the stone which Andy identified as having no business being there. Under this stone, Red finds a letter from Andy, and some cash. In the letter, Andy asks Red that since he’s come so far, would he be willing to come a little farther. He asks him does he remember the place he was talking to him about that one day? He does. Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The place with no memory, as Andy described it.

Andy writes: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

In the final scene, we see Andy reunite with Red with the backdrop of the Mexican sun, ocean, and endless white beach in the distance.

Zihuatanejo. The place with no memory.

Now, when I contemplate Andy’s trajectory in this film through the lens of mindfulness, I appreciate much more what Dr. Kabat-Zinn means when he says mindfulness is a “radical act of love”. That is because in Andy Dufresne, we are presented with an individual who had every reason to question the justice system, and to protest his incarceration to the authorities with a view of seeking vindication through the appeal process.

Yet, instead, we are invited into the world of a man who was able to endure the worst of human nature in his adversaries, and yet still succeed in cultivating a profound inner peace that enabled him to live fully and purposefully not only before his escape from Shawshank, but more importantly, after his escape, when he is able to reunite with his friend, Red.

In the final moments of the film, we see both Andy and Red reunited. Two men with no memory. Two friends who live mindfully in the moment, and for the moment. This, I say, is undeniably a radical act of love.

I wish you all love, happiness, and hope.

Namaste,
Alex

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