Seize the (To)Day: Dead Poets Society and the core of mindfulness as intentionality

dead poets society

I’m currently reading Dr. John Kabat-Zinn’s celebrated book on the topic of mindfulness called “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. I noticed one of the first quotes in Kabat-Zinn’s book is a reference to the work of the American poet, author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who writes:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Immediately, this reference to Thoreau reminded me of Dead Poets Society, another one of my favourite films growing up. Literary references to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman abound in this film. It was nominated for a 1998 Best Picture Oscar nominee, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Australian Peter Weir. It stars, among others, the incomparable late Robin Williams (who is sorely missed) as Professor John Keating, Robert Sean Leonard (former co-star of House) as Neil Perry and Ethan Hawke (recently of Boyhood and notably of Gattaca) as Todd Anderson.

In googling the film recently, I noticed many articles have been written about the film in a wide range of disciplines, including film studies, fine arts and the humanities. The purpose here is not to attempt a literary or academic analysis of the film.

When viewed through the lens of mindfulness, the question I pose is this: what can mindfulness show or teach us about the trajectory of the characters in Dead Poets Society?

Recall that mindfulness could be summarized in three words: intention, attention, and attitude. It is on the first of these components, intention, that I wish to focus my observations in this post. I suggest that mindfulness has something to say about both the importance of intentionality in the film and also the quality of that intentionality. (Note: the Oxford dictionary defines the word “intentionality” as the “fact of being deliberate or purposive”).

As we shall see, through the lens of mindfulness, the quality of intentionality manifests very differently in each of the main characters I’ve mentioned above. In the case of Neil Perry, I suggest the quality of intentionality never completely manifests in the film, leading him down a destructive path of continual pain, resentment and ultimately tragedy.

In mindfulness, we are able see that it is not only the moment of awakening in each of these beloved characters to live in the here and now with intention; but, the fragility of the moment requires that the quality of their intention must be to live in the here and now authentically, unapologetically, and above all, courageously.

Dr. John Keating

When we are first introduced to Dr. John Keating in the opening scene of the film, he is himself introduced to the staff and students of the preparatory school for boys, Welton Academy (in 1960s New England). We learn Dr. Keating was a former graduate of the Academy who returns to teach the students English literature and poetry.

Dr. Keating’s pedagogical approach is unconventional; he instructs his students in the first class to leave the classroom and follow him to a glass case in the hallway filled with awards and trophies. It is here where Dr. Keating introduces these young men to the Latin sentiment “carpe diem, or, “seize the day”. He asks, and I’m paraphrasing here, “What will your contribution be”? Most of the students leave confused, but some, are left oddly inspired. In the next class, Dr. Keating instructs his pupils to tear out the first page of their text on American Poetry by Professor Pritchard, Ph.D.   He will not have these impressionable young minds learning poetry by arithmetic formula as suggested in Pritchard’s text. No, we learn in this scene that Dr. Keating’s method is one of spontaneity, not predictability; passion, not complacency or conformity.

What we come to know quite early in the film is that Keating’s manifestly emotive and impulsive approach to his teaching appears to be inspired by his participation in the Dead Poets Society during his time at Welton Academy.   When asked by his student, Neil Perry, what is the Dead Poets Society, Keating responds that this was not just another club; it was a place where he and his fellow members  “let poetry work its magic”. He says they were “romantics” who laboured over such “biggies” as Whitman, Shelley and Thoreau. He tells him: “We let it drip from our tongues, like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned, and Gods were created.” That night, Neil and several of his classmates venture at twilight into the woods to find the cave where the Dead Poets Society once held their meetings. It is here that the Society is re-born.

From this point onward in the film, Keating serves as a shepherd tending to his flock of awakened sheep. He attempts to secure in each of his students the belief that a life lived is not worth living if it is not lived passionately in the here and now. Nowhere do we see this more poignantly than in the trajectory of two of Keating’s students: Neil Perry and Todd Anderson.

Neil Perry and Todd Anderson: two divergent trajectories in mindfulness

In the first moments we encounter Neil Perry, a popular senior at Welton Academy, we also encounter his father admonishing him for disobeying him in public. It is a relationship between father and son that is fraught with inequality, but also representative of the type of father-son relationships at that time. Neil does not come from a wealthy family; his father reminds him almost obsessively that Welton is a privilege he could never have imagined when he was a boy. Neil is submissive, passive, and sadly deferential and dispassionate each time we encounter him in the presence of his father.

Yet, through Dr. Keating’s example, Neil begins to awaken to his true, passionate self. The Dead Poet’s Society inspires Neil to pursue his true passion: acting. When Neil lands the role of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is elated. He appears to be living in and for the present moment.

But, Neil cannot confide in his father that his true passion is acting. He is still bound to the chains of his past; he does not want to disappoint his father. In this way, Neil is unable to liberate himself from his thoughts of the past or future – a central focus in the practice of mindfulness.

Even Todd Anderson, the sophomore who becomes Neil’s roommate and close friend in the film, is skeptical that Neil’s father will not accept his newly chosen vocation. Neil attempts to avoid his father’s rejection by forging a letter signed by his father agreeing to Neil’s involvement in the play. In so doing, Neil demonstrates a total absence of mindfulness; the quality of his intention here is plainly inauthentic, indeed even fraudulent.

For a time, Neil’s apparent transformation is infectious and spreads to his fellow classmates, particularly to Todd Anderson, the quiet sophomore who befriends Neil in his first few days at Welton and someone whom Todd looks up to as a person who leads by example.

For much of the film, Todd lives in the shadow of Neil Perry. Todd is shy, introverted, and anti-social when he first arrives at Welton. He may as well go through his time at Welton Academy unnoticed. But, Dr. Keating sees something in Todd. He singles him out to share his poetry with the world. Todd is petrified of public speaking. Keating knows this, but pushes him. He knows there is something inside of Todd that wants to get out. He tells Todd to ignore his peers; to close his eyes. With the inspired words of Walt Whitman, Todd unleashes his authentic “yawp” across the “rooftops of the world” in an inspired and spontaneous poetic response to the visage of Whitman himself.

His poetry is met with praise and applause from his classmates. For the first time it seems, in this moment, Todd is alive. Keating whispers to him: “Don’t forget this.”

I view this scene as a poignant representation of mindfulness-in-action. That is, what we see here is a deliberate act of self-liberation from one’s thoughts of the past and the future. When Todd closed his eyes, shut out the world, he was faced with only what was – that is, the here and now.

Todd’s awakening is far more subtle than Neil’s; he continues to observe Neil’s transformation with great curiosity, but from the sidelines.

Neil forges ahead with his plan to play the part of Puck, even after his father learns of his deceit and forbids him from having any involvement in the play. What is more, Neil deceives Dr. Keating. For his part, Keating had counselled Neil to reveal his true self to his father; that this was the only way forward. Instead of telling Keating that his father disapproved of his acting, Neil tells a lie to Keating – that his father would be out of town, but had changed his mind and would now let him act in the play.

The death of Neil Perry reminds us that the quality of one’s intentionality must always be authentic in mindfulness

There can be no doubt that Neil’s desire and talent for acting is genuine. He plays the role of Puck masterfully; his peers are beaming in the audience watching their friend live his dream; Dr. Keating watches his pupil proudly live his passion.

For Neil, however, the moment is fleeting. The practice of mindfulness teaches us this.

When Neil’s father walks into the auditorium, Neil is, again, confronted with thoughts of his past and future. The audience hears Puck deliver his final soliloquy at the end of the play; but, for Neil, it is an apology to his father that he can only express through the voice of Puck:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
if you pardon, we will mend;
And, as I am an honest Puck
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue
We will make amends ere long;
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

In one of the last scenes, we watch as Neil succumbs tragically to his father’s tyranny. He is unable to utter a single word of opposition or objection to his father; he is mute, silenced by his father’s edict that he is to be enrolled in a military academy, and will become a doctor.

We watch Neil gently place Puck’s crown on his head and open the window into the cold winter air, this being a poignant reference to Thoreau’s beloved proclamation the he wished to live “deliberately in the woods”, and not to arrive at death only to discover that he had not lived.

We then watch his father awakened by a sound, descend into his study where he discovers that his only son has shot himself in an act of suicide.

When Neil’s death reaches Todd, he is inconsolable. It is as though he has lost his big brother, someone who had helped him as much as Keating to live his life with passion, conviction, and intention.

Similarly, Dr. Keating is overcome with grief as he reflects on Thoreau’s proclamation.

An inquest unfolds into Neil’s death. The schoolmaster is determined to see Dr. Keating ousted from Welton. He threatens each of the members of Dead Poets Society with expulsion and orders them to sign a statement affirming Dr. Keating’s role as the cause of Neil’s ultimate demise. Todd succumbs to the schoolmaster’s threats.

We watch in silence as the status quo returns to Welton when Dr. Keating is terminated from Welton.

Yet, in the final scene, in the midst of this silence, we see Todd triumph in an authentic and deliberate act of mindfulness to honour the memory of Neil, and to affirm his admiration for Keating. He defies the schoolmaster, standing confidently on his desk, hailing Keating as “O’ Captain my Captain” (a reference to Whitman) amidst a sea of his conforming peers. Then, one by one, we see Todd’s classmates join him in their act of disobedience, defiance, and indeed, courage. This singular act is another poignant example of mindfulness in action.

In this final moment, the trajectories of Neil, Todd and Keating merge into each other.

It is my hope that each of us strives to walk down our journey of life in the here and now with authentic intention, purpose, and courage. We must all live deliberately in the fragility of the present moment, alive to our senses and surroundings, and in a way that liberates us from our thoughts of the past and the future. This is the lesson in mindfulness I humbly take away from this truly remarkable film.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this post.

I wish you all hope, love and happiness.



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