(This piece is something I wrote for a freelance job that I unfortunately failed to nail. It is unedited and LONG, but it might be of interest to intense fans of Star Wars and psychology. It is spoiler free to the new movie in that it only ranks a passing reference confirming that it is a movie that is happening in the closing.)
“Wise mind is that part of each person that can know and experience truth. It is where the person knows something to be true or valid. It is almost always quiet, it has a certain peace. It is where the person knows something in a centered way.” –Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition
States of Mind and the Inevitable Falls of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords
In the universe of Star Wars, there exist two powerful oppositional forces: the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords. Utterly different in every way except for their common sources of power, The Force.
However, a longer look at these two groups reveals the Force to not be their only link. No, there is another: each group’s struggle with an inability to tap into their “wise mind”—a state that integrates an individual’s capacity for emotional reaction and logical/analytical thinking and adds instinct and insight.[i]
Unsurprisingly, given their diametric opposition, these purveyors of the Force struggle with achieving wise mind for different reasons. The Knights, with their emphasis on rules, honor, and commitment, tend to live their lives entirely in “reasonable mind,” the state in which an individual approaches “knowledge intellectually, is thinking rationally and logically, attends to empirical facts, is planful in [their] approach, focuses [their] attention, and is ‘cool’ in [their] approach to problems.” [ii] The Lords, on the other hand, embrace their “emotional mind,” the state that derives its energy from the current feelings being experienced and tends to interfere with logical cognition by misrepresenting, obscuring, and overemphasizing the facts they can perceive. [iii]
In these two dispositions lies destruction for both. To live in only one mind state is to inhibit one’s ability to move through the world. Those who only act reasonably are forever ignoring and suppressing their own feelings and are often unable to recognize or be empathetic to emotions in others. Those who only act emotionally live in a frenzied state that is both exhausting and constantly activating where facts are difficult to notice and arrange for the purposes of making informed choices.[iv]
Wise mind, on the other hand, presents a middle path. Commonly illustrated as the portion of a Venn diagram where “Reasonable Mind” and “Emotional Mind” share equal space, wise mind represents the moments where an individual is able to integrate facts and emotions to make the “right” choice.[v] As Marsha Linehan explains, “You cannot overcome emotion mind with reasonable mind. Nor can you create emotions with reasonableness. You must go within and integrate the two” to truly honor your whole person.[vi] Wise mind requires effort which is why it is difficult to achieve. It is a place visited but not lived in. To deny half of oneself, as both the Sith and Jedi do, makes it not just challenging but impossible.
Reasonable Minds and the Jedi Knights
The idea that rational mind is somehow preferable to emotional mind is a common misconception. People tend to associate the idea of rationality with “right” and it makes a sort of common sense. How do you figure out the truth? You look at the facts. What mind state works with facts? The reasonable mind.[vii]
However, life is more complex than facts and figures. As human beings—or in the case of Star Wars, aliens capable of human-like cognition—we each bring our own perceptions and biases into our interactions. Our emotions inform how we act and react to the world around us. If one does not spend time considering his or her own emotions, that leaves them vulnerable to the ways they may influence our behavior. Additionally it is less likely they are able to recognize and understand emotions in others. And so it is for the Jedi Knights.
In fairness, the Jedi do not seek a universe devoid of emotion, nor do they pretend that they are invulnerable to feelings. However, the way they speak about emotions belies a desire to eliminate the influence of feelings in their lives. Despite Obi-Wan Kenobi’s insistence that “only a Sith deals in absolutes,” Jedi rhetoric is similarly shot through with a black and white interpretations of emotion.[viii]
In fact, Kenobi himself earlier warns Anakin Skywalker “Don't let your personal feelings get in the way!” with a fervor bordering on zealotry.[ix] A generation later, he will invoke the same stance with Anakin’s son, Luke Skywalker, literally encouraging Luke to “Bury your feelings deep down, Luke.”[x]
Yoda is perhaps the most frequent articulator of this Jedi philosophy. In Episode I he warns Anakin, only a child at the time, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”[xi] He elaborates further on the topic with Luke revealing, “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.”[xii] His advice does not stop with those sets of feelings either. As he approaches his own demise, he advises Luke against bereavement, “Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.”[xiii] While one might suggest this is a variation of the standard, “Do not be sad for me, I go to a better place,” deathbed suggestion, against the backdrop of numerous warnings against emotional expression, this implies something more akin to a rejection of those feelings.
There might be some temptation to argue that really what the Jedi are warning against are negative emotions, not emotions in general. However, there are several cases of Jedi warning others away from positive emotions. For instance, the above cited Kenobi quote, the feelings he is warning Luke about are concern for his friends—Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids.
Feelings of pleasure and commitment are similarly rejected. Before his giving in to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker himself derided Sith Lords because they “rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.”[xiv] Again, a criticism of narcissism of the Dark Side is understandable, but the implication is that anyone who draws strength from passion is inherently self-obsessed. Ultimately, the most succinct summary of the Jedi’s discomfort with positive emotions and stimuli is summarized by Yoda, ““Adventure? Excitement? A Jedi craves not these things.”[xv]
The most obvious way this rejection of emotion undid the Jedi is, of course, the case of Anakin Skywalker and his rebirth as Darth Vader. Surrounded by mentors since childhood that have told him repeatedly to suppress his feelings, Anakin repetitively showed signs of inability to manage his psychological reactions to stimuli. He was prone to recklessness, as demonstrated by his increasingly irresponsible piloting.[xvi],[xvii] Worse, his temper would rage beyond his control, leading him to slaughtered an entire village of sandpeople in revenge for his mother’s death[xviii] and murder a defenseless Count Dooku.[xix]
At the same time, Anakin is experiencing great guilt about his reactions. For example, the confession of his massacre of the sandpeople to Padmé shows him wrestling with what he has done, vacillating between anger, displacement, and rationalization before collapsing into tearfulness.[xx] However, he feels he cannot confess his emotions, his sins to his fellow Knights—even Kenobi, his mentor—because he has forever been told his feelings are bad. If he cannot even be allowed to experience them, certainly the terrible things he has done in their grip must be kept even more secret.
Inevitably, Senator Palpatine—and actually Darth Sidious and the soon to be Emperor—steps into the void, offering the supposed emotional clarity of the Dark Side. To join the Sith Lords is not only a path to the power Anakin craves, in part to save his dying love Padmé, but it is also a pass to experience his emotions in full. It is no wonder that the fragile, confused Anakin reaches out for this hand, even as it is clear some portion of him knows it is wrong.[xxi]
This is a turning point that leads to the near utter decimation of the Jedi. Obi-Wan Kenobi escapes to Tatoonie and lives in exile under the name Ben for years until Princess Leia’s distress call forces him to return to the life of an active Jedi.[xxii] Yoda survives as well, but ends up in living the rest of his days in relative squalor on the swamp planet Dagobah.[xxiii]
However, there are numerous signposts to warn the Jedi before then that they fail to recognize or give proper weight. For one thing, the Sith Lords are, seemingly, almost always former Jedi twisted to the Dark Side as demonstrated by Anakin[xxiv],[xxv] and the attempts to recruit Luke[xxvi],[xxvii]. Additionally, Count Dooku has enough history with Mace Windu that he refers to the Windu as “my old Jedi friend” and is a former padawan learner to Yoda.[xxviii] Although there are only two Sith at any time —a master and an apprentice—it appears there are numerous former Jedi in the waiting.[xxix] Regardless of the number, though, there is at least enough of an indication of the problem that the Jedi not addressing it is certainly a failure of reaction.
There are also moments that demonstrate the Jedi often ignore intuition and signs that do not fit into their set of already validated facts. For example, when Kenobi and Count Dooku cross swords, the Sith Lord tells him, “Hundreds of senators are now under the influence of a Sith lord called Darth Sidious”[xxx] and Obi-Wan simply cannot accept it because the Jedi would know it, would have the facts, if it were true.
This is especially ironic given that Kenobi was, formerly, the lone Jedi who warned Qui-Gon Jinn and the Council about Anakin and was overruled because the facts—like Anakin’s midichlorian count—indicated how powerful he could be. Even though intuition pointed towards how dangerous Anakin could be, it was overruled by provable facts.[xxxi],[xxxii]
Emotional Minds and the Sith Lords
On the other hand, no one can accuse the Sith of ignoring or suppressing their emotions. Rather, they seem to elevate emotions to an area of highest importance. In fact, the Emperor even promises Anakin, “In time, you will learn to trust your feelings. Then, you will be invincible.”[xxxiii] Anakin, as Vader, will later echo this to Luke, “Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. Your feelings for them are strong.”[xxxiv]
The problem for Sith Lords instead is they are entirely emotional. Vader kills underlings for errors and disappointments without a moment’s consideration for how he is thinning his own ranks, reducing the experience level of the Empire’s troops and workers, and blaming individuals for systemic problems.[xxxv],[xxxvi],[xxxvii] Earlier Lords like Maul and Tyranus repeatedly engage with multiple Jedi at once despite their being evidence to suggest a more thoughtful strategic approach would be a better path to their goals.[xxxviii] Even the Emperor is nearly undone by following his emotions instead of his guile when he attempts to escape a fight with Yoda, a fight he ultimately wins quite handily.[xxxix] If the elder Knight had not prevented Palpatine’s departure, who knows what damage an unbroken Yoda could have done to the Sith master’s plans?
This haste motivated by the emotional mind later marks the first step in the Empire’s eventual dissolution—and the seeming fall of the Sith—as Vader does not hesitate to strike down Obi-Wan Kenobi with Luke Skywalker looking on. Kenobi is old and while quite strong in the Force, has clearly lost physical strength and dexterity. On the other hand, as Kenobi himself points out, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”[xl] Vader does not pause to consider the meaning of this warning, never mind heed it. As a result, he frees Kenobi of his physically deteriorating body, allowing him to provide Luke with ongoing unseen counsel.[xli],[xlii],[xliii] Additionally, Vader murdering Kenobi while Luke watches further distances him from his goal of connecting with and guiding his scion to the Dark Side of the Force.
Emotional mind also proves to be Vader’s personal undoing. Besides driving him into the Dark Side, as detailed earlier, it made him unable to see that he had other options. Even when Luke appeals to him to give up his allegiance to the Emperor and join his family—and the Rebellion—instead, Vader’s emotions blind him to the logic of this.[xliv] This is despite earlier proposing that Luke join him and together they overthrow the Emperor and rule together.[xlv] That proposition appealed to the emotional mind, rewarding Vader’s sense of entitlement and desire to defeat the man who held sway over him. Luke’s, on the other hand, relied on a logical reading of both the current situation and the intergalactic politics swirling around them. Vader had no interest—or perhaps no means—to engage decision making in this way by that point. Although, as I will discuss shortly, we do see that eventually the message sinks in.
Another problem with the Sith’s overreliance on emotional mind is that it leaves them unable to imagine opponents who might somehow be emotional and yet still make logic-based choices. To them, emotion only fuels selfish decisions and irrational acts. However, as wise mind promises, it is entirely possible to utilize both logic and feeling in cognition in a way that results in the best possible choice. Thus, when Luke is brought before the Emperor, the Emperor can only perceive Luke’s anger and fear, concluding that the younger Skywalker will be easy to either turn or destroy. He is blind to the reality that Luke has achieved a level of balance that allows him to see through the Emperor’s seductive promises while simultaneously being able to tap into his feelings in a way that fuels his strength. Moreover, it leaves the Emperor entirely unaware that Vader, finally seeing the picture before him without blinders, might side with his son and provide Luke with the additional help the Knight needs to triumph.[xlvi]
So, as it was with the Jedi before them, the Sith are laid to waste by both their failure to “live” in reasonable mind, but also their inability to recognize that others might be successfully utilizing said mind state.
Wise Mind and Luke Skywalker
All of which brings us to Luke Skywalker, both the final Jedi of an old age and, possibly, the first of a new era. When we are introduced to him, he is barely an adult, isolated in Tatoonie, consumed by trivial matters, and whining to his uncle about his plan to go “into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”[xlvii] He does not seem, on first blush, to be the herald of a new era.
However, in the end it is obvious that not only has he contributed immeasurably to the destruction of the Empire and the at least temporary erasure of the Sith, but also that he has achieved something no other Jedi we have encountered to date has. He has integrated his emotional and reasonable minds into his decision making. He has tapped into wise mind and, as a result, presented a new path for the Jedi to follow.
There have been moments of wise mind in others throughout the series, but they were fleeting and isolated. Kenobi’s lack of resistance to Vader’s killing blow[xlviii] and Vader’s sacrifice to save his son[xlix] readily come to mind. Luke, however, quietly epitomized this throughout.
The earliest we see it is a brief moment after the death of Kenobi. It is clear Luke wants to wade into the conflict, to take vengeance for his mentor. However, aided by Kenobi’s voice, Luke instead runs to fight another day. Emotionally, he wanted to honor his master and, logically, he realized that the only way to do so was not by fighting and dying then but rather to retreat and strategize. He again honors his wise mind when he leaves Dagobah early, over the objections of Yoda and spectral Kenobi, to save his friends.[l] While this does feel like an emotional mind decision, a closer look shows that Luke was sifting through his emotions and the facts to reach a wise mind decision. In fact, his complicated feelings may have made him better able to access his wise mind.[li] He “let go of having to achieve [his] goals—and [threw his] entire self into working towards those same goals.”[lii] In other words, he decided that his goal of becoming a Jedi Knight was not binary but rather a process and this was an important part of that process. His rescue of his friends from Jabba the Hut later is remarkably similar, although admittedly a more complex affair.[liii]
Finally, of course, we have Luke’s face-to-face battle with the Emperor. Over the course of his capture, Luke taps his own compassion for his father while still remaining objective enough not to not follow that compassion to the Dark Side. Then, as noted in the previous section, he integrates his anger and fear towards these figures of evil with his reasonable mind to face off against much more powerful opponents. In the end, once again, his ability to approach the problem with both mind states merging into wise mind, allows him to achieve triumph.[liv]
As we look towards the next film in the cycle, The Force Awakens, it remains to be seen if Luke’s example will be an aberration or the birth of a new path for the Jedi. Will they fall back on old habits, embracing pure logic in the hopes that that will somehow eliminate the complications of the emotions? Or will the Jedi Knights recognize that victory and the rebirth of their order came not from a strict allegiance to the old ways, but from the embracing of the integrated self? Wise mind saved Luke, the Jedi, and the galaxy. Hopefully, that lesson will not be forgotten.
[i] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Cognitive behavior treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[ii] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[iii] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[iv] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Cognitive behavior treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[v] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[vi] Linehan, M.M., (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, Guilford Press.
[vii] Linehan, M.M., (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition. New York, Guilford Press.
[viii] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[ix] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[x] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xi] Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 motion picture)
[xii] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xiii] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xiv] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xv] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xvi] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xvii] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xviii] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xix] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xx] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxi] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xxii] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xxiii] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xxiv] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxv] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xxvi] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xxvii] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xxviii] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxix] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxx] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xxxi] Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 motion picture)
[xxxii] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxxiii] Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 motion picture)
[xxxiv] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xxxv] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xxxvi] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xxxvii] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xxxviii] Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 motion picture)
[xxxix] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 motion picture)
[xl] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xli] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xlii] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xliii] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xliv] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xlv] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[xlvi] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[xlvii] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xlviii] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977/1981 motion picture)
[xlix] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[l] Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 motion picture)
[li] Rees, L., Rothman, M.B., Lehavy, R., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2013). The ambivalent mind can be a wise mind: Emotional ambivalence increases judgment accuracy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(3),
[lii] Linehan, M.M., (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition. New York, Guilford Press.
[liii] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)
[liv] Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 motion picture)