Interstellar as Zen Koan Leading to Love

Zen Buddhism is perhaps one of the oldest religions in the world. Its main purpose is to induce a state of enlightenment through a practice called meditation, an emptying of the mind. Meditation is often used in conjunction with another technique called a koan. A koan is a paradoxical riddle that befuddles the practitioner to the point of frustration and enlightenment. A famous example would be: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Another example: How does a man give himself coordinates for outer space if he needs to go into outer space to get the coordinates? Answer: Interstellar.

(Spoiler Alert - The ending revealed in more ways than one)

Interstellar is a story based on a temporal paradox much like a “bootstrap paradox”, a common staple in sci-fi where a future self helps a past self achieve a goal. Regardless of its name, Interstellar's paradox truly acts like a koan. There is no solution to the problem, but if you keep focusing on it, you'll reach a state of enlightenment.

The Interstellar Paradox

The paradox happens when Coop (Matthew McConaughy) finds a message in Murph’s bedroom. The dust storm has left piles of sand in the form of Morse code. The message relays coordinates for NASA, a now defunct space agency kept secret from the public. Coop heads over to NASA only to find them planning a mission to Jupiter. Coop is recruited for the project. His job is to fly into the wormhole and find another Earth-like planet to live on. But when he does so, he finds a gateway to a tesseract device; a large structure that leads to Murph bedroom at different times of her young life. The Tesseract displays time like location. Murph finds the right "time location" and gives himself the coordinates - the lines of sand - to NASA. He even tells Murph how to evacuate the planet and head off for Jupiter.

Fans couldn't figure out the ending. Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar simply didn't make any sense. How did Coop give himself the coordinates to NASA without having to use them first to give it to himself some time in the future? The thought-mills turned but in dismay. The story didn't explain anything.

Some Clues Left Behind

Interstellar's plot wasn't driven by bad dust storms or a world dying from starvation. Interstellar is about relationships. This theme is a big clue as to why the paradox isn't that important to solve. The message is in the people, not the equations or rocket ships. Coop loves his kids and wants the best for him. Professor Brand wants the best for this daughter Ameilia. Dr. Mann wants the best for himself. The entire plot depends on Professor Brand's belief that humanity is doomed. Survival means sending the human gene pool in the form of test tubes into outer space where it could thrive and re-populate the species. But no one would go on this mission if it meant abandoning Earth. They had to be lied to so that they would make the journey at all.

Amelia leaves the biggest clue. When the crew can't make it to both possible Earth-like planet to explore, they must choose one over the other. Amelia chooses the one with her lover - Wolf Edmonds - on it. Coop calls her bias out, but Amelia's response speaks volume about the truth behind Interstellar's theme. Amelia's response is that love is quantifiable. Love is as much a part of the universe as quantum, atoms and molecules. Her bias is justified. But Coop doesn't go for it. But Amelia just left behind a big clue that will become relevant when all goes awry leaving Coop no choice but to fly into the blackhole and risk death. But he doesn't die. He ends up in the Tesseract where he gives his daughter the information to leave Planet Earth.

Love Brings Interstellar Together

The blight doesn't unify the narrative, love does. Love drives the whole story - it even explains the bootstrap paradox. That's right. Love explains Coop's actions. Remember, the fifth dimension beings are evolved humans. Like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they know more about the universe than we mere fourth dimensionals. Like 2001, they discovered that time is a property like space. It doesn't happen sequentially. They also discovered something wonderful: Love is a physical part of the universe. A real force of nature that can be quantified. That's why Coop finds his daughter Murph in the tesseract. His love for her is quantifiable, allowing the fifth dimensional humans to lead Coop to her. Inside the tesseract are many entry point to different times in Murph's bedroom. Once there, Coop gives himself the coordinates as well as the information Murph needs to save humanity. 

Love, then, can change quantum, atoms and molecules. It can even drive Coop to find Murph's bedroom and give himself the coordinates to NASA. But you're not going to get the message until you do one thing: Fight with the koan. The bootstrap paradox is the first plot element to get your thinking. You will struggle with it, incessantly. Then, something happens. You achieve enlightenment. You realize that the entire story is about relationships - about love. Murph is surrounded by her family when she dies. Coop is reunited with Amelia. Everyone finds love because that's what the universe - including its koans - is made of.

The End

A koan is a koan is a koan. Zen Buddhism claims to use them to help its initiates transcend reality. Interstellar does the same. As fans try to figure out the ending, they experience a paradigm shift that forces them to focus on what is in the film, a love story, that is all. Love is in everything we do. Love isn't practical, it defies our understanding of evolution. When you get that, you evolve into a higher being - you might be able to get a time paradox too. Interstellar is a rare gem, a religious experience for those who want to contemplate the profound significance of Love, its place in the cosmos and how we experience both.

Michael Falcone (

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