Whip Whittaker

I never had much insight into nibbāna (really driving with no hands) until I saw Denzel Washington’s closing talk in Flight. His character Whip Whittaker has gone to prison for flying an airplane while drunk, even though he saved the lives of most of the people on the plane by his skillful piloting. Whip is talking with a group of prison inmates about how his alcoholism brought him to prison. He says that it is a strange thing for a man in prison to say, but now that he’s acknowledged his alcoholism and is staying sober, he feels free. Having relived my own struggles to become and remain sober through Whip’s failures during most of the movie, I had thoroughly identified with Whip by this time. So, when he said that he now was finally free even though he was in prison, I knew exactly what he meant. I realized that feeling free was the greatest comfort, i.e., strength, of sobriety. I knew that all the times in the 20 years since I stopped drinking when I had thought about having a drink, there had been something in the back of my mind that kept saying, “I don’t want to give this up.” Listening to Whip, I realized what “this” was and finally had the words for it, “I am free.” Anyone who’s had to overcome an addiction and has succeeded has tasted this freedom. The lack of that freedom is what the Buddha called samsara. When I start to imagine what it would be like to be free of all my addictions, big and small, harmful to health or not, including addiction to feeling comfort in feeling free, I realized that’s what the Buddha meant by nibbāna. In a way, as Whip speaks to liberate his fellow inmates in prison (samsara) he  shows what it means to be a bodhisattva, someone who can drive with no hands but who stays with us to help us learn, too.

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