The Wisdom of a Jedi Master

Yoda's Jedi instruction remains relevant, insightful for a galaxy not so far away
February 25, 2021 Updated: February 25, 2021

I remember it well. The year was 1977.

After months of anticipation, it was finally here.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” [cue music]

I was 9 years old as I read the crawl of those golden-yellow words on the theater screen before they faded into a dark abyss of stars. The stage was set for an epic adventure—and enduring wisdom.

So begins the tale of “Star Wars,” and the journey of our hero, Luke Skywalker. Luke finds himself caught in an interplanetary war between the authoritarian regime of the Galactic Empire, and the Rebel Alliance fighting for the Republic’s freedom.

At the core of the story lie the Jedi Knights, galactic guardians of peace and justice who harness an energy known as “the Force,” the all-encompassing spiritual essence of the universe. Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi who initially trains Luke, explains, “The Force is what gives a Jedi Knight his power.”

But as Luke discovers during his Jedi training, while the Force is to be used for good, the dark side always beckons.

“Star Wars” went on to become one of the biggest franchises of all time. My brothers Leo and Chad loved it so much they had every bit of merchandise they could talk my mom into buying, from “Star Wars” bedding, to lunch boxes, to action figures. It seemed everyone had “Star Wars” fever—a fever that has continued over the years.

A Timeless Journey

So just why do we love the “Star Wars” saga so much? Is it the fast-paced action, the captivating creatures (the cantina scene comes to mind), or the galactic starfighters blazing across the screen? Absolutely. But perhaps there’s more to our fascination.

Perhaps it’s the hero’s journey, with its tests and tribulations, trying our flawed hero’s soul to determine his ultimate fate. Perhaps it’s the timeless plot of good versus evil playing out, in epic and grand fashion, before our eyes. Or perhaps it’s the words of wisdom from the Jedi masters, words that resonate deep within us—words that ring of truth.

Of all the characters we encounter, perhaps none better embodies ancient wisdom than Grand Jedi Master Yoda. We’re first introduced to the emerald-green, 900-year-old Yoda in the 1980 film “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second of the original trilogy. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said of Yoda, “In his range of wisdom and emotion, Yoda may actually give the best performance in the movie.”

The influence Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism had on George Lucas can best be seen in Yoda’s attempts to teach Luke Skywalker. Lucas believed there was profound wisdom in Eastern teachings, and sought to share this wisdom with his Western audience. Looking back, I have a deeper appreciation for the words Yoda has to impart.

“Do. Or Do Not. There is No Try”

Arguably the most well-known of Yoda’s words of wisdom, this quote has become a slogan in the self-help, motivational, and business world. It summarizes, in essence, the difference between success and failure.

As Luke offers a half-hearted “I’ll try,” during his training, Yoda corrects his thinking.

“Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Luke bemoans that moving his starship is different, harder, than moving a small rock.

“No! No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned. …Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try,” Yoda reprimands.

It’s not that failure is unacceptable, but not giving our all is. The attitude of “I’ll try” gives us an out, allowing for the possibility of failure. In effect, we’ve undermined our own success by making room for self-doubt.

We may be conditioned to thinking this way without even realizing it. Our own experiences and notions also color our view of things, preventing us from seeing things as they really are.

“Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view,” Yoda cautions.

Becoming a Jedi master requires great effort and a solemn mind. Yoda tells Luke, “A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.” Once our minds are committed, there is no room for “try”—we know we must “do.”

But, distractions are everywhere. Yoda says of Luke: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away … to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing? Hmpf. Adventure, heh? Excitement, heh? A Jedi craves not these things.”

Being in the present is an important concept in Eastern thought. If our minds are elsewhere, looking to the future or the past, we can’t give the task at hand our all. Our intentions also matter. If our starting point isn’t right, and our motives are self-serving, our foundation will be unstable.

Patience, focus, faith—these things are imperative, but certainly not easy. In fact, Obi-Wan warns, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.” It takes faith to break through the illusion created by the eyes and believe in that which we cannot see. This is why Yoda tells Luke, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

This also serves as a reminder to look beyond the physical reality of the eyes.

Of course, despite our best efforts, we’re bound to have failures, and they have their reasons—but therein lie our lessons. In “The Last Jedi,” Yoda reminds us, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” It’s in hardship that we can look in our hearts for the why, uncover our role in things, and improve.

Ultimately, it is our thinking that’s key. After Yoda uses the Force to lift Luke’s starship from the murky swamp, Luke exclaims, “I don’t believe it!” to which Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.”

“Let Go of Everything You Fear to Lose”

Yoda talks of fear many times, a clue that eliminating it is an important part of Jedi training.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” Yoda tells a young Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace.” In Buddhist thought, things such as fear, anger, lust, jealousy, wealth, and fame are attachments. Attachments are said to be the root of all suffering, and thus, must be given up. As Yoda warns, attachments are fraught with peril and lead to the dark side.

“Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression—the dark side of the Force, are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice,” Yoda warns Luke.

Obi-Wan’s apprentice was, we later learn, Anakin Skywalker. In a foreshadowing of what’s to come, in the prequel “Revenge of the Sith,” Yoda tells Anakin, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” Yoda warns that every fear must be relinquished, including that of death—whether it be our own death, or that of someone we love.

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”

When Anakin asks what he needs to do, Yoda replies, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Of course, Anakin doesn’t heed Yoda’s words. He chooses the dark side and comes to embody evil, in the form of Darth Vader. This serves as a reminder that the dark side is always inviting us, tempting us down its bewitching path.

“You Will Know When You Are Calm”

“Is the dark side stronger?” Luke asks. No, Yoda assures him, but the dark side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.”

The dark side can lure a Jedi, gradually contaminating him in ways he may not even realize, altering his thoughts and behavior. As Buddha said, “What we think, we become.” What we’re exposed to shapes our thoughts, and thus, who we are. Especially today, there are so many things we’d be better off not seeing or hearing, things that blur the line between right and wrong.

When Luke asks how he will know good from bad, Yoda replies: “You will know when you are calm, at peace … passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” This teaching would change the course of the universe, for when Luke eventually has the chance to destroy Darth Vader, he instead shows him compassion.

To maintain a state of calm requires self-control. We can then come from a place of compassion, our true nature, rather than vengeance or greed. When we’re angry, agitated, fearful, or overly excited, we are no longer calm, and we are no longer rational.

A calm state of self-control allows us to look inside, to see what is driving us, and what is truly important to us. This introspection is critical to living a complete human life. This is not possible when we are only doing what others tell us, or force us, to do.

In fact, Luke never tells Darth Vader what he should do. Rather, he directs Vader to search within himself to uncover the truth, and extricate himself from the dark side. Aligning with good or evil is always a choice. It can never be forced upon another. This is the way of the Jedi, and in Eastern thought, this is the way of the Dharma.

Applying It to Our Lives

When we apply this wisdom to ourselves, we may find our lives transformed. Research has revealed that remaining calm has a profound effect on our biochemistry and long-term health. Yoda’s Eastern-inspired wisdom has the real potential to affect our mental and physical health. A clear and tranquil mind can relieve anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, and reduce heart rate. This state of mind brings out the best in us.

So how can we apply some of this wisdom? In my view, it begins with our thoughts. If our thoughts are not aligning with who we want to be, those thoughts are not us and should be ignored and eliminated. Remember, we don’t have to believe everything we think.

With whatever we do, we should ask ourselves some questions: Are we giving our best effort? Are our motives pure, or are we trying to benefit ourselves? Is our focus on doing the right thing? Are we operating from a place of fear or compassion? Reflecting within is important, because no matter what our justification may be, we are always responsible for our thoughts and actions.

“Star Wars” remains a part of popular culture, despite the passage of time. Roger Ebert summed up our intrigue with “Star Wars” quite nicely.

“The characters are not themselves—they are us … We are on a quest, on a journey, on a mythological expedition. The story elements in the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy are as deep and universal as storytelling itself. Watching these movies, we’re in a receptive state like that of a child—our eyes and ears are open, we’re paying attention, and we are amazed.”

The strength of the Jedi comes from selflessness, letting go, and becoming one with all that’s around them. This requires self-examination, for that’s how growth and learning occur. Like the Jedi, we should make the most of each day, striving always to improve, in our quest to be our best selves.

May the Force be with you!

Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.