As co-creator of the acclaimed animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Bryan Konietzko is responsible for one the most entertaining—and enlightening—experiments on television today. Even more amazing, this “experiment” has gained enormous popularity over the past two years, and out of the 16,000 shows listed at tv.com, Avatar is ranked 12th.
After working on shows such as Family Guy and King of the Hill, Bryan teamed up with Mike DiMartino to create “a show with heart”—because “a part of us was dying” doing the same-ole irreverent sitcoms day in and day out. The result of this pioneering effort was a fictional world created as a kind of homage to so many of the great wisdom traditions, particularly from the East, from Chinese martial arts, to Buddhism, to Taoism, to the yogic paths. Avatar has found a home on Nickelodeon, and although clearly a children’s series, the show effectively speaks to and nourishes viewers of all ages in a way your typical “cartoon” simply doesn’t do.
The hero of Avatar is a young boy named Aang, who has the unique ability of being able to master and control the four elemental forces of earth, air, fire, and water. On the show this skill is called “bending,” and the desire to manipulate the physical environment at will—such as flying, or shooting fire out of one’s palms—is a hallmark of the magical level of development, which can be seen collectively in humanity’s premodern history, and individually in children everywhere today (because the magical level is a natural and unavoidable stage in childhood development, and you can’t skip stages). This kind of magical thinking is everywhere in children’s shows and is in itself not unique, but through this vehicle Avatar introduces the viewer to concepts such as the chakra system and witnessing consciousness—and that is unique. Think about it: the 12th most popular show in America is introducing a generation of children (and adults) to some of the central elements of esoteric spirituality. The magical ability to control elemental forces is pre-rational, but items such as witnessing awareness are without question trans-rational, and because the rational world can’t tell the two apart, Avatar is able to “fly under the radar” and introduce children to aspects of themselves they won’t learn about in grade school (or Sunday school for that matter).
Bryan goes on to point out that no characters on the show are simply “given” extraordinary skills or powers, and that there is a constant emphasis on practice, development, and the importance of earning each new ability. Interestingly, there’s even a parallel to the concept of states and stages found in an Integral Approach), whereby the few “benders” can wantonly access states of freewheeling elemental manipulation, but to truly be worthy of the responsibility of such power, they must develop through stages of competence, compassion, and self-control. This clearly isn’t a direct parallel to the relation of peak states of consciousness and developmental stages of consciousness in real-world human experience, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and goes toward transcending the inherent egocentricity of a magical worldview (which is exactly the kind of lesson a young child needs to learn in order to learn to identify with their family, group, nation, and ultimately, the entire world and the entire universe—egocentric [me] to ethnocentric [us] to worldcentric [all of us] to Kosmocentric [all sentient beings]).
The popularity of Avatar is a wonderful example of the kind of collective micro-leaps that add up to genuine transformations in the larger culture, and its success is likely to spawn other like-minded endeavors, not simply because they’re commercially viable, but because this is the direction evolution is headed on a large scale. A premodern view yields to a modern view, which yields to a postmodern view, which yields to an integral view, and on and on it goes….
Bryan has a wonderfully warm and energizing way of speaking about what is clearly a labor of love, and we invite you to join him in exploring the ways we can all take that fresh, bold step into the unknown territory of human growth and creativity….
Written by Colin Bigelow
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About Brian Konietzko
Bryan Konietzko is the co-creator, executive producer, and art director of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1998 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration. After moving to Los Angeles, Konietzko worked as a character designer at Film Roman for FOX's prime-time series Family Guy. He moved on to become assistant director of two more Film Roman shows, Mission Hill and King of the Hill, working beside animation director Michael DiMartino,Avatar's other co-creator. Soon after, Konietzko became a storyboard artist, and later the art director, for the Nickelodeon animated seriesInvader Zim. Konietzko currently lives in Los Angeles, California.
About Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis is a longtime friend of Integral Life and Ken Wilber, and has acted as guest host for many Integral Life dialogues over the last decade. With fifteen full-length albums to his credit, Stuart has carved out a unique wavelength in the musical spectrum. Taking the topics of God, sex and death, and crafting them into inimitable pop songs with lyrical flair and unforgettable hooks, Stuart also works in television, film, painting, and books.