What’s your ‘Inception’ totem?

Cobb's Spinning Top Totem

Venerable Kusala mentioned the movie during his dharma talk with the University Buddhist Association at UCLA and Reverend Danny Fisher wrote a review for the film. I’m sure many others have contributed their two cents on the movie Inception so here’s mine.

The part of Inception that became the most memorable for me was not the gravity-defying fight scenes nor was it the magnificent dream worlds the characters were transported through. Rather, the one part of Inception that really had me thinking was the totem. Cobb describes the totem as a small object used to confirm whether one is in reality or a dream – what an idea! Three totems are introduced in the film: Cobb and Mal’s spinning top, Arthur’s weighted red die, and Ariadne’s chess piece.

In thinking back on the movie, I wondered what I would choose as my totem. I think I would use a ring I received on one of my past birthdays. I have a bad habit of taking it off and playing around with it during class and every once in a while, I drop it. It hits the floor with a pinging sound and rolls to a stop with a light clink. I imagine that if I were in a dream, the ring would not make the same sound (if a sound at all) once it hit the ground. In accordance to the title of this post, feel free to share what totem you would choose. I’m quite curious to know!

But besides being ranked as an Inception fan’s top ten questions to ask on a date, the idea of a totem isn’t actually too distant from practices people use in everyday life to discern what one should or shouldn’t do. After all, every one of us is met with dilemmas and challenges, doubt and hesitation, thoughts that force us to question the validity and morality of what we do, in the same way Cobb questions the reality of the memories and images that manifest in front of him, whether in reality or a dream. While in Inception the totem is used to distinguish dream from reality especially when one feels lost or confused in one’s own mind, for a Buddhist it seems as though we use Buddhism as our totem to help us distinguish the skillful from unskillful.

I say “Buddhism” but really you can break the “totems” down to the specifics. Cobb spins his top to ground reality. We read the Dharma for wisdom, pray to the Buddha for guidance, and/or seek the Sangha for support. We meditate to cultivate mindfulness and peace of mind. We chant sutras to remind us of the teachings and create a sense of community that echoes even after the voices have stopped. We practice the precepts to generate compassion while maintaining discipline. I’m sure the list goes on. In a way, everyone, not just Buddhists either, learns to carry something that helps his/her navigate the mind.

Yet how is a totem different from a basic sense of human judgment seemingly inherent within us? A characteristic of a totem that seems to make it so useful in Inception is its ability to act independently of its owner. So while Cobb travels in and out of dreams, envisioning Mal and his children in both worlds, the spinning top is a neutral indicator detached from his mind. The top spins infinitely in a dream and stops in reality. That does not change no matter what Cobb sees, does, or thinks. Similarly, it seems as though for Buddhists, Buddhism acts as that removed agent, that “totem”, that provides the wisdom to guide us outside of the distractions that cloud our judgment and delusions that cause us suffering.

9 Replies to “What’s your ‘Inception’ totem?”

  1. Yes, the totem (spinning top) as prayer wheel… I was thinking along those lines in my review as well; you might find it interesting: see here.

    cheers, Adrian

  2. That was fun !
    Another view may be that in sitting we see that everything is spinning, nothing is still. We are the spinning top. Is it OK not to have a totem? I think so.

  3. I once read a science-fiction novel by Roger Zelazny (Eye of Cat for curious fans), which touched on this same subject back in the day (the 60’s I think). The totem is an interesting concept for defining one’s reality. I remember seeing a massive totem pole in Vancouver B.C. that really stuck with me. I think it was a more modern one, not a traditional one, but still they are pretty indelible symbols.

  4. Great post, kudos! I was prepping for a workshop last week, when I realized that I could fit your totem analogy into my presentation. It turned out that almost the entire staff had seen Inception, and they really loved the analogy. Thank you for this!

  5. Thanks for a wonderful post kudos. My totem would be something that brings me stillness. I have a lovely disk made of pressed sand that is about the size of a small macaron without the creamy filling. Edged in black, it is painted black and mute red, with a yinyan sign one side and Tibetan designs or symbols on the other. The disk resonates energy yet instils peace, nothingness.

  6. we do not need a totem as none of us have got englightened to distinguish the Reality from non reality….we are all in the process of discovering the reality….

  7. I think that I would choose a deck of playing cards. I got pretty good at magic tricks and I remember that whenever I try doing a trick in my dreams, all the cards turn to aces.

  8. I don’t think Cobb’s totem makes sense. A totem (as defined in the movie) is an object that only the owner knows the behaviour of, so they can test that behaviour and know if that totem is in their reality (and behaves as they know it will) or is a projection in someone elses dream (and they will not know how it will behave). This is confirmed by Arthur and Ariadne who. correctly, will not allow anyone else to touch their totem (and thereby learn it’s unique behaviour).

    This works with the loaded dice (only Arthur will know what it will do when thrown) and the chess piece (only Ariadne knows which way it will fall) but not with a spinning top. Everyone knows a spinning top eventually falls, so how does it spin indefinitely in someone else’s dream?

    Another, more general issue with totems, still bugs me. It only works if you are in someone else’s dream. If you are in your own dream (and unaware of that fact) then you know how the totem is meant to behave so will project that behaviour, making it impossible to differentiate reality from your own dream.

  9. Actually totems work even in your own dream, like you said, if you know the way your totem is supposed to behave and if you don’t know you’re dreaming then it would act the way you expect it to, there for not being able to know if you’re dreaming or not, but actually the idea of the spinning top is not like the other totems where no one can touch it or now it’s secret, because if you spin the top you would be doing so to see if you are in a dream or not, and since you can control different aspects of the dream (consciously or sub-consciously) if you will the top to spin forever and you’re in a dream it will spin forever and if you’re awake it will fall no matter how hard you will it to keep on spinning, that’s why Cobb doesn’t have a problem letting someone else know how his totem works.

    So there are 2 types of totems, one where the totem will behave differently than it would normally do in the real world and behave the way it should normally do in the dream, the other is the opposite where it will behave normal in real life but weird in the dream.

    I figured that out since I have my own totem, it works the same way as Cobb’s top, it’s a big heavy coin with the Yin Yang symbol on one side and a little circle in it’s center on the other side which allows it to spin, when I test my totem in a dream I will it to spin all the time and it actually keeps on spinning, and obviously it will stop spinning in the real world, this is the perfect way to have lucid dreams which after all is the idea of a totem, to let you know if you’re dreaming or not.

    It’s up to everyone to choose their totem and the way it behaves.

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