Welcome to Part 2! if you missed Part 1 you can find it here
That we only know ourselves pragmatically surfaces when the outside world proves to be unstable and changing. Even though Neo is eager to take the red pill, learn about the Matrix, and remove the “splinter in [his] mind,” initially he rejects the truth. In the Construct, when Morpheus explains that the purpose of the Matrix is the turn humans into batteries, Neo, who has been visibly struggling throughout Morpheus’s exposition, resists this revelation: “No. I don’t believe it, it’s impossible.” He panics and yells to be let out of the Construct and back on the ship he continually repeats “I don’t believe it” until he throws up. When he wakes up later, Morpheus apologizes and explains that after a certain age “the mind has trouble letting go.” Neo’s mind does indeed have trouble letting go of his habitual self-concept. In fact, doubting himself is his immediate reflex. When Morpheus attempts to guide Neo safely out of his office building when the Agents arrive to arrest him, Morpheus’s last instruction over the phone is to climb out of the window and onto the scaffold, but Neo protests. It is not because Neo doesn’t trust Morpheus, it’s because Neo does not trust himself. When Morpheus hangs up Neo tentatively approaches the window saying to himself “This is insane! Why is this happening to me? What’d I do? I’m nobody. I didn’t do anything. I’m gonna die.” Out on the ledge, gripping a column fearfully, Neo retreats back into the office, saying decisively, “I can’t do this.” Similarly, whenever someone suggests to him he is or could be The One he never responds, remains quiet, even blank. Notably, during the Agent training program Neo seems skeptical of his supposed powers when he retorts to Morpheus, “What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?” And during the jump program Morpheus tells him the only way to clear the jump is by letting go of disbelief, but Neo falls: doubting Thomas. Essentially what Neo is resisting is the reality of his own holiness – and I do not use the word in a religious context, but more in the sense of being spiritually pure and free of worldly chains, doubts and fears. Despite the inner reality of Neo’s identity as The One, he still has such a strong ‘Why me? I’m nobody.’ reflex it keeps him blind to his true nature for a very long time.
Cypher is really the only other character in the film who doubts, both himself and, like Neo, the possibility of holiness. Cypher is Neo’s mirror – they are both alike and opposites. After 9 years of being unplugged from the Matrix, Cypher has lost faith in the fight against the machines. He finds life on board the ship hard and cruel, he tells Trinity “I’m tired … I’m tried of this war, tired of fighting. I’m tired of this ship, of being cold, of eating the same goddamned goop every day.” Like Neo, he does not want to believe the Matrix is a fake, he tells Agent Smith emphatically “I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing, you understand?” Cypher is also like Neo in that he also doubts the possibility of holiness. When Neo startles Cypher while he watches the Matrix code, Cypher says “You scared the bejesus out of me.”
Cypher is deeply skeptical about Neo being The One, while Morpheus and Neo spar in the Construct Cypher laughs when Neo is knocked down, he constantly pushes Trinity about whether she believes in Neo, and tests his doubt when he tries to unplug Neo in order to kill him (“How can he be The One if he’s dead?”). Cypher taunts Trinity “If Neo’s the One then there’d have to be some kind of a miracle to stop me” and when Tank surprises him he echoes Neo, “No. I don’t believe it!” He even voices his skepticism to Neo, again directly undermining the potential reality of holiness, Cypher says, with ironically theistic language, “Jesus! What a mind job. So you’re here to save the world. What do you say to something like that?” Unlike Neo, who ultimately chooses the path to ‘Know Thyself,’ Cypher’s solution to the discomfort of his uncertainty is “Ignorance is bliss.” The possibility of Neo being The One does ‘scare the bejesus’ out of Cypher, because he does not want the real world to be real, in his own words: “Why, oh, why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Cypher wants to return to the Matrix, and he describes his re-insertion into the system as “[going] back to sleep.” But you cannot know yourself in a dream world, and Neo’s final recognition of his true self, the reality of his holiness, is an awakening – Neo ‘wakes up’ in the film several times before finally waking up as The One. Cypher rejects the discomfort that comes from waking up from that dream world, realizing you are not who you thought you were, and taking the path towards knowing yourself. As Morpheus tells Neo in Agent training “Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”
It’s easier to believe in your pragmatic, though illusory, identity, than to accept you could be something more. Neo resists knowing himself because the urge to go on believing “I’m nobody” seems far more comforting than challenging his self-perception. Even though Neo is driven to answer the question “What is the Matrix” and dislodge the “splinter” in his mind that’s “driving [him] mad,” he nonetheless hesitates before being willing to face the truth. When Trinity, Apoch, and Switch pick Neo up before meeting Morpheus, Neo almost leaves the car, but Trinity stops him, “you have been down there, Neo. You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.” Neo leaving the car and going back down “that road” would be the same as taking the blue pill, to stay in the life he knows, even if it’s unfulfilling. Later, when Neo finds himself on the subway platform with Agent Smith and no exit, he chooses to fight Agent Smith, as Morpheus tells Tank, because “He’s beginning to believe.” But when Neo discovers Agent Smith ‘survives’ being run over by a subway train Neo abandons himself: he decides to take Cypher’s ‘blue pill’ advice, “You see an Agent? You do what we do: run. Run your ass off.” Cypher offers this advice in the spirit of ‘run because you’re not The One, so don’t get yourself killed because Morpheus tells you you are,’ and after this encounter Neo abandons the burgeoning self-belief that drove him to stand his ground. As he runs from the subway, he phones Tank and says “Mr. Wizard, get me the hell out of here!” This is a reference to the Tooter Turtle cartoons on the TV show King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. In each Tooter Turtle episode, Tooter would wish to be something he was not and his friend Mr. Wizard would wave his magic wand turning Tooter into whatever he desires, but Tooter would inevitably regret the wish and ask to be returned home. Neo thinks he has tested the possibility he may be The One but quickly takes back his attempt when it doesn’t work out quite the way he envisioned it would. Neo is running not only from Agent Smith, but also from himself.
There is a cultural “coolness” to saying you would, like Neo, take the red pill, but would you? There is a strange, familiar comfort in hollowness. Cypher hates the hard, illusion-free life on the Nebuchadnezzar, he knows the steak he eats while having dinner with Agent Smith is fake, but prefers it because it keeps the truth from his consciousness. Most of us wake up every morning asleep, we consistently choose the blue pill. It’s easier to fill our lives with signs that have no reference to our true selves, and most of us wouldn’t know ourselves anyways. We make small talk and gossip to avoid speaking with one another and truly relating. We socialize online to avoid touching. We get drunk, high, sleep too much and watch too much TV to avoid feeling. We smoke to avoid breathing. We overeat to forget what it is to be satiated and whole. We sell out by pursuing and keeping jobs our parents decided were right for us because it will pay the mortgage, give us a life “respected” by the neighbours, and then maybe we’ll have enough money left over to fund our “real life.” We frantically collect the signs of worth – an open-concept kitchen, $100 000 car, 60″ flat-screen TV – as if they will save us from criticism, disappointment, and heartache. We procrastinate to avoid knowing our true abilities, and sometimes to avoid the realization that we may not want to be doing what we’re making ourselves do. We prioritize the friends whose company we can only seem to stand when we’re drunk. We care more about what other people think of us or perceive us to be than what we truly are. We collect things and even people to avoid recognizing what we’ve lost or thrown away. We seek to marry a status instead of a soul. We stay with spouses that don’t love us because we don’t want to be alone, and fear those who cure our loneliness. We pretend to be happy even when we’re falling apart because it’s more socially acceptable to say you’re doing ‘fine’ than to betray the unhappy truth – as if it will shatter everyone’s ‘happy’ delusion and destroy the world. We habitually settle for less, giving the decision virtue by calling it “acceptance,” because we don’t believe we deserve more: ‘Why me? I’m nobody.’ We’re sleepwalkers, living in a world that does not recognize us because we do not recognize ourselves. Cypher isn’t different than Neo, who searches for the answer to “What is the Matrix?” because he’s always sensed “there’s something wrong with the world”: at heart they both simply want to be free. Cypher sees tyranny in Morpheus, and he isn’t wholly wrong, but his real error is believing salvation lies in sleep, in ignorance of his true self. Cypher would rather be a lion in a cage, “someone important – like an actor,” than a mouse in the world. But sleepwalking isn’t salvation: it is despair.
All self-protecting behaviour is a desire to be bulletproof: to be immune from being criticized, rejected, disappointed, hurt, heartbroken, betrayed, grieved, wounded. Cypher relying on sleep to protect him from a truth that pains him is essentially believing that being bulletproof means never being shot at. It’s the same as trying to be bulletproof by making our lives ‘perfect’ in order to avoid ever being criticized. But as Morpheus tries to tell Neo over and over: salvation, and true freedom, lies in being awake. Neo’s path to “know himself” as, and thus become, The One, begins with Morpheus insisting to Neo the lesson he “must learn” is the rules which govern the Matrix “are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken.” Neo’s ‘holiness’ is limitlessness: he will be able to change the Matrix as he “sees fit,” he won’t even have to dodge bullets to avoid being shot, he will truly be bulletproof. Yet this limitlessness is not anything Neo has to require from without, instead Neo must clear away the oppressive forces that resist his ‘holiness.’ The Matrix system itself and its Agents are the dominant, or at least most visible, oppressive forces in Neo’s life, but ultimately the most inhibiting force is his inner resistance to the idea that he could be anything more than “nobody.” Morpheus tells Neo again and again that his true limit is his belief in limitation and his perception that those limits are real. During the jump program Morpheus tells Neo in order to do the impossible “You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, disbelief. Free your mind.” When Neo struggles sparring with Morpheus in the Construct, Neo attributes his defeat to Morpheus being “too fast,” to which Morpheus responds “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?” Neo shakes his head no, but continues to breathe heavily, still trapped in the limited abilities of his muscles and body. It’s not until Morpheus taunts him “You think that’s air you’re breathing now?” that Neo seems to realize he can transcend the limitations he has taken for granted are his reality, because, as it turns out, they are actually illusions.
This inner clearance of limits is different than Cypher seeking refuge in sleep. Not only does Cypher wish to be reinserted in the Matrix with no memory of being unplugged, he even implies he wants to be asleep within sleep – he offers Neo alcohol and relishes the steak and red wine at dinner with Agent Smith, all examples of sensory deception. The comfort in hollowness and sleep can be deceiving, when Neo’s burgeoning awakening causes him to ask Choi if he ever has “the feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming,” Choi replies “Yeah, all the time. It’s called mescaline. It’s the only way to fly.” Mescaline is not a hallucinatory drug the way LSD is, which produces delusions, instead mescaline creates “open-eye visuals” which intensify and alter the perception of actual experience. In the Matrix this is only intensifying an un-reality: it is an artificial awareness. The ‘flight’ Choi describes couldn’t be more tied to the ground. At the close of the film Neo does fly, but it’s possible only because he’s awake. Awareness is not ignorance to the limits that trap you, which is still at heart a belief in limitation, it’s an awareness, and more importantly an acceptance, of the inner reality of limitlessness: this is truly knowing yourself. And it is only knowing yourself that will set you free, it is to know that holiness, spiritual purity, consciousness, limitlessness, is the only reality.
The influence from various fighting traditions in The Matrix underlines the power of knowing yourself. There is a heavy influence in the film’s fighting aesthetics from particularly Asian martial arts and kung-fu films. Nearly every hand-to-hand fight in the film incorporates this influence, and it is directly referenced in the spar between Morpheus and Neo in the Construct. The martial arts in Asia, specifically those developing in Japan, evolved from samurai combat traditions whose purpose is perfecting one’s character through the mastery of complex skills and achieving spiritual revelation. In particular, the vital importance of knowing yourself is underlined in an old samurai saying which holds that in combat “if you do not know yourself, you lose 100% of the time.” Tension in the mind and body is the manifestation of not knowing yourself, as it is the physical symptom of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt – precisely the qualities Morpheus insists Neo must let go. Training itself is not Neo’s problem, knowledge and skills are downloaded within seconds, what holds him back is his inner tension and resistance to the full awareness of his identity as The One. Simple resistance to self-recognition is enough to sabotage your true ability, as famous martial artist Bruce Lee suggests “Everything you do, if not in a relaxed state will be done at a lesser level than you are proficient.” Neo has “the gift,” but isn’t ready to recognize it, and thus himself, and until he does he continues to struggle. During the subway fight with Agent Smith, Neo repeats the mistake he makes sparring with Morpheus in the Construct: Neo strains to breathe air that doesn’t exist and staggers. Even though he is “beginning to believe” he still believes in his own limitations. Neo’s physical effort and exhaustion in the subway fight and subsequent chase is in direct contrast with the profound calm that overtakes him as The One.
To know yourself is to be completely at peace and at ease, it is an inoculation against fear of outer “reality” because it is the realization there is no outer reality, only outward looking perception which can easily be changed. The film’s most famous special effect, ‘bullet-time’, suggests as much. Special effects are, sadly, not usually taken seriously, and it is more than a cliché to refer to a special effect as extrinsic to the plot and extended special effect sequences in films are often considered “diversions” to narrative progression. Not unlike the Matrix itself, special effects are commonly regarded as visuals with no inherent meaning. Bullet-time is not used in the film for the sake of looking slick, although it does. Instead, bullet-time is the subjective perception of limitlessness, the exact perception that characterizes Neo’s ‘One-ness’ and his power. The time it takes for a bullet to be fired from a gun and hit its target is perceived or experienced in ‘reality’ as instantaneous, which is almost the absence of time. Bullet-time gives duration to instantaneity. It is an expression of extreme relaxation, as Neo dodges Agent Jones’s bullets his motion seems effortless, weightless, and appears to be more like laying down than falling. This also seems to be the extreme practice of Jujutsu, which literally means “the art of pliability.”
When Neo becomes The One he doesn’t have to bend at all, with an even greater sense of ease he simply stops the bullets by looking at them. This extreme calm is also seen when he blocks Agent Smith’s flurry of punches, with one arm behind his back no less. Neo even seems surprised at the easiness of his movement. This change in perception, both on the camera’s part, and Neo’s, is Neo ceasing to believe in the “reality” of instantaneity, speed, or strength and instead recognizing bullets are simply innocuous objects in relative space. Neo at last internalizes Morpheus’s lesson in the sparring program about muscles and air: limitlessness arises from the breaking of signs to their referents, there is no air so he cannot be out of breath, there is no bullet and so it cannot hurt him. The absence of referents is a source of freedom. Morpheus is telling Neo to believe in the reality of himself, instead of believing in the reality of the world: if he believed in the power and speed of the bullet he’d have been shot. As Bruce Lee suggests, the ultimate spiritual teaching of martial arts is your true centre of power derives from knowing yourself and this is “Not being tense but ready. Not thinking but not dreaming. Not being set but flexible. Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement. It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.” This is Morpheus’s lesson for Neo, Morpheus assures Neo that he’s faster than he has been previously but his only way to access that power and speed is self-recognition: “You’re faster than this. Don’t think you are, know you are.” Or, rather, know who you are. This extreme relaxation is the epitome of “letting go,” of freeing the mind from false identities, fears and beliefs and thus the dissipation of all sabotaging strain and tension. At its core, the inner peace and calm that gives Neo his power is knowing his holiness and recognizing anything that would compete to tell him otherwise as an illusion. What does it mean exactly to “know your holiness?” It is being wholly present, it is an understanding of yourself as consciousness rather than a sensing thing. In the words of Bruce Lee, again, “I do not experience; I am experience. I am not the subject of an experience; I am that experience. I am awareness. Nothing else can be I or can exist.” And when, in Exodus chapter 3, Moses asks God his name he replies, which Jesus later echoes throughout the gospels, simply, “I AM.”
It is important to point out that the film is not interested in advocating complete narcissism and that in essence knowing yourself is caring only for yourself, not in the least. Although Neo’s title as The One sounds frightfully individualistic, the identity itself is an interconnectedness with all things and people. The martial arts hold that you must “know yourself” to win in combat precisely because “you are your opponent are one.” In fact, many of the specific practices emphasize learning to mirror your opponent’s movement and use their momentum to their disadvantage instead of trying to directly oppose them. Essentially, an individual’s strength or speed is far less important than their ability to mirror and become their opponent. Interconnectedness is also a profoundly important spiritual tenant, notably of Taoism which teaches everything in the world is absolutely inseparable from everything else. As The One, Neo is literally at one with the world: he can change anything and everything, he can manipulate the Matrix system from within, and the film’s suggestion you shape the world with your perception also underlines interconnection, Lee again, “the world and I are both in active correlation; I am that which sees the world and the world is that which is seen by me.” Interconnectedness is also the structure of the film itself wherein the narrative and formal techniques of the film consistently mirror each other, and the immense web of intertexts and references the film makes to other films, books, theories, beliefs and philosophies.
But what triggers the realization of his identity is Trinity’s profession of love. In his article about the Buddhist influence in the film, Michael Brannigan mentions the presence of pratityasamutpada, a cardinal doctrine of Buddhism which holds that everything in the universe is symbiotic and flows from synergetic cause and effect: absolutely everything is connected to everything else. In the film, Brannigan identifies “the interconnectedness that exists especially with the redemptive, indeed saving, power of love. Trinity’s belief in herself affects Neo’s belief in himself.” This is also echoed by Bruce Lee who insists “Self-knowledge involves relationship. To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person. Relationship is a process of self-evaluation and self-revelation. Relationship is the mirror in which you discover yourself – to be is to be related.” The Oracle also connects knowing yourself with interconnectedness when after pointing out her Latin “Know Thyself” sign, she explains “Being The One is just like being in love.” This remark turns out to be a prophecy in itself as Neo’s being The One is intertwined with, even caused by, being in love with Trinity. The fulfillment of Neo’s prophecy by recognizing and knowing himself as The One doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
The Oracle’s prophecy that Neo may be waiting for his “next life” to recognize his gift and become The One is fulfilled when Agent Smith shoots Neo in room 303, but what awakens Neo is Trinity telling him “you can’t be dead. You can’t be because I love you.” Love becomes the saving “miracle” Cypher tested when he threatened to kill Neo. Trinity explains the Oracle prophesized that she would “fall in love, and … the man that [she] loved would be the One.” And thus Trinity recognizing herself as being in love with Neo is also a recognition of Neo’s One-ness, his holiness. Fate may be a matter of self-recognition, but self-recognition is also the recognition of others. Because of this interconnectedness, love is made possible only by knowing yourself. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, love is the greatest expression of the self possible, and is, at heart, recognizing your highest self in another. In The Fountainhead Rand explains “To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.'”
But just as we avoid knowing ourselves, we also resist and fear love. Trinity senses her love for Neo throughout the film, in fact at the very beginning of the movie Cypher teases Trinity for taking extra shifts to track Neo and says “You like him, don’t you? You like watching him.” Yet she is reluctant to recognize it fully, when Neo asks her what the Oracle told her she turns away from him without answering. Later, she tells Neo “I want to tell you something, but I’m afraid of what it would mean if I do.” She is only able to profess her love to Neo when the fear subsides, she says “Neo, I’m not afraid anymore.” But why fear love? Why fear knowing our true self? It is another symptom of being asleep, of perhaps wanting to believe in limitlessness, but still clinging to a belief in limits. So why cling so tightly to limits? Because we believe in reality, we take it very seriously: there is a spoon, we protest. Cypher’s desire to “sleep,” his belief in the bliss of ignorance, is quite literally a search for salvation. The Christian conception of existence demands the phenomenal world be absolutely real in part because the Christian soul is subject to judgement. Goodness and sinfulness are real qualities, the actions you choose to take and their consequences are real, and the moral value those actions reflect on your soul are real. The real world, with it’s real linear time, is a countdown clock towards the Last Judgement during which most of humanity will suffer horrific wars, diseases, famines, and disasters, but true believers will be saved and live for 1000 years with Jesus in a renewed world that resembles heaven. In other words, in concrete reality signs have absolute, inescapable relationships with referents. Reality is the realm of judgement and value. Thus, with its relentless appraisals and comparisons, cruel reality threatens to judge and find we are at bottom only dust, not worth the chair you’re sitting on, or the (real) air you breathe. We fear love and thus being known to others and ourselves because we think it means exposing our no-doubt ugly, tattered, wretched soul which in turn will surely betray us as worthless, and, at heart, unlovable. And so, the salvation in sleep is safety from rejection, unworthiness, and really, pain – another attempt to be bulletproof. It is for this our old friend Baudrillard, who, as it turns out, is not as much of a heartless nihilist as he appears to be, sees hope in the virtual: “In the virtual, we are no longer dealing with value; we are merely dealing with a turning-into-data.” He even notes “the peculiar irony there is in the fact that these technologies, which we associate with inhumanity and annihilation, will in the end, perhaps, be what frees us from the world of value, the world of judgement.” In the world of the simulacrum, like the Matrix, there is quite specifically “no longer a Last Judgement to separate the false from the true.”
As long as we believe in reality we will fear love and knowing ourselves because we will confuse love with significance. Love is what we really want more than anything, but we don’t believe we merit being loved until we’re worthy of it. We’re driven by status, by collecting the outer signs of, what we consider is, worth: being financially successful, respected, admired, beautiful… perfect. Essentially, significance has to do with our pragmatic identities: illusions. When we believe the illusion of our pragmatic identities and mistake it for our Self, we become too busy trying to position ourselves for worth that love goes unrecognized because we don’t recognize our true self, nor the true self of the other person. Saying ‘I love you’ in the reality of pragmatic identities translates to ‘I like your salary,’ ‘I like the way you look on my arm,’ ‘I like you when you do what I want,’ ‘I think you’re cute,’ ‘I want a wedding,’ ‘I need your attention,’ ‘I’ll enable you if you enable me,’ ‘I don’t want to be single,’ or ‘I’m afraid of being alone,’ which is essentially fearing yourself. But real love, the kind that isn’t concerned with your “worth” according to the world around you and how valuable you are appraised to be by reality, understands your innate significance, your holiness. Trinity’s love for Neo is, after all, a recognition of his pure, powerful being, his ‘One-ness.’ In truth ‘I love you’ really means ‘I see you.’ Love is a perception: in the immortal words of author Antoine de Saint Éxupery, “one sees well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.” Unlike love, which is an expression of interconnectedness, the belief in judgement and worth is a belief in separation: if we didn’t believe we were separate from the rest of the world, we wouldn’t be able to judge anything as better or worse than anything else. By contrast, when everything is one everything has the same essence of everything else and is therefore equal. And as Baudrillard points out, the Last Judgement (and judgement in general) separates: believers from traitors, Christ from Anti-Christ, sheep from goats, true from false, real from simulation. But oneness is the truth: in the words of Bruce Lee, “As long as we separate this ‘oneness’ into two, we won’t achieve realization.” Until Neo and Trinity recognize their interconnection Neo doubts he is The One and Trinity doubts the validity of her feelings. Neo’s self-recognition, and self-realization, comes only with hers.
Ironically, beginning to know yourself is often thrown away quickly because it initially feels like losing yourself. Since we tend to know ourselves only pragmatically, when those things are changed, challenged or shattered our sense of self feels threatened. Neo violently rejects Morpheus’s early attempts to explain the mirage of reality in the Matrix, most visibly, perhaps, when Neo throws up after first hearing the extent of the Matrix’s illusion. Jennifer McMahon connects Neo’s literal nausea at confronting the truth about his existence to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialist novel Nausea. In Nausea, the main character, Roquentin, also experiences extreme physical disorientation when he learns the truth about human existence and that the world lacks essential order and meaning. Existentialism is a post-WWII sentiment among philosophers which centres on analyzing the lack of meaning in the world and how we create meaning. The various existential philosophies also had a profound effect on film, but most notably in Noir from which The Matrix draws a heavy aesthetic influence. Existentialism ultimately underlines the importance of being authentic, the intrinsic emptiness of chasing worldly desires and pleasures, and the essential nature of human free will. However, nausea and dread are common experiences that accompany existential thought and are considered the starting point of eventual revelation. While I would describe existential dread as the feeling that grips me whenever I see Jersey Shore, existentialists would describe this nausea as a feeling of discomfort and disorientation experienced when one discovers the meaningless and absurd nature of the world. The discomfort is necessary, partially because existentialism demands personal responsibility and thus decisions must carry consequences, but also, as McMahon explains, because “most people are so thoroughly conditioned to believe that the world is the way they have been taught to see it that they resist any alternative. This indoctrination, and the resistance to change it encourages, makes becoming authentic more unlikely by making it alienating and making it appear as a movement into madness. The prevalence of inauthenticity makes moving towards authenticity alienating primarily because it requires the individual who is becoming authentic to accept an understanding of things that is at odds with that of the majority.” We construct and wear pragmatic identities like armour against pain and mistreatment, even though the truth is those identities make us more vulnerable to being oppressed and controlled. So much of our pragmatic identities are strategically constructed to cover up our perceived short comings in order to ‘fit in’: we spend so much time, money and effort just to keep up with everyone else to avoid being rejected.
The alienation following the move towards authenticity McMahon describes shows up in the film during the Agent Training program. Exactly as Morpheus explains to Neo that most people fear being unplugged – they fear authenticity – and are dependent on the system, Morpheus and Neo, who are unplugged, walk against the current of the crowd. While Morpheus navigates this easily, Neo is bumped into and pushed and is visibly bothered by this. Just as in our own world we spend all of our energy trying just to fit in (and we never really do), in the Matrix humans are used as batteries to power the machines. Humans as batteries for the machines is a futile use of energy and serves the plugged-in humans nothing. As the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass explains to Alice “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Here again we find the comfort that comes from hollowness. If being authentic means being alienated and rejected, we fight it because initially it feels like the move towards authenticity is going to expose us as vulnerable failures. The ‘inside,’ the self, is frightening, we think it is the seat of our powerlessness, so instead turn to the outside world using our pragmatic identities to try control the world around us, control how we are perceived by others, how the world responds to us, and what the world expects from us. Cypher wants to be reinserted in the Matrix, but he also wants to make sure he’s rich and famous, “someone important,” as if it will make him happy enough not to ever question the validity of the world, or himself, again. From this point of view pragmatic identities are used to shield ourselves from feeling vulnerable and afraid. It functions to a certain extent, but is ultimately unsustainable – you are still at the mercy of the outside world, of change and death, and when you have so much you need, you have much to lose, and because it’s an illusion you will lose it.
Neo is able to bend the spoon because the spoon itself does not exist but he does. As the spoon-bending child tells him, trying to bend the spoon is impossible as it’s tantamount to believing in the spoon’s existence, and notably, as the spoon does bend it holds Neo’s reflection. You cannot bend an illusion because it’s not there. Trying to control outside circumstances, situations and people is the same as trying to bend the spoon. Not unlike the box-pattern programming in the Matrix, trying to wrestle the outside world is futile. It’s the pointless insanity of Agent Smith trying desperately to control Morpheus – his very mind, even – in order to free himself. To either attempt to control the outside world or avoid it, you are keeping yourself trapped because letting go feels too much like the loss of self, and as existentialists re-iterate, the process of regaining authenticity is not painless. There is something easier about pretending, as Canadian author André Berthiaume explains, “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” It may not be easy or painless, but ultimately it is to gain yourself: who would you be without the respectable job title, $100 000 car, open-concept kitchen, your collection of dysfunctional relationships, addictions, diseases, disorders, problems and complaints? Why, you’d be You. (Not to say you cannot own expensive or ‘impressive’ things, but you cannot be owned by them: net-worth is not self-worth). In the words of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, “Let go of who you are, become what you might be.” Lao Tzu believed people are individual manifestations of divinity, but because of free will we are able to alter and distort our true nature, which is divine, and blind ourselves. We are so free, he contests, that we may choose bondage. Taoism is thus the practice of returning to and recognizing your natural harmony with the Tao of the universe where all real power lies. Belief in reality is the only real limit: while preparing to save Morpheus from the Agents, Trinity tells Neo tentatively “no one has ever done anything like this.” But Neo, finally seeing the potential in challenging limitation, replies, “That’s why it’s going to work.”
We should not be afraid of losing who we think we are, as Morpheus repeats to Neo “let it all go” and Lao Tzu agrees: “The world is won by those who let go. But when you try and try the world is beyond the winning.” Neo fails when he tries to hit Morpheus while sparring, tries to jump between two buildings, tries to defeat Agent Smith, yet gains the power to shape the world itself when he lets go of his very life. Nothing you believe yourself to be, or believe you must have and do to advertise to the world you are who you should be, is worth giving up your true self – Nothing. The tension and panic policing your pragmatic identity requires blocks your real power: as the spiritual teachings of the martial arts insist, the natural, primordial state of the self is a relaxed oneness with the present moment, a kind of awake meditation. Neo is not bulletproof because he wears armour, he is bulletproof because he is infinitely present and aware. All of that outside pragmatic stuff has nothing to do with what or who you are. To recall Lee, “I am experience … I am awareness … Nothing else can be I or can exist.” When Neo loses his pragmatic identity as a computer hacker, one of his two lives as Agent Smith characterizes it, he becomes the experience of hacking itself. Neo does not once mourn the loss of all his expensive computer equipment when he follows Morpheus ‘down the rabbit hole,’ because he becomes the computer: his body is full of plugs, Morpheus describes a pirate signal which ‘hacks’ them back into the Matrix unplugged, even Tank describes the mind as a computer which can be hacked. To know yourself is to be present as full awareness. As The One Neo is incredibly peaceful, and his intense, sharp awareness is characterized by a correction of his habitual perception. When Neo awakens from death, his last and truest awakening in the film, he looks at the Matrix and sees the bright green code that makes up everything his eyes and mind used to interpret as the wall, floor and objects in the ‘real’ world. This moment is also appropriately a POV (point-of-view) shot, the only POV shot in the film, and it replicates Neo’s perception. By contrast, Cypher ultimately chooses to believe in the illusion the Matrix code creates, being blind to the code itself, therefore believing in the simulacrum as reality. As he explains to Neo, “I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head.” It’s not that Cypher just doesn’t see the code, he clearly does, he doesn’t want to see it. Cypher tells Trinity he believes the Matrix can be more real than the ‘real world,’ and as opposed to Neo’s awakening and seeing the code, Cypher wants to go ‘back to sleep’ and be ignorant of the code that makes up the world, wanting to remember nothing. The difference between being awake and being asleep is literally having your eyes open.
Precisely because there is no objective reality how you look at the world is what shapes the world you look at. In his book The Disinherited Mind, Erich Heller refers to the loss of “significant external reality” and that nothing exists in and of itself. Instead, a person’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about the outside world literally creates ‘reality,’ as he is famously quoted: “Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that.” For Heller, as it is for Neo, truth is a “revelation emerging at the point where the inner world of man meets [the] external.” But as Cypher’s arc indicates, and Heller suggests, because perception is not merely a passive recorder of the outside world but an active creator of it, the outside world is a mirror of our inner selves, and it mirrors back to us only what we are prepared, or willing, to see and believe about ourselves and others – and rarely little else. It is why there is ironic comfort in the hollow, it is congruous with our scathing self-concept. While Morpheus is being interrogated, Agent Smith shares with Morpheus that “the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost.” He preaches his belief that this rejection of the perfect world was because “as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” In truth, the “suffering world” made by the machines isn’t any more or less ‘real’ than the ‘perfect world’ first attempted, so it is not that suffering creates reality: the difference is the ‘suffering’ program was accepted.
After Neo falls in the jump program and wakes up in the ship, he is surprised to find his body is sore and he is bleeding from his mouth, he looks at Morpheus and says “I thought it wasn’t real.” Morpheus explains “Your mind makes it real.” Suffering does not exist in and of itself either, instead it is the belief in reality which causes pain. As long as you hang on to the belief that you are, at heart, unloveable, and believe in your inherent guilt and unworthiness, your mind will create pain, suffering, and misery in order to defend your beliefs as real. This is how believing in reality makes you vulnerable to oppression and dependent on staying plugged into it. The truth is that most of us build elaborate personalities designed to avoid being alive, and believing in the absolute reality of the world is the most powerful defense against setting yourself free. Cypher chooses to see pain in his life on the ship, he hates the food, feels imprisoned by Morpheus and rejected by Trinity, in order to validate his anger, and defend his decision to go back to sleep, be reinserted into the Matrix and blind to its code. Neo is able to be truly bulletproof because he’s willing to see ‘reality’ as an illusion, and although he initially feels the trauma of this revelation, ultimately he recognizes the freedom in it. Neo accepts that there is no spoon, but there is a self, thus by bending himself, his perception of the world, the spoon bends – he simply places his belief in himself instead of reality and in turn the illusion of reality bends to match him. After all, as The One Neo is able to stop the bullets simply by looking at them as they are, he no longer fears them because he no longer invests in their ‘reality.’
Many of the intertexts in the film also figure perception changes, essentially corrections, as the hero’s ultimate epiphany. In Dark City, John Murdoch’s victory over the Strangers comes when he “remembers” the ability to alter the physical world by focusing his concentration and will to the changes he wishes to make and the physical change in the world follow (very much like Neo bending the spoon). In The Wizard of Oz, referenced when Cypher tells Neo “buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye,” Dorothy and her friends travel all the way to the Emerald City to visit the Wizard hoping he’ll solve their problems with magic: Scarecrow wants a brain, Tinman a heart, Lion some courage, and Dorothy wants to go home. In Frank L. Baum’s book, the Emerald City, like the green tinted Matrix, is actually an illusion: it is really a city wherein everything is pure white but appears emerald green as the Wizard orders everyone in the city limits to wear green tinted glasses (under the guise that without the glasses the brilliance of the emeralds would be blinding). The Wizard also turns out to be a master of illusion rather than divination, and is only able to give Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion tokens that allow them to realize they already had what they were looking for: Scarecrow is given a diploma even though he has been entirely clever throughout the adventure, Tinman a material heart even though he’s been brimming with emotion and caring all along, and Lion a medal even though fear never stopped him once. Dorothy and her friends make Neo’s initial mistake, they believe the Wizard’s power is more real than their own. And it is Glinda the Good Witch who tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers (silver in the book – but red looks better in Technicolor) have the power to bring her home: “You’ve had the power all along.” Not unlike the Oracle who assures Neo “you’ve got the gift” but that he’s waiting to realize it.
In fact, both Dorothy and Neo learn that being told they have the power and recognizing that power are not the same at all: Glinda explains that she didn’t tell Dorothy of her power before “because she wouldn’t have believed me, she had to learn it for herself.” And Morpheus tells Neo “[The Oracle] told you exactly what you needed to hear, that’s all. … there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Zen teachings (a particular school of Buddhism) describe awakening as the desired achievement but warn against taking the teaching itself to be the insight. An oft used metaphor holds that “all instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon,” but it is not the moon itself. The description of enlightenment does not equate to the experience of enlightenment which is felt only within the individual, and awakening will not happen if one concentrates on the pointing finger, or doctrine, rather than the “heavenly glory” (as Bruce Lee would say). Awakening, realizing one’s power, comes only with self-recognition, and the essential perception needed is to know yourself, to recognize you are not defined by the outside-in but rather you are at one with everything and how you perceive and interpret yourself and the world shapes your world. Correcting or changing your perception has nothing to do with the outside world changing, or you learning anything, instead the changes come with recognizing your Self and what you have always been. As the Red Queen tells Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, in order to make her way safely through Looking-Glass Land which can be confusing and disorienting, “Remember who you are.” Neo, who has also passed through the mirror and been unplugged, must also recognize his true self in order to fulfill his destiny and free the world. Essentially, the Red Queen’s advice is a warning to know yourself so as not to identify with illusions, which ultimately leads to building a pragmatic identity that keeps you trapped and vulnerable to oppression. Surrealist André Breton, who would no doubt be quite comfortable in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land, would also seem to agree with the Red Queen and Glinda: “Perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring, doomed to try and learn what I should simply recognize.” You are already everything you should and need to be, you need simply know yourself enough to recognize it. It’s just that when we are deceived by illusions we get so distracted trying to be ‘Someone’ that we forget to be ourselves. You are not broken, you have simply been looking for yourself in the wrong place.
There is no reality, only your perception and interpretation of it, and to know this is to acknowledge your one-ness with the world. Believing in reality is essentially a belief in separation: if reality is a hard, cold truth then we are objects of that reality, we are outside of it, often the victims of it, have no influence on it, and thus it is necessary to ‘prove’ your worth within it. Not believing in external reality opens the possibility for continuity between self and world. Thus when this one-ness is perceived, as it is by Neo as The One, fighting and/or ignoring ‘reality’ ceases to be necessary, or productive. One-ness is the perception that makes you bulletproof, and the only belief that defeats the Agents. The motif of water in the film is strongly associated with the pliability of the mind and the ability of perception to shape the world around us. This symbolic use of water is picked up by Bruce Lee who uses water to describe the state of one-ness, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Rather than beating Agent Smith in a fist-fight, or taking solace in being reinserted into the matrix, like water poured into a cup which becomes the cup, Neo ‘becomes’ Agent Smith when he ‘jumps’ into him and therein destroys him. Agent Smith’s body even ripples like water as Neo disappears into him. The awareness of one-ness with the world that characterizes Neo as The One erases fear: it is the awareness you are no longer the object of reality and therefore constantly its potential victim. This awareness also erases the disorientation accompanying change, as Caterpillar tells Alice, her continual shape-shifting should not cause her confusion about her identity (he should know, being a creature of transformation, after all), change is only a threat when we identify ourselves pragmatically. From this point of view change is not the loss of identity, it is simply the ability to “empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.” Change ceases to be traumatic and becomes the ability to be seamless with the whole world.
The awareness of one-ness is also the ability to perceive the truth without fear, the ability to see things as they are without being so invested in reality that anything which opposes that reality feels like a threat to your sense of self. Neo is able to access his true perception as The One when he lets go of the fear that has kept him separate from himself and the world he is actually at one with. Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, learns the same lesson while she is on trial at the close of the book by the Queen of Hearts. The Queen demands Alice to be executed and her card suited soldiers rush towards Alice to obey the Queen. But Alice, who after a long adventure of confusing shape-shifting, constant disorientation and being lost in nonsense, finally grows back to her full size as her fear dissipates. She looks at the soldiers as they close in on her and says simply, “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Immediately the soldiers revert to normal playing cards and flutter in front of Alice, waking her from her dream. Neo, too, awakens to his true self, and in his state of extreme ease is finally able to see the truth which erases his fear: he is no longer afraid of the Agents or their weapons because he sees them for what they are, “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a line of code!” Agent Smith is a line of Matrix code, which is exactly what Neo is able to control, change, and create as The One. And while we fight so hard to defend reality and thus the limitations that make it easier for us to sleep, Neo’s revelation betrays that the things we fear have within them the essence of our true selves. We fear love because we believe being known means exposing our ‘ugliness’ to another and will cause love to reject us, without considering those are the exact perceptions that love would heal. We fear the outside world because we are so often victimized by it without considering that being aware of our one-ness and connection to the world would make victimization impossible. We fear losing ourselves when our lives change without considering that by letting go of the outside markers (and limits) of our identity we may regain our true Self. We are so disconnected from the present moment: we make lives out of avoiding it by holding on to the, often painful, past which we believe defines us, and the illusory future where our lives will magically be perfect. We must realize the past is the only place our pain is real, and the present is the only time that exists: it is where limits disappear and bullets stop. It is in Neo’s profound presence that he finds himself, it is the only time perception occurs, it is the only time the world is real, it is the only time the truth can be seen, it is the only time we do not want to be aware of, and the only time in which we can be limitless. In the end the film suggests we do not fear the things we fear because they threaten to harm us, we fear them because they offer to set us free.
As the Matrix is characterized as a dream world there are only two choices: to awaken, or to sleepwalk. By wanting to be reinserted into the Matrix, Cypher wishes to be asleep within the dream. Neo chooses awareness – being aware inside of a dream creates the state of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer controls the dream world and can therein do anything. Morpheus, true to his name as the God of Dreams, guides Neo to awaken and access this limitlessness. This concept of being asleep or awake in a dream world is a spiritual tradition across many religious teachings that hold the realm of the soul is the seat of ultimate Reality, and our experience in the physical world is but the dream of the soul. Life is a dream, and Neo’s death before becoming The One is simply symbolic of awakening to a higher Self – which is possible only if you are first willing to be awakened. Ultimately, I don’t think the filmmakers are interested in making us all frightened by the prospect that the world does not exist, but more so that we “wake up” to the fact that we create the world when, and more importantly how, we look at it and ourselves. We must be present, inside, and awake within our own lives to be living – sleepwalking is only a higher form of oblivion. After all, aside from the phrase ‘Wake Up’ being repeated throughout The Matrix, it is also the title of the song that closes the film. The world will mirror back to you only what you are willing to see. So like Alice in Looking-Glass Land, “remember who you are,” who you really are, you are not your limitations, fears, or your past, you are not your body or how people treat you: you are awareness itself – wake up. What would your life look like if you lived from the essence of yourself instead of the image you feel pressured to maintain, or the role that fulfills everyone else’s expectations of you? Live from your Self. As Bruce Lee wisely said “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” Let go of who think you should be: become what you might be. Take the red pill. Don’t allow your electricity to power the machine. Power your own light.
Thank you for writing this.
Thank you for reading!
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Thank you for writing this. I struggle every day to grasp my reality and this is a poignant and pragmatic (oops) approach, Still waiting for that eye-opening moment though!
Thanks for reading 🙂 I think in real life “eye opening” doesn’t so much happen in a moment as it does like you say, over time, struggling every day. Then if you’re lucky you’ll realize it all of a sudden, in a moment that crystallizes your experience. If only it were as dramatic as it is in the movies. Still, they help us see.
Thanks for writing this. Thankful to be connected to a mind like yours.