This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Matrix, one of the most spiritually significant mainstream films of our time. It’s a movie about waking up, and it brilliantly uses some ancient zen wisdom that I thought I’d unpack in a series of articles.
Part of the genius of The Matrix is how it imparts zen principles in small moments that delight and inspire, but they also deserve some deeper explanation to allow for application to your own life. Let’s look at the infamous, one-minute spoon-bending scene.
Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Spoon-bending probably doesn’t interest you, and from a zen perspective, the wisdom here is metaphoric for how we relate to our own mind. All of us are occasionally troubled by our anxious, depressive, judgmental, etc. thoughts and we can spend a great deal of time and energy trying to manage those thoughts.
Let’s rewrite the scene from this perspective:
Boy: Do not try to change your thoughts. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: Your thoughts are not you.
Neo: My thoughts are not me?
Boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the thoughts that change, it is only your concept of who you are.
The funny thing about thoughts is that we can change them…but not usually for very long. Have you noticed? The ability to manage our thoughts is seductive. It’s easy to assume that if we just keep at it, we’ll improve our ability to manage them, and so gain control over our ability to be happy in any moment.
And this is exactly what the ego-mind wants you to believe: your own inner agent (protection system).
Many people, myself included, spend decades on this mind-management project. But eventually you reach a dead-end (which is a good thing), and here’s why:
If you truly investigate the nature of thought, you realize that the vast majority of thoughts spontaneously arise and have very little to do with you. Sure, the content of them is about your life, your preferences, your reactions, your history, etc. But, in context, most of the time you don’t actually choose to have the thought in the first place.
So if you’re not originating/causing the thought in the first place, trying to change the thought is like cleaning water downstream of a pollution source. It’s work that never ends. Some of this work is worth doing, and what I would call retail self-management. This includes working with the thoughts and feelings in their domain of Personhood, where you own them as you, investigating their origins, etc. It includes the realms of therapy, many forms of coaching, and other personal-based empowerment and healing models.
Zen, however, is not personal. It addresses the other side of the coin, which is just as important and often missed: the wholesale. Meditation and radical self-inquiry will reveal to you the felt, ongoing experience that your thoughts are not (only) you, creating space between you and “your” thoughts such that they have no control over you. When you realize your mind, as brilliant as it can be, can also be completely deluded (you’ve experienced that, right?), you listen to your mind like you do a stranger: with a robust filter that questions what’s true and what isn’t.
So, as the boy points out, trying to bend the spoon/ change thoughts is impossible, you didn’t create the spoon/thoughts in the first place! What makes you think you have power over them? Instead, realize the only control you have is whether you buy into the concept of the spoon/you-are-your-mind in the first place.
This may sound easy, but all liberation has a price. Neo already went through the painful process of realizing the delusion he was in, culminating in a beautifully symbolic purge of his watery breakfast. Nausea and disorientation are not unusual symptoms of deconstructing one’s identity.
After Neo’s awakening, his identity is no longer tightly interwoven with the delusion of the matrix, so he can easily change himself in a way that reveals the spoon’s true nature. Notice how he regards the spoon with an intensely focused curiosity. This is no accident: it is exactly the attitude one cultivates in self-inquiry.
Okay, so how does this apply to you?
When you begin the process of dis-identifying from your own thoughts through meditation and inquiry, discomfort and fear inevitably arise. This is because literally who you are (in ways you cannot know in advance) are fabricated thoughts you’ve believed about yourself. Some of the thoughts you lose you’ll be glad are gone. Other thoughts may be difficult to let go of: e.g. your concepts about how good a listener you are, your professional competence, your level of awareness, etc.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to lose the false “bad” thoughts without also losing the false “good” thoughts. That’s where it gets scary—but only for the mind—and this is where it’s easy to get stuck. We want the bad-feeling delusions to go away while we retain the good-feeling ones. That’s a have-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario that Life won’t support. Reality doesn’t care about our happiness. It only cares about what’s real.
For this reason, the path of abiding with truth requires unwavering courage, inner fortitude, and the willingness to subject yourself to cognitive dissonance. The absence of these qualities is symbolized by the character of Cypher in The Matrix. That’s what we’ll talk about in part two of this series.