Perhaps the most famous scene from The Matrix is when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the red pill and the blue pill. This scene is overflowing with allegory. It’s about waking up.
First, let’s look at the set. Its details are unmistakably borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels. The checkerboard floor is an homage to Through the Looking Glass, which is set on a chess board the size of a county.
The upholstered chair is styled after the infamous Mad Hatter’s decor, and the wooden table is where Alice found her “eat me” and “drink me” options—symbols of transformation—at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole? Hm?
The rabbit hole, and the fact that it leads to “Wonderland” represents the uncomfortable exploration of an uncertain future that frees Alice from the boredom of her ordinary life.
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus speaks to the “spiritual impulse” in Neo. This is the part of us that senses we’re missing something, intuits some larger whole we’re disconnected from. This universal impulse is the basis of every religion, philosophy, and spirituality in the history of our species.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
This is a brilliant and ironic statement about the ego’s resistance to losing control. Neo is about to lose total control of himself and his reality. He is about to learn that he has, in fact, never been in control. It is the ego’s desire to feel in control that is the very thing that perpetuates the delusion.
This is precisely why most people don’t push themselves beyond their comfort zone—they cannot bear feeling out of control.
Morpheus is exploring Neo’s internal division: his ego wants to be in control, but the seeker in him wants to know the truth. He’s about to discover, as all seekers do, that you cannot have it both ways.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Morpheus lures the seeker in Neo forward. He’s already selling the red pill. This is where the plot of the film departs from the zen allegory. We soon discover he’s referring to a digital construct of delusion. In zen, we would say he’s talking about the essence of all things, the ground of ‘being’ itself: nonduality. In some traditions, it’s called “spirit” or “awareness.” Some people call it God.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
All of this applies to spirit, even though in content Morpheus is speaking about the machine construct. The nondual, in zen, is the canvas upon which our dualistic experience is painted. Look at the stuff in the room you’re in. Now look at the space that the stuff is in. Now what’s the space in? Did that make you a little dizzy? Then you’re onto it.
Nonduality is the very fabric of existence. It cannot be understood by the mind, because it is infinite, but it can be encountered, because there’s a part of It in you. It gets to encounter Itself, through you.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind… Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes… Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more… [Neo takes the red pill] Follow me…
In zen, the prison is not “for your mind,” as in the Matrix. Rather, it is your identification of yourself “as your mind.”
Have you ever noticed you can’t control your thoughts for very long? Have you ever wished you could, in the middle of night, when you’ve been rehearsing that upcoming meeting for the thirty-seventh time?
When you think you are your mind, your moment-to-moment happiness depends on the thoughts and reactions you’re having (that are actually having you).
It is impossible to describe the freedom you’ll feel when you experience for yourself that you are not your thoughts. There is a contextual, forever good-ness there that is beyond the content-based good and bad driving our society. You’re freed from a prison you never realized you were in: your own mind.
Tune in next week for Part 4 of this series, where we’ll continue the discussion of the mind prison and the nature of spirit.