The Matrix is a movie that has stood the test of time. It captured and–in my opinion–still captures people’s imaginations in a profound way. Specifically, the movies offers a powerful allegory for the process of realizing spiritual freedom. I don’t know how much of the intent of the writers was to do that, but the movie has certainly been interpreted that way.
From this spiritual lens, I thought it’d be interesting to dive into the many things that this movie got right.
While there are certainly many elements it doesn’t get right and the subsequent movies really showed the writers limitations in understanding spiritual freedom (at least if that was part of their intent), The Matrix is now viewed as the introductory course to spiritual awakening and spiritual freedom for thousands if not millions of people. So I’m diving in with some observations in hopes of illuminating the path to freedom from yet another angle.
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In the original Matrix movie, the main protagonist is Neo who is clearly as spiritual seeker.
What is a spiritual seeker?
A spiritual seeker is someone who knows that something is “off” and is trying to figure out what that is and what is real/truth. As Morpheus–the spiritual teacher–says:
“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.”
This splinter leads Neo to endlessly searching. The movie implies an idea of wanting to be awake by another character’s comment about Neo staying up at night in his search. He doesn’t want to go to sleep, yet he does not understand what “sleeping” is. This is one of the big problems of the spiritual seeker; they know something is wrong, but their attempts to address it tend to also be wrong.
Thus, Neo is effectively stuck until Morpheus decides to reach out to him.
Seeking the Spiritual Teacher
Before actually meeting the spiritual teacher, a bunch of stuff happens to Neo to create dramatic tension because that’s what movies do. The writers and directors, The Wackowskis, establish the tension of living in a world of rules versus a world without rules. This establishes essentially what an ego is–the ego is a set of rules on how to live life.
The Matrix = the ego
Just like the mythical Matrix, the ego is “a prison for your mind.” The ego traps how you think, what you think about, how you perceive, and therefore how you act based on your perceptions. The Matrix does exactly the same. Everyone in The Matrix/their ego thinks the world is a certain way and that they must behave accordingly.
Neo can feel that this isn’t true, yet he is entirely enmeshed with the illusion that is presented to him just like most people in the world today. However, Neo has just enough understanding to search for a spiritual teacher. In the movie, the teacher is Morpheus.
The Teacher’s Warnings
To the defenders of the ego, one of which is Agent Smith, Morpheus is “the most dangerous man alive.” He’s dangerous because he exposes the falsehoods of the ego. Without those falsehoods, the perceived reality collapses. The machines (who created The Matrix) know this, and so their “agents” are protectors of the illusion, attempting to maintain the shared social illusion/social dream/sleeping state of conscious awareness.
Morpheus understands the power of the truth, and so he warns Neo as Neo approaches a possible point of no return.
He says that this is Neo’s last chance. Then even as Neo is reaching for the red pill (aka the truth; the blue pill is illusion), he re-emphasizes: “All I’m offering is the truth.”
He understands that what is about to happen is fundamentally life-changing. He understands how important it is to impress this fact upon the student even though he also knows that there is no way to really make them understand outside of experiencing freedom.
And one of the things The Matrix does best is to emphasize the importance of experiencing the truth, not just thinking about it
The Initial Spiritual Awakening
After another sequence of stuff, Neo wakes up in the real world. In his case, he comes out of delusion to an unhappy reality. While most people don’t awaken to sitting in gooey pod in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, there are plenty of people who awaken and find themselves in a great deal of misery. One person wakes up and realizes that they are miserable in their job. Another realizes she never wanted to be a mom much less to three children. Yet another realizes that he is an abuser and has perpetuated abuse while having abuse perpetuated on him by his family.
It’s not all cake and roses for everyone.
Of course others wake up to different realities because human realities vary widely. So people can wake up to very comfortable lives, yet if someone really wakes up, they soon begin to see the prison of beliefs that are part of their comfortable world.
Neo’s awakening to the real world is what I call a true spiritual awakening because it persists. He’s not going back and forth from asleep to waking even though he does start to go back in and out of The Matrix. Many of what people call awakenings are what I call spiritual openings. Spiritual openings come and go, and people are still mostly plugged into their illusion. In this way, openings are temporary. An awakening persists.
Ego Death and Rebirth
I love this line by Neo:
“Am I dead?”
And Morpheus says, “Far from it.”
It’s one of many great lines that have become etched into many Western minds.
What follows is a time of rebuilding Neo into what I would call is his first functional conscious ego.
The conscious ego is a construct that we know we’re making. Therefore, we can let it go. This is seen visually as being able to go into and out of The Matrix. Conversely, the unconscious ego cannot change; it does not understand itself. In this way, those who are still unconscious cannot leave The Matrix.
This building of a conscious ego also includes a lot of breaking down as Neo hasn’t surrendered all his ideas about himself and life. All of his ego beliefs and attachments were derived in a fictional world, and so we see a series of scenes and dialogues teaching him about “What is real.”
Comments about real being “electrical impulses interpreted by your brain” is particularly apt, but it does bring up an even deeper question of if we can ever know reality? The movie doesn’t explore this, but on this path, we do.
Spiritual Experience Is Vital!
One of the best parts of The Matrix is its emphasis on experience. For a movie format where scenes are experiences for the viewer, this comment has an extra amount of gravity. If you read something in a book, it’s not quite the same as watching and hearing an experience, and so we watch and share the experience of Neo failing…A LOT. He fails, but because he has a teacher, the failures are meaningful. Whereas he undoubtedly was trying to succeed and was failing while still part of The Matrix, his attention was misdirected. With the help of his teacher, his attention is being directed to the attachments that are the problem.
Again, more great lines delivered from Morpheus:
“I’m trying to free your mind.”
“I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it.”
“You have to let it all go.”
Morpheus jumps off a roof and flies an inhuman distance to land on another rooftop after saying that last one line. Then Neo tries, and he falls flat on his face. But this is not a total failure because it is part of the teaching process to re-orient the student to reality.
Meeting the Spiritual Master
If Morpheus is the teacher, the woman/computer program (which is revealed in another movie) named the Oracle is the spiritual master. Putting aside how the plot crafts her as part of the system in later movies, I’m going to treat her as a true master.
The teacher brings Neo to the master to further his training, and the master tells him what he needs to hear to move him further in his spiritual journey. She very eloquently manipulates him, and that manipulation starts almost immediately when she mentions the vase, which Neo knocks over and breaks. Then she comments that maybe he wouldn’t have broken it if she hadn’t mentioned it. In this way, she is already teaching him about the nature of control and manipulation.
Which he almost undoubtedly did not understand in that moment.
She then introduces him to the statement “Know Thyself.” If he doesn’t want to be controlled, Neo like all of us has to know himself or others can find all his buttons and triggers to continue to control him. He continue to be manipulated to break more metaphorical vases or whatever the controlling party wants to do with him.
As the conversation continues, the Oracle asks if he wants to know the truth. It’s layered into the question about “Are you sure you want to hear this?” Asking questions in this way is part of how the teacher or master engages with a student’s choice, rather than simply forcing ideas onto the student.
And then she points out one of his illusions, saying, “You’re in control of your own life, remember?”
So in that little scene, a whole lot of truth gets packed in. One could say that it is manipulative, but it’s a different thing to ask a person’s permission and then to guide them towards realizing the truth for themselves. That leaves Neo more liberated in the end. Whereas most forms of control and manipulation (which are big themes in The Matrix) are simply meant to further selfish interests often to the detriment of the person or people being manipulated.
More Great Lines
“She told you exactly what you needed to hear.” — Morpheus
“Billions of people living out their lives–oblivious.” — Smith
“There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking it.” — Morpheus
And yes, there’s the one about bending spoons.
The Unfinished Spiritual Journey
The end of The Matrix is really the start of the spiritual journey. While Neo has become the One according to this mythology, he is only beginning to understand the nature of The Matrix–his ego.
The idea of the One and other elements of violence are actually problematic to understanding the spiritual path, and their use in the movies obscures what the spiritual path is. Violence and a focus on a singular savior are elements that continue misconceptions around ego specialness and how to effect change in the world. These parts of the movie don’t work well, but they’re often necessary to capture people’s attentions. It’s not the first time violence and war have been used to deliver spiritual messages; for instance, The Bhagavad Gita is Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna in a time of war.
So we arrive at the end of the movie where Neo wants to show people “A world without rules and controls, borders and boundaries.” Unfortunately, he does not actually know what that is yet. He’s like many other people who have initial awakenings and think they know more than they do.
In subsequent films, it is clear that the filmmakers also don’t know more about where the path of freedom must go to realize total freedom, and so the next two movies get rather muddled. There are a lot of levels of dissolving the ego control as well as the biological controls that human beings are stuck in and which can be transformed.
But the original Matrix movie does a great job of introducing this concept of the initial waking up to a modern audience. Hopefully, it continues to inspire people to become truth seekers and find good spiritual teachers that can help them unlearn and free themselves from their attachments.
For some more thoughts on movies, you can check out these posts: