This post includes a video analysis of The Truman Show that is used for teaching film themes. There’s also a clip from The Matrix and I reference Arrival too. Fortunately, they are not only good films, but collectively they are also very useful for a discussion about the nature of reality as well.
(Beware, there are some spoilers relating to each of the three films discussed, so if you haven’t seen them, you might want to do so before reading this.)
Movies that question reality are not new. And films that deal with the value of real life are also common. But they aren’t often recognized as a group of films that all make essentially the same statement despite having wildly different mechanisms for telling their stories.
The film The Matrix sees the protagonist offered a choice between two pills. One is easy and smooth and it represents a largely pleasant illusion tailored to our tastes. It’s thin and fleeting, it’s pleasures can always be easily taken away, and it always depends on others. That pill represents our ego.
Meanwhile, the other choice involves pain and suffering and battles and bad odds. But it also hints at some undefinable reward that will come to the protagonist once he surrenders his previous beliefs completely –once he becomes a more unlimited self.
By letting his limiting beliefs go, the character of Neo becomes in some way, superhuman. He is like an advanced being, yet still himself. His shift is like a visible form of enlightenment, where he handles bullets the way enlightened people handle limited thinking.
And when we see him in action, we note that he does not escape his previous reality. He faces it on a new level –one where others can’t reach him with their attacks and one where he can respond with peaceful effectiveness. But he spends most of the film just realizing how to be that way. It’s the final act and climax that proves that he has mastered his new awareness.
In that film, Morpheus presents the simple act of living in reality as having preeminent value because in that reality we are all presented as all-powerful. This is the headspace in which we gain control over our lives. This is the positive spin on the enlightenment idea. It’s how it feels on the inside a lot of the time.
But of course, if there is an inside then there must be an outside. How enlightenment feels on the inside is one thing, but the reason people have trouble finding it in their lives is that the other two films present the enlightenment story much more ‘realistically’ from the outside. (Which is saying something because they too have very fantastic storylines.)
In some ways The Matrix could be seen to be glorifying this state of being. In our reality most of us wouldn’t be fighting Samurai style with some universe-controlling villain. Our lives are more like the Zen saying about chopping wood and carrying water, or Shunryu Suzuki’s note about, “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on your usual everyday routine.”
By contrast, Truman represents how we often stumble less consciously towards enlightenment. While most people are earnest and want answers, they don’t really see themselves as being on an advancing path that may one day lead them to a form of freedom. They don’t perceive their progress.
Nevertheless, if they continue to ask questions of themselves and their world, they can eventually punch their way through the illusions that confine their spirit. In The Truman Show the film ends with the beginning of Truman’s future, free of his ego. It is shrouded in mystery, but he enters this new world boldly, for on the inside he now maintains a greater, brighter vision for his life.
By contrast, Arrival demonstrates the value of suffering within reality by having a character reach a climax wherein aliens offer her the chance at a strange form of reincarnation where she can re-live her existing life.
Like Neo in The Matrix and Truman in The Truman Show, the entire point of the film is that the scientist chooses the harder path through life, with the implication being that reality with pain is better than non-reality without it.
This matches Buddhist beliefs nicely. In Arrival the simple fact that she happily chooses to relive a life filled with the painful loss of loved ones hints at the value that those loved ones bring to life with even their temporary presence. This is quite profound.
The film states a common truth –on their deathbeds, many people would choose to relive even an unhappy life all over again. We would be good to wonder why while we’re alive.
When I first speak with many students I can sense that their concerns revolve around a calculation they do. Considering the idea that they are already suffering from low levels of spiritual energy, the idea of them taking on more responsibility can seem understandably daunting.
Fortunately, what I’m describing might initially seem like another form of onerous responsibility, but in reality it is a form of responsibility to ourselves. This is a healthy kind of selfishness that means we care for ourselves first. This form of responsibility gives us a large degree of control over our minds.
Each film tries to realize the value of living in that responsible reality in different ways, but each one underlines that there is a very profound reason for choosing what appears to be a harder path.
In the film’s The Matrix, Arrival, or The Truman Show, reality is not given value by its shiny surfaces, its ease of passage, or its slick results. In each of those what the character’s seeks isn’t comfort, it is the authenticity of being alive –even if that also means accepting great suffering. The gains of an enlightened life explain why.
In the training I do I can teach people to ‘see the matrix.’ I can help them see the value in their existing life. And I can help them build and launch their spiritual boat. But if people want to punch through and break out of the limitations of their ego, before they even contact me to begin, they’ll will have been the ones who started the process internally, by setting their own horizons as their destination.