Strange Loops- Zen Reflections on the Dharma of Matrix Resurrections
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
I loved Matrix Resurrections. It was even better the second time. One of the things that's come out of meditation practice for me is the ability to take things in without judgment. And so the first reflection that comes from watching Matrix Resurrections is how difficult it is, without training, to actually be in a non-judgmental stance of mind. Because if you paid any attention to reviews, by critics and everyday folks, people love to just tear something apart as soon as they can. We tend to take a default critical stance, a too-often false posture of analytical power over. Those are the eyes we're seeing through, a readiness to zero in on what we think is imperfection. And then we magnify that imperfection in our minds. It would be okay if we just did that with Hollywood films yet most people do it with everything. It is hard to enjoy anything, even if it is fantastic, even if it is amazing, it’d be hard to enjoy it, with out some separation from the judgmental mind. Buddhism 101, you could say.
So let me just start with the basic premise of the Matrix films: humankind in the distant future, in conflict with technology it created, ruins the environment and makes the planet nearly uninhabitable. And therefore, long story short, machines decide to use us to power their existence. And human beings are simultaneously feeding the machines and plugged into a digital simulation of reality. And we don't know it.
So the basic metaphors of the series are that we're not living in reality. That we're plugged into a simulation of life, that we're not engaging the real thing. That it takes courage to face reality. And sometimes you'd rather just go back to sleep. Can’t you hear the juicy contemplative practice metaphors? There's also a theme that choice is an illusion- its an illusion that we just have utter freewill- this too, is a dharma teaching. But fatalism, that things are already decided, brought down from on high or woven into the Universe as Meant-To Be, is also considered an illusion or a false premise, both in Matrix and in Buddhist thought. With the basic premise of the films established, what I will do is share some snippets of dialogue from the new film that have Zen and Dharma parallels and comment on those.
Most of what I snipped out has to do with the theme of Strange Loops. There’s a point where a character named Morpheus, who is not entirely human and not entirely digital (he’s non-dual!), is freed from what's called a modal, a repeating loop of existence in the Matrix. And Bugs, a person unplugged from the simulation, says “We can't see it, but we're all trapped in strange repeating loops…” In Buddhist practice, we talk about being lost in cycles of repetitive, confused, reactive patterns of desire and disappointment, craving and frustration. Does that feel true for you? Do you feel like there are repeating patterns of suffering, that you’re caught in strange loops?
What's the difference between strange repeating loops and just going through the rituals of daily life? Each day is a kind of ritual, we have to do basically the same things, at least the survival dance of taking care of our bodies. We have to do it, all of us dancing some variation of the Ritual. It cuts across race, class, religion, sex and politics. What then, is the difference between the rituals of daily life, that are sometimes satisfying and sometimes banal, and being trapped in a strange, repeating loop? Let's say that being in loops are what it means to be a human being. Everybody has to get up and do some kind of work and feed the body and interact with people- all of the rituals of existing. We all live in a certain kind of loop- what makes that suffering? Is it suffering simply because it loops?
There is something about these repeating patterns of sufferings, something alienating. Something in us finds lack of awareness foreign to its nature. More on that later. Suppose, for now, that there's happiness, even in the loops. Just because you go through the same patterns every day, just because you’re not engaging whatever capacity you have for creative navigation of your life, does that necessarily mean that you're not happy or fulfilled? So the question is, do we have to be conscious in order to be happy or fulfilled? If we’re unconscious, does that automatically mean that there's some dissonance within?
One of the themes from the first Matrix movies is that ignorance is bliss. Why unplug from the Matrix? In Zen and any authentic contemplative path, we confront our selves. Why begin facing your own mind? Why begin facing the ways in which your mind and reality may not be in accord? Why face that? Usually it is painful or disheartening to feel and see, at least for a time. In strange repeating loops what might be strange is that even in these unconscious, uninterrupted loops, that we might, because of their blindness or dissonance , experience as suffering, there is some satisfaction. There's something in us being fed. The machines feed the best nutrition they can synthesize to keep healthy human bodies powering the Matrix.
Patterns of behavior are interesting when we zoom in. I basically don't do anything that I don't , at least, partially like doing. Think about that. The loops you're in- if you really disliked the loops, if they were purely suffering, wouldn’t you just stop? Nobody, if they have a choice, eats foods they don't like. If they have a choice. So in the strange repeating loops, one could argue, there is some satisfaction, even if mixed with suffering, there's something being fed, the Matrix nourishing those who sleep. So consider that in your own practice. Do you see the loops? Do you want to see the loops?
Apropos here is this great poem from Porsche Nelson, called Autobiography In Five Chapters
I walk down the street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost, I am hopeless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street, there's a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I'm in the same place. But it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walked down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it as there, I still fall in. It's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walked down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
There’s a point in Matrix Resurrections where Morpheus is relating that the first time that he noticed he was in the Matrix “it felt like there was real purpose..” Energized. The possibility of awakening gave a new sense of meaning. Sensing the possibility of awakening means one is no longer fully asleep. “I saw the Matrix for the first time in a mirror… the first time I felt real purpose…”
What are the mirrors that reflect a sense of being asleep in illusion? Later on, the main protagonist, Neo, is told by Morpheus, chiding him to further wake up, that Neo is in a state of not wanting to fully step into his real life. And Morpheus says "Some part of you remembered what was real…” Some part of you remembers what was real. In Zen, there's a saying ‘the True Dragon never sleeps.’ Also, ’The True Eye never closes.’ The real remembers itself continually. We have this parallel inner movement, a facing away from an intuition that we’re plugged into the Matrix, living in a cosmos of autonomy, unquestioned beliefs and projection, and, through us, the Real Remembering Itself.
Dogen Zenji, the great Zen poet and teacher of the 13th century said “ An enlightened and a deluded person share the same boat…” “Some part of you remembered what was real…” It’s an interesting thing, where you're meditating and totally caught up in thought or lost in a daydream and, without anyone reminding you you’re supposed to be meditating, somehow, you snap back into presence. Somehow, a recognition that you were off in a reverie, presence captured, and then not. How does that happen?
Matrix Resurrections is, like Zen and other Buddhist traditions, more philosophically sophisticated than a binary view of Reality versus Illusion. What are we talking about when we say real? In the film, sage leader of the free world, Niobe says “ Reality, there's that word again…” In Zen practice, the binary of reality versus illusion is something we explore but it's not something that's held to as a distinction that holds up to deep examination. It's not an ultimate principle of Zen teaching that we can be awake or asleep, you’re either in or you're out, you have crossed the line or you haven't.
What makes something real? Sometimes in dharma teaching we hear that the only thing that is real is this moment. Ok, but in this moment, you can have a full blown, neurotic, assumption laden fantasy about somebody who you're sitting in the (virtual) meditation hall with, imagining you’re delightfully married with children, living out the American dream, and you don't even know their name. You've never even heard their voice. You can have a full blown fantasy in this moment, it's unfolding now. So this moment can't be the criteria for what's real, can it? This is the moment when people plot terrorist attacks. This is this is the moment when six hours a day are lost drifting in the Instagram Matrix. So what makes something real? We could say we’re talking about direct sensory experience in this moment yet this moment is gone, as soon as you designate it. You say or attend to ‘this moment’, but as soon as you do so, it's gone. Yet at the same time, it's always here. This moment is always here. Because it’s always gone. They're the same thing. Always-gone-always-here.
Maybe a better question is - what makes something false? What is it when we feel like we're not in authentic accord with our true self, for example? We don’t have to make that into a metaphysical idea, that there's a true self. The phrase means something to many of us. ‘I'm not being true to myself.’ What makes it true, the self you could be true to?
I recently finished a book by Thomas Metzinger called The Ego Tunnel. Metzinger is a neuro-philosopher and basically, unless things have changed radically in the 10 years since he wrote the book, the neuro-scientific paradigm is that we never encounter the external world. Nobody has ever encountered what's out there. Basically, we live in a simulation he calls the ego tunnel, which is our brain’s processed image of the external world. That's a pretty profound statement. Basically, we don't contact the world directly. It's always constructed. It's always something that's co-arising through the filter of our brain. And that filtering is, in his words, transparent to us, we can't see that it happens. We can't see how the brain does that in real time, because we're within the simulation. At least from the scientific point of view, it can't be seen.
So if it is true, we never experience anything other than a constructed image of reality, in a sense, construction is all there is. If all you have ever experienced is your own mind, then mind is reality. In Metzinger’s words “Consciousness is experience” In Buddhism we find teachings like “All the worlds are mind only…” From this point of view, a dream is more intimate contact with reality than everyday waking experience, because at least a dream is sourced directly. So reality is co-constructed with our mind. How does it hold up then, the paradigm of Reality or Illusion?
In Zen practice we focus on how we see and engage with a world filtered through and filtered out, by our stories, our narratives. The world we experience and our minds are in a continual co creation. To see this is liberating. Why? One of the characters in Resurrections takes a meta- jab at the Matrix series itself, saying “We're telling the same stories we've always told with different names and different feelings…” This is the fourth movie. We can recognize that stories are what we see through and take up a practice of changing the story. Our stories filter, amplify and conceal aspects of the world and Zen practice empowers us to tell ourselves and weave ourselves into new stories, bigger, fuller, more courageous stories about what is meaningful to do and beautiful to have manifested.
For example, one of the beautiful stories of Zen and Buddhism we tell is the story of the Bodhisattva, that it opens up our world profoundly to consider others and prioritize their well-being. Or pay attention to cause and effect and observe how much of what happens to us is directly related to actions of our thought, speech and body. These are dharma stories that we begin to see through. And they change, usually pretty beneficially, how and what we experience.
In the films, some people had a good situation in the simulated life and then they woke up into a dystopian reality, where they have to, like, fly around in poorly lit spaceships, dodge giant, murderous robots and eat terrible synthesized food. Many of them would like to go back to sleep. The people who stay awake, who seem to choose to stay awake, manifest courage. You could argue a reward in itself, not holding so tight to the story of how much better things would be if they were otherwise. Staying awake in the real world. So we have a practice of shedding the repetitive, compulsive, automatic declarations we have about the life we live and all that comes and goes in it, to the degree that's possible for a human. We get down to brass tacks with that, with our own bodies and breath and immediate sensory experience on the meditation cushion. We conduct that intimate experience, that intimate experiment in our daily practice, and then it gradually flows into the rest our life. If you can experience this body-breath-moment, with little commentary comparing it to how it should or could be or was, then you can do that in other situations. We taste what is liberating about that.
We could move in and out of our story. Science is saying it's not possible to have an unfiltered reality, it's not possible to encounter an external world, Just As It Is. Some dharma teachers might disagree about that. But at least from a scientific perspective, and from mine, we can work for it to be less filtered. Or we can put ourselves in a stance where we're curious about what is, rather than assuming we know what is.
The Matrix that we tend to focus on in Zen Buddhism is the Matrix of the self. This story says that people are plugged into an ongoing, looping simulation of who they are and who they should be and all of the defensiveness and weight that accompanies a self image program. Waking up, at least, means unplugging from that. We may not be able to unplug from conditioning itself, because we exist as nodes in a vast intermeshed network of ideas, perception, and persuasions. Conditions. But at least we can unplug a little bit from the Matrix of Myself, which is a machine that feeds on itself, and happens to feed some other things in the network that may be vampirous: Capitalism, Hyper-Individualism, et all.
Most people the traditions have historically regarded as awakened, seemed to think that unplugging people from that Matrix was the most important thing that you could do. If you leap out of your estranged and suffering loop, you’re obligated, compelled, moved to help others make the leap. Like in the Matrix films, getting free only happens with the aid of others who have done so. In Resurrections, there's a a clash of narratives, a subplot about the most important thing one can do to benefit others. There is one character, Bugs, who feels that waking people up to “what's real” is the most important thing. In contrast, we have Niobe who feels that growing fruit and feeding something delicious to those who are already awake, nourishing well-being for those already somewhat free, is what matters most. Our story, whatever the story, is a story about what matters, in that capsule of space-time, at least.
Niobe says “It's so easy to forget how much noise the Matrix pumps into your head until you unplug from it…” We can’t even consider our loops strange until we have real contrast. Like when we go into nature and we realize how noisy the city is, like when we part from the environment of a noisy mind. Strange or not strange enough, our loops? To that which is freedom in us, they are familiar and foreign, like an old dress that is now too tight. They’re a dream and a nightmare. It is all a matter of perspective. Here I am again, in the binary. Better sometimes, to just stop.