A few years back I was wrapping up a session at karate practice when one of my senseis brought me to the side to speak with me.
I had done well that day, hitting the mitts effectively with both my kicks and punches and got in good rounds with my fellow students during the sparring portion of the class, as well. I felt strong, a feeling that is often alien to me, and I enjoy the thrill of a good scrap more than I do a lot of pleasures in life.
My sensei, who is roughly my age actually, wanted to clean up a few things about my technique and give me some pointers about my kicks. He always does so with a big smile on his face as he clearly enjoys teaching and I enjoying speaking with him in turn as well. Then he said something that felt really funny to me at the time.
“Your kicks are good but you’re faster than me. You can be even better.”
To give you an idea of how silly this sounded, my karate sensei is a pro mixed martial artist. He’s also built like this:
And he fights like this:
Now my sensei is the type to constantly hype his friends and his students up. Despite his intimidating stature, he’s like a box of endorphins when you talk to him and has the personality of a puppy dog. So, he may very well have been just trying to pump up the confidence of a guy like me who often struggles with it. But several years later, as my understanding of martial arts grew, the conversation began to reflect one of my favorite scenes from my favorite movie of all-time.
This movie needs no introduction, of course. Even if you’ve somehow never seen it, you have definitely seen it referenced, parodied, and utilized in movies across multiple genres already. It’s, in my humble opinion, a perfect movie that checks all the boxes between its high concept plot and setup, its thrilling revolutionizing action, and timeless relevant themes around the nature of control, revolution, and fighting back against a corrupt and machine-like system.
But it’s also primarily about identity and how knowing oneself leads to catharsis and self-actualization. It posits that in order to be truly liberated and truly begin to become strong you have to fully assume your true identity, not what other people or the system wants you to be.
The scene that my sensei may or may not have intentionally referenced is the first scene in the movie that dives fully into this idea, and it also happens to coincide with what identity means in martial arts; the dojo training scene.
In this sequence, Neo gets his first taste of how to bend and hack the rules of The Matrix. Ship operator Tank uploads dozens of martial arts programs into his brain so he can be the perfect fighter once he jacks back into the program. And of course, delivers this iconic line:
Morpheus then puts his new skills to the test as they step foot into their training program. Neo begins to get a grasp of his new fighting skills showing off an array of techniques, punches, kicks, and throws before Morpheus puts him on his ass multiple times effortlessly. Neo, getting frustrated, states that Morpheus is simply too fast for him to which he replies “Do you think my muscles have anything to do with my speed in this place?” referencing the digital world they were fighting in.
But it’s more than just the fact that Morpheus is more acquainted with his martial skills and how to fight in The Matrix. It goes beyond that. In martial arts, beyond technique skill level, beyond athleticism, there is an intangible that sets a great fighter apart from someone who is simply a good fighter and it’s understanding who they are as a martial artist.
Confidence can describe a multitude of things. Going strictly with martial arts again here it can be the fact that a fighter has drilled a particular skill or combo so many times that it become effortless, and they know exactly when, where, and how to use it. Perhaps it’s their power which is often a great equalizer in a fight that can supersede the possibly superior technique of their opponent. But really it’s because they are confident in who they are and in their full identity as a martial artist. There is no doubt anymore, only sense of purpose in their skill.
Ask anyone who has trained in martial arts before and they’ll tell you that no two fighters are exactly the same. In mixed martial arts this is especially the case as fighters will utilize aspects of multiple disciplines in unique ways to suit the type of style they like the most. But even within strict disciplines such as Muay Thai, karate, Tae Kwon Do, jiu jitsu, etc nobody is the same there either. A student in martial arts must discover what they can do and can’t do to fully become who they are as fighters before they can reach their true potential.
For Morpheus, the reason he is so confident in this scene is that he knows what this world of The Matrix really is and his relation to it. He is able to bend the rules to his favor because he sees past its constructs and false realities. He knows he’s not a part of that world and knows his place in the real one.
What the Wachowski’s were trying to describe with this scene is the difference between a liberated mind and one that is still attached to falsehoods about oneself. Neo doesn’t really know who he is yet. All he knows is that the life he lived in The Matrix wasn’t real and that he has to find out who he is now.
I wrote recently about quitting my job back in April. I had grown tired of the monotonousness and feelings of isolation within my small office that I had to sit in 40 hours a week and decided I had enough. But what really made me struggle with my existence in there was that it just wasn’t who I am. I had tricked myself into walking this particular career path some years ago because I had convinced myself that this role was something I was passionate about, that this was who I am. Meanwhile, outside the office, is where I really wanted to be whether it was at home typing up blogs like this, working on my novel (stay tuned), or my martial arts. I had very little time for it in the week and my work life was draining not because it was hard but because it wasn’t me.
I had to keep lying to myself each week that this is who I am and what I wanted. Unlike others who make a lifestyle around making money, it just wasn’t something I was passionate about and thus I became increasingly depressed before I finally quit and unplugged myself from the program.
I returned to more full-time training in martial arts shortly after quitting my job and immediately saw a change in my skill level. Without the noise of work and a floundering career path bogging me down, I was able to finally focus on what made me who I am in the ring. My punches got stronger, my kicks sharper, and my confidence in handling anyone who might be placed in front me got a lot higher. I had become unplugged, just as Neo had from his own unhappy office, work-life existence, and began assuming my full identity, I was able to finally see the code in front of me and what it took to become liberated. I began to see that I had limited myself in training before because I was trying too hard to be someone who I was not. I had been restricting my own skills to fit a certain mold as a fighter instead of carving my own. I had spent so long trying to lie myself in that office at my job, that this was my career path, that it had bled into other aspects of my life and restricted my growth for so long.
I finally started to grow and believe in who I am.
Neo begins to realize this slowly as he tries to land a punch on Morpheus throughout this training sequence. Morpheus even eerily echoes what my sensei told me that day; “What are you doing? You’re faster than this.”
What Morpheus is trying to do in this sequence is open Neo’s mind to possibilities of his true self, just as my sensei was, and what he can accomplish. He is, of course, trying to get him to realize he is the long-prophesized Messiah of The Matrix known as The One but it’s obviously a metaphor for so much more.
“The Matrix” is again about a lot of things but it is primarily about identity and your place in the grand scheme of things. Lana and Lilly Wachowski were still in the closet when this film came out but the movie is littered with references to their trans identity and how the world relates to it. Neo goes by his hacker alias primarily but it’s the Agents of the Machines, particularly Agent Smith, who insist on calling him by his original name; Thomas Anderson. This relentless pursuit to put Neo back in line and plugged back into the Machines reflects how society rarely tolerates those outside the spectrum and often violently tries to put out flames that exist outside the binary. It reflects often what trans folk go through before finally coming out and fully realizing their true identity.
Being unsure of your identity has all kinds of effects on the psyche. It can make you crankier, more irritable, unable to focus, unsure of yourself in any given situation. It leaks into friendships, relationships, families and all other aspects of life in the worst way. You begin to cast doubt on your ability to perform the simplest of tasks because if you are not sure who you are how can you be sure you can do anything?
It’s only once one is able to move past these clouds of doubt and discover who they really are that they begin to grow, begin to believe, and eventually liberate themselves. That’s what happened to me with my skills once I was able to shed the dead weight of an identity that wasn’t my own.
The third act of The Matrix describes this very moment when Neo finally stops running and faces Agent Smith. When Neo begins to fight Smith, Trinity turns to Morpheus and asks “What is he doing?” to which he simply replies “He’s beginning to believe.” In this scene, Neo begins to fully assume his identity, and it changes the momentum of the story. As agent Smith keeps deadnaming him throughout the scene, taunting him as Mr. Anderson, Neo finally is able to defeat him when he retorts back “My name…is Neo!”
This all hits its zenith in the film’s climactic final scene when Neo is resurrected and begins to see the code of The Matrix itself. It’s from here that he is finally able to surpass his limits cause he sees the world for what it is and now understands that his identity rises above it. He becomes The One. He becomes his true self and thus becomes liberated.
I’ve spent a great deal of my life struggling to define exactly who I am. My mixed racial upbringing certainly made fitting into one group or another more complicated than it needed to be. My nerdiness made it difficult to fit into the mainstream with certain groups of people in school and even among nerds I would say quite a bit of my tastes are a little unusual. Among many other things, I don’t often feel strong or sure of myself because of this and I practice martial arts to a certain extent to bridge that gap in my confidence. The distinct wapping sound a boxing mitt makes when you hit it the right way be it with your fists, feet, shin, knee, or elbow is like music to me and let’s me know when I’m on the right track when I’m training.
But even as I’ve leveled up considerably in the previous years, I was still clouded by those same feelings of anxiousness and anxiety over who I am in relation to martial arts and the people I train with. My friends in these dojos and gyms are very different from myself. Often hyper masculine and jocular and I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, and not everyone is exactly like this either, but they know who they are, at least as a casual observer they do to me, they fit in and know exactly where their place is here. Even though they are my friends, they are not a whole lot like me and when you throw someone like myself into this setting, no matter how good you might be at it or how much experience you have, it still feels alien for me each time I step foot into the ring or cage. Like I don’t really belong. It’s not who I am.
But unplugging myself from the confines of an unhappy work life finally started to give me the confidence to discover who I was in there and that my fear had less to do with getting hurt or embarrassing myself but more to do with feeling like I wasn’t good enough and that I was an outsider. I stopped trying to be someone I was not both in the ring and outside it. Though much of that anxiety is still there, I have a better understanding of who I am and the kind of skills I have as a martial artist. I am no longer holding myself back because of my unsureness.
Though I’ll eventually have to go back to the full-time work life, just as Neo had to eventually jack back into The Matrix, I’ll return to it much wiser because I know who I am much better now. It began with discovering my martial arts identity shortly after quitting and realizing who I am in the ring and cage finally. This discovery translated to other aspects of my life and helped me understand myself in even more ways. I feel I am a better writer now, a better person, and frankly much more confident.
It sounds cliché but much of our limitations exist within ourselves, created by the systems in place in society that try to shove us into one preordained identity or another. We get sucked into this process to the point that we lie to ourselves to keep going and it becomes unhealthy. Once we begin to bend and eventually break those limitations the possibilities become endless and our liberation from those limits could lead to living a better life. Hell, with the other themes present in “The Matrix” this liberation can lead to creating a fairer and more just society too.
Discovering my martial arts identity showed me the world is not as limited for me as I thought and “anything is possible” once you begin to know who you are and stop pretending.
All you need to do is unplug.