MOANA: Accepting “Where You Are”… And Where You Need To Be

Acceptance as a concept has been hard for me. It’s a key concept in both recovery and Buddhism, and when I started down those paths I found the idea of accepting things as they are to be antithetical to everything I believed. I’m an American, dammit! I believe in ambition and exploration! I always found the ending of Wizard of Oz weird and hard to parse – yeah, there’s no place like home, but there sure as shit is no place like Oz either.

So I did what I always do, and I turned to narrative storytelling and pop culture to help me understand ancient spiritual concepts. Because the thing is that all the stuff we talk about in spirituality and all the stuff we struggle with day-to-day is playing out in our narratives and pop culture, and you just simply have to be open to learning from them. Spirituality isn’t some lofty, stuffy thing – it’s the simple art of being a living human being.

There was a long period where I found myself balking at so many of my favorite stories because they’re predicated on denial, not acceptance. Heroes suffer due to circumstance and, rather than come to an understanding with circumstance, they suffer to change the circumstance. It’s how we live.

One of the movies that really stymied me was Moana, which has a narrative predicated on wanting to see what’s on the other side of the hill. When I saw Moana I was really struggling with acceptance, and so I thought to myself, ‘Is Moana’s desire to hit the high seas fundamentally non-Buddhist? Is she pulling what we call in recovery “a geographic,” ie, believing that her unhappiness is tied in to her location as opposed to being tied in to herself?’ I watched this movie and loved this movie and felt really conflicted and torn and fucked up about the themes. Would I have to turn my back on simple and beautiful children’s movies as I walked down my spiritual path? Would that, frankly, be worth it?

There’s a song early in the film that really screwed with my head, ‘Where You Are.’ On the surface the song is a beautiful paean to acceptance and to seeing the fullness of this present moment. That’s so key to mindfulness, accepting the moment as it is, in its totality, and I think the song allows her father to make some good points… on the surface.

‘The village of Motonui is all you need,’ he sings, and the village is the present moment, where she is. Food, family, fun, and safety are all in Motonui, and Moana makes herself miserable in paradise by constantly wanting different things than she has. It’s a common problem in the modern world, where you can have all these unbelievable electronics and gadgets and expensive items around you as you live in a clean, warm, safe home and still feel like there’s something more you should have.

It’s dukka, baby, the basic unsatisfactoriness of life. We are always grasping for more, and we think that getting what we want will make us happy – truly, fully happy – but once we get it we realize we still want more. This fundamental source of human unhappiness is what acceptance is supposed to cure, and it’s clearly what afflicts Moana.

I think ‘Where You Are’ is very weighted towards the chief, because even Grandmother’s verse – she, the voice of adventure and discovery – is weird. She’s basically singing an ode to naughtiness and misbehavior, which is fine, but it’s not really a good counterargument to what the chief is saying. Or to what the villagers are saying, as they all join in and sing about the collective good they have in Motonui. In fact, Grandmother’s verse comes across as really fucking selfish when contrasted to the islanders singing about having mouths to feed. And it isn’t that Moana is just a girl – she will be chief, and so she has a duty.

And yet the sea calls.

What Moana does cleverly is illuminate what acceptance truly IS, not what it seems like it is. Because later we learn that the Chief isn’t singing about the joys of Motonui out of an enlightened understanding, but rather out of fear. And this is one of the ways that I came to understand what acceptance truly is, by understanding what it’s near enemies are.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield popularized this idea, that positive states of being have near enemies that are hard to see and trick us away from the positive state and into something negative. The far enemies of positive states are dead obvious – hatred is the polar opposite of compassion. But it’s the near enemies that really fuck you up; you’re trying to be compassionate and you find yourself slipping into pity. You don’t even know you’re doing it, you think you’re being compassionate but you’re actually putting a wall between you and the other person.

Acceptance has near enemies. Denial is one of them. Passivity is another. And the Chief is definitely, we learn, in denial and being passive, especially as a wave of rot sweeps the island. He hasn’t accepted the moment in which he lives, he has been living in fear ever since his own failed attempt to sail beyond the reef. His failure taught him the wrong lesson, which was to hunker down and try to keep the moment in which he lives.

That’s part of the nuance of acceptance – you accept things as they are… but also as they change. His brush with death made the Chief afraid, and so he has tried to grab onto this moment of safety in which Motonui finds itself and stay there. He’s battling change, which is the most Sisyphean fight of them all.

As Moana unfolds we begin to see that this island paradise is actually a trap. These people lived on the sea, but their fears have kept them stuck in one corner of the ocean, and they have painted their cage in the colors of wisdom. They think they’re accepting life, but they’re avoiding it, and it’s something so many of us do every single day. There’s no wisdom on Motonui, only fear. And fear has caused these people to stagnate.

But what of Grandmother’s strangely selfish verse? I think Moana does another thing nicely here, which is to show that the path to self-improvement is only selfish if we do it only for ourselves. Moana begins the movie motivated by her own needs and desires, but her journey brings her back to Motonui and makes her the leader of her people, taking them outside of their tropical trap.

It reminds me of the journey of Siddharta Guatama, who was a rich prince with a wife and child… who he abandoned to seek enlightenment. It was kind of a huge dick move, if you think about it, some real ‘Hungry Heart’ bullshit. But when he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha he didn’t just keep it to himself – he spent the next forty years sharing it with anyone who would listen. Including his wife and child; she became a nun and he became a monk.

And so Moana had to leave behind her mom and dad, upsetting them, to become the person they really needed her to be – the person who could lead the people of Motonui out of their stagnation and back onto the high seas.

Which brings us back to acceptance, as the people of Motonui now must accept change and the impossibility of full safety. There’s an important element here: the island is healed and they still move on. It would muddy the message if Moana returned home to a dessicated island and led her people on an exodus journey – they would have no choice. But their prison has been repainted, looks as inviting as it ever was, and she still leads them away from it. Acceptance is about recognizing things as they are, not about refusing to change the way things are.

There’s yet more acceptance in Moana, and it’s tied in to the concept of forgiveness – we can only forgive someone if we accept them as they are, and we can only heal ourselves if we forgive – but what really struck me on a recent rewatch was how deftly this narrative threads the needle of acceptance while telling a story about wanderers, people we would not normally associate with acceptance. But acceptance is a moment-by-moment thing, and we must be careful not to use it to build the bars of our own beautiful prisons.