“Discover Who You Are” – Nine lessons for martial artists from Disney’s Moana

posted in: Movies, Self development | 9

Spoiler alert: this article contains a strong hint about the big plot twist at the end of the movie 😉

If you want to know the plot however, it’s outlined on Wikipedia . . .


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Moana © Villian-Kucing Kecil – used with kind permission from the (very talented!) artist.

If you haven’t seen it, you might be tempted to dismiss Moana as just a fluffy “Disney Princess” movie. But it’s been so successful – grossing over $347 million worldwide in just over a month since its release – and we have to ask why.

It has to be more than the luminous colours and gorgeous Polynesian scenery (although these definitely help).

What archetypes and human longings is this movie capturing and satisfying?

Well, it thoughtfully explores themes very familiar to many of us who train in the martial arts:

– Who am I?
– Is there more to life than what I see around me?
– Am I being selfish to focus so much on my own personal development . . . ?

Here’s a look at how these themes play out for Moana – the strong-willed daughter of the chief in a Polynesian tribe, who is chosen by the ocean itself to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess.

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1. Moana feels different from the people around her, and longs for something more – but doesn’t know what it is

At the start of the movie, Moana feels she is different from the rest of the island. She is passionately drawn to the sea – unlike the rest of her people – but she doesn’t know why:

In fact, we later discover that the whole island has forgotten who they are. They’ve buried their history as nomadic seafarers, and now prefer to stay safe on one island, never venturing beyond the reef.

This feeling that there has to be more to life is very common in martial arts practitioners, and is often what draws and/or keeps us here. It’s why the movie The Matrix is so popular among martial artists . . .


2. She senses that the journey will be infinite

Moana sings:

See the light where the sky meets the sea
It calls me
No one knows how far it goes
[…] One day I’ll know
If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.

This sense of a never-ending personal journey is familiar to us in the martial arts.

Peter Boyle (aka The Budo Bum) writes:

If you do budo right, it is very much that dangerous road that Bilbo Baggins told Frodo about “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

It will creep into every corner of your life and force you to face those parts you aren’t confident about, and work to polish them just as much or more than it demands that your polish your strikes, cuts, and throws.

3. Others try to discourage her from exploring new horizons

Even as a baby, Moana is forever drawn to the water, but always told she’s not allowed to go down to the ocean, let alone sail on it.

We’ve already seen that Moana’s people have forgotten who they are. Her father used to have the same rebellious desires as her when he was young, but has suppressed them out of fear, ever since he lost his best friend to the sea as a boy. He tells Moana:

You’ll be okay
In time you’ll learn just as I did
You must find happiness right
Where you are

If you’re lucky enough to have supportive family and friends then that’s great, but not every martial arts practitioner has this. Some friends, family and other acquaintances may actively discourage your practice as inappropriate for an adult. Some may feel resentful at the time you spend on it. Others will just be completely uninterested and/or even amused by your journey.

In the end, we need to own and ultimately self-validate our desire to grow in this way (without disregarding the needs of others too much – see Point 4). At the beginning of the movie, Moana feels the sea calling to her; but by the end she has realised:

Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me

4. She feels deep tension between her duty to her family and community, and her own desires

This tension is painful for Moana, and affects many of us too. The lure of martial arts for self-development is strong – but others around us have needs too.

Moana really struggles with this. As the Chief’s daughter, she’s growing into a capable leader; and her people need her presence. But her longing for adventure is also growing stronger.

In the end, the dilemma is solved when Moana realises that her people are in danger, as food is becoming scarce – and no one else is able or willing to cross the reef and restore the heart of Te Fiti, which will lift the darkness threatening their island. Her quest therefore becomes a necessity for the good of her community, not a personal indulgence. Being able to combine our burning need for growth with service to others in this way, is an ideal to aspire to.

My sensei says: you should live 50% for yourself and 50% for others; and compares it to the image of the parent on an aeroplane being advised to fit their own oxygen mask first, before attending to their children.

Royal Canadian Air Force Officer and  Tai chi blogger Grégoire Laforce gives a different (equally helpful) slant; he talks of: the tension we have between two fundamental needs: the need for individual expression and self-discovery, and the need for security and being loved as a part of a greater group. 

5. Moana longs to find the Way, and discover who she really is – but can’t access this knowledge alone

Moana becomes more and more frustrated with her inability to access the mystery of who she is. In the end, her wise grandmother takes Moana to a secret cave, where she sees a vision of her ancestors – a vibrant band of sea voyagers. They sing to her:

We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are

Moana is beside herself with excitement. Thanks to Gramma Tala’s guidance, at last she knows where she has come from – and who she is really destined to be. She also now has a connection to her ancestors, and physical access to their fleet of ships, which have been hidden in the cave. But at this point, she has no idea how to sail, and has never even been out to sea except for one brief, failed outing in a canoe. She will need someone else to teach her this skill.

It’s the same for us. Martial arts can’t be discovered spontaneously by ourselves – we need others who have gone before us (which is the literal meaning of “sensei”) to guide us and open the door . . .


6. She develops her technique (jutsu) into a Way (dō) through disciplined study, under a skilled teacher

In order to save her people, Moana needs to learn how to sail. She’s amazed by the skills of demigod Maui and asks him: Teach me to sail. But he explains to her that there’s more at stake than just learning to sail:

It’s called Wayfinding. It’s not just sails and knots. It’s seeing where you’re going in your mind. Knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been.

Kayleigh Hughes explains:

Wayfinding is the ancient Polynesian practice of navigating the open oceans using deep knowledge and intense observation of the celestial bodies in the sky and the swells of the wate […] ancient Polynesian travelers read the stars, the sun, and the ocean’s swells like a map […] “We have Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars – the place where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean,” Thompson wrote. “If you can identify the stars as they rise and set, and if you have memorized where they rise and set, you can find your direction.”

Under Maui’s expert tuition, Moana trains hard and becomes a Master Wayfinder herself. The technique (jutsu) and the self-actualisation aspects (dō) are both essential to her quest.

Ian Abernathy writes:

The two aspects are related and […] we get the most from our study when we embrace both aspects

[…] One problem we have today is that many people want to jump over the “jutsu” straight to the “do”. I feel this is like trying to build a skyscraper without any foundations i.e. doomed to failure. The other problem is people getting fixated on the “jutsu” to the total exclusion of “do”. This is like building a strong foundation, but never realising the most useful bit (in our modern relatively peaceful society) is what you build on top of this foundation.

7. Moana focuses as much on discovering who others are, as discovering who she is

Knowing who you are is so important, but Sun Tzu says in The Art of War:

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

He also says:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Moana uses this art to an exemplary level. When Maui refuses to come and restore the heart of Te Fiti, she persuades him, by tapping into his vulnerable craving for humans to worship him – she tells him he’ll save the world and be a hero to all; and he melts. She overcomes the villainous crab-monster Tamatoa (an awesome tribute to David Bowie!) by playing on his obsession with shiny objects.

And when face to face with the destructive lava monster Te Kā, Moana literally sees into her opponent’s heart, and suddenly understands who the monster really is:

I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are

This loving realisation enables Moana to subdue Te Kā without fighting her, in a very beautiful and moving scene.

In the martial arts this works on different levels. One level is about reading your opponent’s body language and intentions during combat. Another level (which Sun Tzu is referring to) is more strategic, to be used in battle.

And in this modern world, we can fruitfully apply the art of understanding others to all kinds of situations, whether it applies to individuals or groups.

8. She comes up against her own limits and tastes failure as part of her journey

Moana may be a Disney Princess, but she doesn’t get everything her own way. Her first attempt to cross the ocean ends with a near-death experience and a badly bruised leg.

Even after she has learned the art of wayfinding, at one point Moana and Maui are failing to get past lava monster Te Kā, to reach Te Fiti. Then Moana thinks she sees a way through Te Kā’s guard. She’s not judged it right though, and ends up thrown into the water – with her boat and Maui’s magic hook both severely damaged. Maui is furious with her, and Moana decides she isn’t up to the adventure any more, and tries to quit.

This is a familiar experience to martial arts practitioners. We all know the humbling experience of failure. Maybe we’ve injured ourselves, or even someone else, by failing to control our technique, or trying to do something we’re not yet capable of, or overtraining. Maybe we’ve got out of our depth psychologically. But this isn’t necessarily a sign to give up.

It’s in working through our limitations that we discover who we are. James Espy puts it well:

Training, at its best, pushes you past self-imposed limits, revealing new potential. For me, I found courage. I never realized how insecure I was until training forced me to confront my fears. I remember hearing someone say, “The problem with our society is that a person can go their whole life without knowing whether or not they are a coward.” For me, I discovered how cowardly I had been, hiding from my fears. I didn’t like finding that in myself, but I felt liberated as I learned to embrace my fears.

[…] During hard training, we can find ourselves pushed beyond our normal limits […] The more you train hard, the stronger your body becomes. But the same holds true for your mind and your spirit.

9. Moana returns home to put what she has learned into the service of her people

Moai at Ahu Tongariki on Rapa Nui. By Makemake via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As we’ve seen above, in this modern, individualistic age, it can be tempting to pursue our own self-actualisation as an end in itself, without regard to others. But the true reason for our spiritual journey has to be to bring our learning and growth back into the service of others.

Peter Boylan writes:

A life with nothing but dojo training in it doesn’t build anything of value, and all that training never has a chance to contribute to the world. Budo is a Way, a Do, 道, that reveals better ways to travel the path of life. You can’t travel that path in the dojo. You have to go out the door and interact with all parts of life, even the boring ones, the ones that don’t do anything for your ego, and especially the ones that are hard for you. The lessons of the dojo aren’t really learned until you start applying them.

In Moana’s case, she returns home and use her new skills to awaken her people’s story of who they have been – and who they are. She teaches them the art of Wayfinding, so that they can reclaim their own cultural identity as voyagers, and broaden their physical, mental and spiritual horizons.

And in the course of teaching and leading her people, she will continue to deepen her own personal journey of discovery.


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So you see this is not just a trivial Disney Princess movie. Popular children’s stories can express human truths in powerful ways; and this tale calls to a deep place within us – and reminds us that urgently seeking more out of life is a perfectly natural and desirable way to be – which is at its best when aligned with a desire to serve others in some way . . .

With thanks to martial arts blogger and online friend Grégoire Laforce, for thought-provoking conversations over the last few days about the tension between the need for individual expression and self-discovery, and the need to serve others and belong.

Related article: Why Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” are the ultimate martial arts role models

9 Responses

    • Kai Morgan

      You’re so welcome Greg! I guess you may be surprised to see our recent conversation applied to a kids’ CGI movie like this! Take care and a Happy New Year 🙂

  1. Joelle White

    Wonderful, Kai! I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I recognize the journey, so I don’t mind “spoilers” – they aren’t really spoilers if we’ve walked that path ourselves, right? Anyhow, when I was a child and teenager I deeply resented my teachers when they dismissed the genre of fantasy movies and literature. You’ve outlined beautifully what fantasy can teach us. Thank you!

    • Kai Morgan

      thanks Joelle – as you allude to, these are age-old themes and won’t “surprise” any of us – but it’s nice to see such a fresh modern retelling of the so-called Hero’s Journey, and with a female protagonist too, which is less common:

      “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

      Sorry to hear that some of your old schoolteachers didn’t “get” it btw – such a shame . . .

  2. Logen Lanka

    Haven’t watched Moana. Looks like I have to check it out.

    That said, I like hown you drew parallels from the movie to martial arts. I think mass media is both reflective of society and also a medium for progress. Disney and others have indeed gone a long way. 🙂

    Anyway, happy new year in advance!

    • Kai Morgan

      It is definitely a martial arts movie, although the makers might not have realised or intended it! When I heard her ancestors singing: We know the Way! I got shivers down my spine! Thanks for commenting and have a wonderful New Year yourself Logen 🙂

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