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Discover Who You Are: Lessons for Martial Artists from Disney’s 'Moana'

by Kai Morgan

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If you have yet to watch it, you might be tempted to dismiss Moana as just another fluffy “Disney Princess” movie. I loved it though – and found it to thoughtfully explore some themes familiar to many of us who train in 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?

In this article, I’ll share with you nine ways that 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, and how it may relate to many martial artists!


1. Moana feels different from the rest of her tribe & longs for something more 


An artist illustration of Moana

Image credit: Villian-Kucing Kecil


At the start of the movie, we learn that Moana feels at odds with the rest of the island. She’s passionately drawn to the sea – unlike the rest of her people – but she doesn’t quite know why.

Her innate feeling that there has to be more to life is very common amongst martial arts practitioners and is often what draws and/or keeps us here. This is why the movie The Matrix, which explores a similar premise, is so popular among martial artists.


2. She senses that the journey will be infinite


‘How Far I’ll Go’ – Video credit: DisneyMovie VEVO YouTube Account


Moana gazes out at the sea and sings: If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go...

As a martial artist, I can relate to this sense of a never-ending personal journey. Peter Boyle (aka The Budo Bum) puts it well:

If you do budo right, it is very much that dangerous road that Bilbo Baggins told Frodo (in the movie ‘Lord of The Rings’) 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


The vast ocean of Bora Bora


Moana is constantly drawn to the water - but told she’s not allowed to go down to the ocean, let alone sail across it.

Her father advises her: You must find happiness right where you are.

Some of us may find that our friends, family and/or other acquaintances, consciously or not, discourage our practice for various reasons. We need to own and self-validate our desire to train and grow – of course without overly disregarding the needs of others (see Point 4). 


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


Moana’s need to explore new horizons seems to conflict with her responsibilities to her family and community, and she finds this painful to deal with. As martial artists, we may relate to this too. The lure of martial arts for self-development is strong – but those who love us have needs that may not align with this desire.

As the Chief’s daughter, Moana is learning to become a capable leader; and her people need her presence. But as the movie opens, her longing for adventure is growing strong and creating conflict as a result.

Moana is able to ‘solve’ this dilemma, however, when she realizes that her people are in danger – and no one else is able or willing to cross the reef and restore the heart of Te Fiti, to save the island.

Being able to balance our burning need for growth with service to others in this way, is something that many martial artists aspire to achieve. 


5. Moana longs to find ‘The Way, and to discover who she really is – but finds that she can’t do it alone


‘We Know The Way’ – Video credit: DisneyMovie VEVO YouTube Account


In the movie, 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:

At night we name every star

We know where we are

We know who we are.

We know the way...

When she hears this inspired song, Moana is beside herself with excitement. Thanks to Gramma Tala’s guidance, she is able to finally understand where she’s come from – and who she is destined to be. 

This lesson may resonate with many of us, as growth in martial arts can’t be achieved completely by ourselves. We need the help of others who have gone before us (which is the literal meaning of “sensei”) to guide us and to support us to become the best martial artists we can be


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


Moana is awestruck by the skills of demigod Maui and asks him to teach her how to sail. However, he explains to her that there’s more to what she’s asking for 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.

Under Maui’s expert tuition, Moana trains hard and becomes a Master Wayfinder herself. She comes to understand that both the technique (jutsu) and the self-actualization aspects () are essential to her quest.


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


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

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

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

Moana uses this principle with great skill. When Maui refuses to come and restore the heart of Te Fiti, she plays to 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 beats the villainous crab-monster Tamatoa by ‘feeding’ his obsession with shiny objects.

When faced with the destructive lava monster, Te Kā, Moana literally sees into her opponent’s heart and has an epiphany as to who the monster really is.

This loving realization enables Moana to subdue Te Kā without fighting her, which makes a very beautiful and moving scene.


8. She has to break through her own limits and to experience failure


Moana may be a Disney Princess, but not everything goes her own way. As an example, her first attempt to cross the ocean ends with a near-death experience and a badly bruised leg.

At one point during the movie, Moana thinks she can slip by the lava monster, Te Kā. She fails and ends up thrown into the water – with her boat and Maui’s magic hook both severely damaged. After this experience, Moana decides she isn’t up to the adventure anymore and almost quits her journey.

This is probably a familiar experience for martial arts practitioners. We’ve all gone through the humbling experience of failure. At some point during our training, maybe we’ve injured ourselves, or even someone else; or felt defeated in other ways. Through it all, we need to remember that these are mere bumps on the road and aren’t necessarily signs for us to give up. It’s important to note that it’s in breaking through our limitations that we discover who we truly are


9. Moana returns home and uses the lessons she’s learned to serve her people


Moana enthusiastically sailing back home

Image credit: HollywoodReporter.com


In this modern, individualistic age, it can be tempting to pursue our own self-actualization without regard to others. But the true reason for our spiritual journey must include applying the lessons we’ve learned and the growth we experienced to the service of others.

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

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


So you see, Moana is not *just* a Disney Princess movie. Popular children’s stories can express truths and life lessons in powerful ways, and I feel that this particular tale calls to a deep place within us as martial arts practitioners. It reminds us that our wish to seek more out of life is a natural and positive need – and can become something great when harnessed to a desire to serve others.


*This article is a shorter version of a post originally published on the author’s blog, Budo Inochi.

Are you looking to discover who you are in a beautiful, exotic location like Moana? Head over to BookMartialArts.com where you’ll find an abundance of martial arts training camps by the beach!

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