"Why are you wearing that stupid rabbit suit?"
Why was I wearing that stupid man suit? Halloween, the holiday for wearing costumes and trying on other identities, is as good a time to ask that as any. What was it that I saw as I sat in mondo, unable to answer the dragon king with the sword? Certainly, my self-consciousness was making me self conscious, but that wasn't the point. The point was that I was unwilling to face the person underneath the stupid man suit.
But why? That question - what was it that I didn't want to face? - kept coming up during subsequent zazen. I couldn't avoid thinking about it, so I looked deeper into it as I sat, using the calmness and clarity of meditation to peer unflinchingly into the mirror of my self.
Now, before I can explain what it is that I saw, I probably have to state up front that the chances are pretty good that if you're reading this blog, I probably don't like you. Not that I dislike you for reading the blog, but rather because I dislike most people, so in all probability I probably don't like you. Sorry if that sounds harsh but it's nothing personal - I'm just something of a misanthrope.
There are exceptions - there are people whom I've met that I like and like a lot. In fact, it's more the general species that I dislike than individual members of the species. I like people, I just don't care that much for humanity.
What does that say about my compassion?, you probably wonder. As I sat in zazen and looked at my compassion, I could see I generally have more compassion for women than I do for men (I may be a misanthrope, but I'm certainly no misogynist), and more compassion for children than I do for adults. And I have more compassion for animals in general than I do for the human species. In fact, the more unlike me sentient beings are, the more compassion I generally feel for them and the more that I like them. Put the other way, the more like me they are, the less I like them.
So there's that. As I sat and examined myself, I realized that the reason for disliking those similar to me was because, fundamentally, I didn't like myself. It's hard for anything to be more similar to me than myself, and if I dislike that which is similar to me, my own self must be the Ground Zero of my dislike.
That was revelation number one, and not an easy one to admit. I've simply never been very satisfied with what I've come to call "me," and I've subconsciously wished that I was someone else, one somehow better. I wouldn't go so far as to say I dislike myself ("disliking" not being the opposite of "liking") and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say I hate myself. It may be best expressed passively by calling my ego-self "unloved" rather than actively by naming my feeling.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. I remember being at a neighborhood party once almost 20 years ago and talking to a woman somewhat older than myself, and one whom I quickly realized was rather wise. She was talking to me about cooking, and I admitted to her that I didn't put that much effort into preparing food for myself, because it was just me eating the food, so why bother with all that effort? She cocked her head and looked at me kind of funny, and said that I must not like myself very much, because I didn't take very good care of myself. Her words resonated with me (I still remember them 20 years later) but the situation hasn't changed very much - I still don't put too much more effort into preparing food for myself now than I did then. You can even say that with the increased availability of pre-cooked, prepared food and the improved technology with which to serve it, I put in even less effort into it now than I did then.
So there's that as well. I don't know how or when I stopped liking myself or if I ever did, and I can't tell you specific reasons for my not liking myself. But the biggest revelation that came to me as I sat was how this characteristic has controlled so much of my behavior over the years, and beyond just the kitchen. Not satisfied with who I was, I've always tried to reinvent myself, moving from this city to that, from one situation to another.
As I sat and looked back at my life, I saw that the young, underemployed me of the mid-1970s thought that a college-educated me would be better, so I took advantage of an opportunity to move to Boston and go to college. One Master's Degree later, I thought that the now-well-educated but still underemployed me would be better if I was working in my chosen field (geology), so I quit my job teaching high-school science and moved to Atlanta of all places for a job with the Georgia Geological Survey. After a few years of that, I got it into my head that things would be better if I had a bigger salary and more responsibility, and so left state employment to work in the private sector for a large consulting firm.
From the outside, this might appear to be merely a manifestation of the American way of life, upward mobility from college to an entry-level job, the career advancing from one position to the next, one firm to another, with relocation from one town to another as necessary. That might have been its outward appearance, and I cloaked myself in that appearance to hide my true motivation from others as well as from myself - the first donning of the "stupid man suit" that got stripped away in mondo.
But no matter where I went, no matter what I did, I was still "me." I tried to re-invent myself by moving from Atlanta to Albany, New York and starting a new office for my company up there, but soon found that I was still the same unsatisfactory person. But one day I visited the Pittsburgh office and saw an opportunity to relocate myself there, and got it into my head that the Pittsburgh me would be better than the Albany me. I lived there for a year but Pittsburgh didn't work out for various reasons, and at that point I had gotten to thinking that even past selves were better than the current one, so I wound up moving back to Atlanta in an attempt to re-invent myself as a former me.
I had never realized this before, but as I sat in zazen I clearly saw that all of this moving up and down the East Coast was just a futile attempt to run away from myself and repeated attempts to create some different "me" in new locations. But as the saying goes, "Everywhere you go, there you are," and inevitably I found myself in the same conditions and situations as before. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same, to invoke another cliche.
So there's all of that as well. And as I looked at my romantic relationships, I saw the same pattern there as in my career. My partners came and went just like the cities in which I had lived - romantic relationships interwoven with the job changes and relocations, some unique to where I lived at the time and some that I carried with me from city to city. And just as with jobs and cities, I saw each new relationship as the chance to be someone else, someone different, as if I could absorb some new identity from my partner and emerge as someone else. I would get it into my head that myself and Betty Sue would be better than just myself, and when that didn't turn out to be true, that the "myself" in Myself-and-Mary-Jane would be better than the "myself" in Myself-and-Betty-Sue (the names have been changed for purposes of discretion; for the record, I didn't date exclusively doubly-named women). And then there was myself and Anne, and Connie, and Deborah, and Beth, and L., who even appeared in early entries in this blog, and others whom I have forgotten. For various reasons, all of these relationships failed, and while at the time I could point out the shortcomings of each partner, I had to admit that the one thing that all of these failed relationships had in common was me.
So I continued to sit in zazen and looked into this deeper. I can see now that the reason for the multiple failures laid in my trying to transform myself with each one. Just as my partner was trying to get to know and learn to trust me, I was trying to change like some sort of chameleon. I was trying to jettison that self to which she had initially been attracted and was trying to transmogrify myself into some composite of the two of us. How could that strategy fail to sustain intimacy?, I asked myself ironically.
Up to that point, I could clearly see my lack of self contentment and the effects that it had on my career, on my relocations, and on my relationships. But with additional zazen, I saw that even entering into Zen was itself just another attempt to re-invent myself. Newcomers to Zen all have these little narratives they tell themselves about why it is that they came, and when I do newcomers instruction I humor them and listen to their stories, even though I also know that lacking clear insight into themselves, their stories are just fictions and fantasies ("Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life." - Simone Weil). So it was with myself. When pressed for a reason for coming to practice, I would say that I had been experiencing some sort of general and unspecified existential crisis, and I might even point to the most recent failed relationship as an example of that crisis. But the truth was that I came to Zen merely because I had gotten it into my head that a Buddhist "me" would be somehow better - or at least different - than the current "me." And when I learned that I could get a whole new name, Shokai, to go along with this new and better me, well that did it: nirvana here I come.
Of course, after I learned more about the buddha-dharma and deepened my Zen training, I came to realize that this "self" that I never learned to like doesn't actually exist, it's just a narrative, a creation of my own device. The fact that I didn't particularly like my creation could even be seen as a benefit to my Zen training, as there's that much less attachment to deal with in letting go of an unloved ego-self than of one cherished and held dearly.
All this realization didn't come to me during one period of zazen or with the dramatic impact of the "as in dreams, so in life" incident, but instead came during many hours of sitting over a week or so. Although Zen has helped me to see this situation, it hasn't changed it. My recent attempt to move to Portland, foiled only by the nationwide collapse of the residential real-estate market, was merely the latest in the string of attempted transformations by relocation. My recent fantasies about quitting my job and selling all of my belongings is merely an indication that things have gone so far that a part of me considers a homeless "me" preferable to the current "me."
Back, then, to last August. I sat there in mondo, face to face with Zen Master Dae Gok, trying to express myself sincerely and honestly, without deception, but found myself unable to take off the stupid man suit I was wearing, which that morning was a rakusu and a few poorly understood koans. "But you already know about this deception," he noted. "You're deceiving us now." He was speaking to the me behind the rakusu, the me from whom I had been running from for at least 35 years.
So that's what I have to deal with, that's the baggage I have to carry. Such is the nature of the demon sitting on my shoulder. How's yours doing? And I do care, even though I may not like you.