Who’s Who in the Zoo?
A student comes in for an interview with his Zen teacher and tells the teacher how angry he is at his boss. The teacher interrupts him and asks, “Who’s angry?” The student replies, “What do you mean?” And again the teacher asks, “Who’s angry?” The frustrated student says, “I don’t know.” At which point the teacher rings his bell, signaling an end to the interview.
A week later the student returns, and the teacher sees that the student appears to be very relaxed. The teacher asks the student how the situation with his boss is going. The student smiles and says, “Oh, I’m not angry anymore.” The teacher immediately asks, “Who’s not angry?” The student doesn’t respond, so the teacher again asks, “Who’s not angry?” The student replies, “I don’t know what you’re asking.” Whereupon the teacher again rings his bell.
The next week the student returns, and the teacher can see that the student appears to be visibly anxious. But the teacher is also impressed that the student had the courage to return, so he smiles at the student and says, “Today we’re going to talk about who’s who in your little zoo.”
Who we think we are—that is, how we see ourselves—determines how we live our lives. If we don’t know who we are, we will no doubt live our lives blindly. Conversely, knowing how to live most genuinely comes from uncovering the “who.” In other words, we have to clarify with precision our many “Me’s”—who’s who in our little zoo.
Once we uncover our various identities and behavior patterns, we can begin to work with the fears that drive them; and as we free ourselves from our fears, we come closer to living from our most authentic self. This type of honest looking at ourselves and our patterns is not easy, and often we prefer to remain complacent or in the dark.
Most of us, most of the time, are content to blindly skate on the thin ice, taking our life for granted. We choose patterns or strategies of behavior to try to control our world—in part, to help us avoid the anxious quiver in our being. We all have strategies that we’re familiar with, such as trying harder or seeking diversions. We use these to skate along, hoping to avoid having to feel the fears that we don’t want to address—such as the fears of loss of control, of failure, of being unworthy, of being alone, and so on. Rarely do we question our strategies; usually we just follow them blindly. But in following them we limit ourselves and define our own boundaries, and our life narrows down into a sense of vague dissatisfaction.
We have to start from the premise that we don’t really know ourselves very well. Knowing ourselves involves clarifying all the ways we’re run by the self-centered mind. This means we have to uncover our most basic identities and beliefs, observe our typical strategies of behavior, and perhaps most important of all, become very familiar with our fears.
The clarification of what makes a “Me” is not a philosophical or theoretical inquiry; the work has to be very specific, very empirical. For example, we have to clarify our thinking by knowing, with precision, what our actual beliefs are. This does not necessarily involve looking at our past, or analyzing why we think the way we do. The process of coming to know ourselves more deeply is an objective process, where we simply notice the present content of the mind, so that we can learn to see our thoughts as thoughts, and not as The Truth.
The same holds as we observe our strategies: instead of analyzing why we behave the way we do, we simply look at our patterns of behavior and learn to see them as the conditioned behaviors that they are. This allows us to break our intense identification with our various “Me’s.”
One aspect of seeing who’s who in our zoo is to look at our own complex of behavior patterns and see if we can discern a unifying thread. A good way to uncover this thread is to ask ourselves, “What is the most significant thing about me?” This is not an easy question to answer, since we are usually blind to our own primary feature.
Further, this most significant or unifying thread always has both a positive and a negative side. For example, one person might describe their primary feature as “I try hard.” This statement certainly captures the positive side, which is the natural desire to be productive, but at the same time it masks the fear of failure that may underlie it.
When we ask ourselves, “What is the most significant thing about me?” we may see more than one major basic behavioral strategy. This is not unusual; however, there are rarely more than two predominant patterns. The tricky part is to look for your own primary feature without getting caught in analysis or excessive thinking about yourself. The actual practice is to ask the question at various points throughout the day: “Who do I think I am right now?” If the answer is not readily apparent, we don’t dwell on it; we simply return to objectively observing ourselves again and again until the answer becomes clear. Until we uncover our most deeply seated beliefs and patterns, they will continue to unconsciously dictate how we live.
It’s important to remember that when we feel discomfort or anxiety, we almost always think that something is wrong. The immediate tendency is to pursue our conditioned strategies—trying harder, hiding, or seeking escape—hoping that we can get away from the discomfort or anxiety. But the mere fact that we feel anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. The only thing it means is that we’re feeling anxious. In other words, we’re simply having a conditioned response.
So instead of following our usual strategies, the practice is to first recognize what’s going on—that is, to see our anxiety as just a conditioned response. And second, to consciously refrain from immediately engaging in our strategies of control and escape. This allows us to take the third and transformative step of returning to and residing in our experience itself, where we can begin to get a taste of the real freedom that arises from the power of awareness itself. Elizabeth has refined this practice and given it the acronym “RRR,” as a reminder of these three steps—Recognize, Refrain, and Return. Through this threefold process the ground is laid for being able to live more genuinely.
It is so very easy to lose sight of our spiritual path and just fall back into complacency and ease—the kind of false complacency that is sustained through our habitual strategies of behavior. We have to understand that even though our complacency keeps us asleep, and even though our discomforts can be our teacher, we have much less aversion to our complacency than we do to our discomforts. To live most authentically, we need to learn to fear our complacency far more than we fear our discomfort and distress.
Ezra Bayda, edited from The Authentic Life