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Socrates

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates walked the streets of Athens making a pest of himself. He told his fellow citizens that their unexamined lives weren't worth living, and challenged them to investigate with him, the question, "What was the Good Life?" Curiously, Socrates never answered his own question, he said he didn't know. But he found when he asked others, they didn't really know either. Instead they walked around with various unexamined assumptions about life which when examined logically, often turned out to be confused or contradictory. These unexamined background assumptions about life are what Joko has called our core beliefs, and what psychoanalysts sometimes refer to as invariant organizing principles. And like Socrates, our practice is to make these unexamined assumptions explicit, to look at where we got our ideas about the nature of a good life and the nature of the self. And in meditation we might be said to go yet another step further, to challenge our unspoken identification of our self with our thoughts. As we observe and label our thoughts, settle into our bodies, settle into the silence behind our thoughts, who we are takes on a new meaning.

When I said that Socrates went around making a pest of himself, I was actually using his own metaphor for what he did. When he was on trial for his life, he told the Athenian assembly that their city was like a thoroughbred horse that had gotten fat and lazy, so the gods sent him to act like a horsefly, to bite and goad the city out of its torpor and into self-awareness. That's certainly one function of a teacher. But life sends us all sorts of horseflies all the time, and we need to recognize and make use of them. That's why a zendo needs to function smoothly, but perhaps not so smoothly that we can take it  for granted. As each of us rotates through different service positions, as we try to plan our sesshins and so forth, we  have to deal with one another's opinions, mistakes and expectations. All of these can nip us back into self-awareness, can be reminders to practice with every aspect of life as it is. How do we imagine things ought to go, how should that other person be handling themselves, how should we be reacting? Learning from all the buzzing nuisances of everyday life is how practice comes off the cushion and truly transforms our life.