Be Your Own Zen Socrates

Imagine a cake consisting of three layers: the bottom layer, the middle layer, and the top layer. Now label the bottom layer “hurt,” the middle layer “ignorance,” and the top layer “presumption.” In simplified form, this schema depicts our ordinary minds.

Presuming that we know is laid overtop actual ignorance. Actual ignorance, situated above the hurt, is ignorance of hurt, of suffering. Therefore, presumption is precisely what stands in the way of our coming to see our suffering for what it is.

The trouble is not that we do not know ourselves (middle –> bottom). It is that we think we know ourselves (the top layer occluding our going from middle –> bottom).

Now imagine a Socrates filled, as we say in Zen, with “grandmotherly kindness.” In fact, let’s make Socrates into a Zen teacher. One day he bumps into someone and that someone presumes to know, presumes to have wisdom (top). Seeing this presumption and having an intimate felt sense of the other’s suffering, Socrates joins his fellow in inquiry.

What happens in the midst of the inquiry? His interlocutor realizes that what he thought he knew (top) he does not know (middle). And yet, in lieu of going deeper (bottom), he gets angry and becomes aggressive. “YOU are making me confused! YOU are turning me about! YOU are to blame!”

In many cases, the interlocutor will then leave. And that is just so sad because soon enough he will attempt to return to his presumptuousness, to what he presumes to know, to what he takes to be familiar. So sad because doing so will only perpetuate his samsara.

Sometimes, however, he will have the courage to stick around. And what he’ll experience immediately will be a deep, deep humbling. Instead of “I (presume to) know,” he’ll say from the heart, “I don’t know.” Thus, the top layer will be shattered.

Out of that deep humility will be engendered a sweet openness to truly knowing. Thus, the second layer of ignorance will be shattered.

And then he will, with the help of this Zen Socrates, begin to look carefully and closely at the bottom layer, experiencing it while releasing it.

And then what? In time true peace, genuine contentment.

What do you presume to know about yourself? What do you think you know that you really don’t? Start right here. In this moment, be your own Zen Socrates.