Posted by: madhyama | January 2, 2012

An Old Thought for the New Year: You Should Know There is One Who is not Busy

This is a classical Zen response to those who find that life is hectic and complicated. What does it mean; and, how does this apply to a modern life? I start with a basic and trivial observation; sometimes we’re alone and sometimes we’re with others. Question: are you the same person when alone as when in public?

Life is complex and calls for us to play many roles. In public, for example, we are very likely to think and behave one way at our three year old’s birthday party and quite differently when at our work. Our skill at compartmentalizing our life is an important ally, we feel; not the least for the psychological benefits that accrue from not mixing work and family. But for some people, their private Self becomes quite distinct from their public Self. The stress of dealing with this distinction can be the root source of quite a lot of life’s trouble. Our public Self might know how to project equanimity, confidence, competence, determination and strength of character. Private Self invests a far more emotional element into our true judgements and opinions. Successfully compartmentalizing the various “selves” which comprise our life is, indeed, a key life skill.

Public and private Selves always have some sort of relationship. They can be very close to identical or they can be drastically different, even estranged. When private Self and public Self are different, asymmetries of all sorts are able to creep into our general life. One fairly common example of what I am talking about concerns those who feel as fragile as a wounded bird in their heart of hearts and yet each day the public Self continues to work, shop and raise children. At some point, and more often than we think, such a disparity in views can end up being problematic because it takes so much energy to suppress the doubts that flow from our private Selves that we may become vulnerable to adventitious and disruptive impulses such as anger, greed or despair.

Meditation cultivates integration. When we are able to be pretty much the same person whether alone or in public, then no problems arise. But where, in response to fear and doubt, we skew our lifestyle and our spirituality heavily toward the public Self, we sometimes suppress the private Self. Modern, increasingly urban, life demands this of us more and more. In many ways our cultural present demands that we be ambivalent within ourselves; which is to say we often end up cultivating a comparative and even adversarial relationship between the two Selves.

If you are someone who struggles to maintain a public face, this is where meditation can really help. The relationship between private and public Selves can serve as a template for all other relationships in life. In all relationships, the ideal foundational condition is that of symmetry and/or equivalence. (Equivalence, please note, is not the same as equality). Just like in a marriage or a friendship, perfect equivalence makes any relationship effortless, pleasant and wholesome. From the meditators’ point of view, marital happiness, satisfying friendship or personal integrity all equally flow from restoration of symmetry. The restoration of symmetry between the private Self and the public Self is the basic work of meditation as a personal practice. As this restorative process develops, life loses much of its essentially self-generated stresses. In Zen meditation, symmetry is restored by composing thought and form as close to ‘zero’ as possible. With the restoration of equivalence between private and public personas as a basis, all other relationships also reorient, as necessary, toward symmetry and equivalence.

When private Self and public Self are equivalent, that is the “one who is not busy”.



  1. Thank you Wayne, this is a nice piece. Is ‘equivalence’ the same as ‘equanimous’. Toni

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