The late Charlotte Joko Beck, who established the Zen Center of San Diego, part of the Ordinary Mind Zen School network, used to ask her students to do a deceptively simple exercise. I invite you to give it a whirl yourself:
Let me tell you what I have all students do within the first three to six months. I have them make three lists. And it’s fun; you could do it yourself. The first list is: “As a small child, what I was trained to be was. . . .” For instance, I was trained to be “perfect.” Never could show anger. Had to succeed at everything, get straight A’s, please everybody—the quintessential good little girl. We all sort of know what we were trained to be.
The second list is: “Right now, as an adult, what I require myself to be is. . . .” This may look as if it’s your list, but it really isn’t, since we use much of our first list—how we were trained—to form our ideas of how we should be now. And the list in itself may be fine—I require myself to be thoughtful, kind, patient, selfless, non-angry: the usual stuff—but until it’s really your list, you will have a hidden third list.
Now, the third list is more interesting: It’s the negative emotions hidden behind the second list. Suppose I have a good friend sick in the hospital. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m worn out, but still I think I should go see her—because my second-list requirement is what? I should be patient, loyal. . . . And I will go see her. But beneath the appropriate action will be what?
Resentment.... In other words, I’ll go to see her partly because I love her, but partly because that’s what “good” people do—my first two lists. It’s obvious that the transforming practice—so I do what I do for the sake of doing it, not because I should—lies in the third list. It’s to experience the bodily tension of resentment without my thoughts of how I should be. That begins to weaken this whole conditioned shebang that we live out of.... [T]he other person is never the problem. Again, suppose somebody mistreats you. Suppose someone tells lies about you at work. You could say, “I’m upset because she’s undermining me—I could lose my job.” But what you’re really upset about is that your requirement that life be fair—I should be fair, you should be fair—is being attacked. The problem isn’t what she does. The problem is that she’s attacking your second-list requirement, removing your cover so that you have to feel the unpleasant emotions of the third list. She’s brought your fear and anger into the open—exactly what all of us dislike.
What are you noticing about your third list?