Each and every one of us has a boatload of stories. There’s the story of how I won the big game, the story of how I wrecked the boss’s car, the story of that time I laughed so hard milk came out my nose, the story of how I was abducted by aliens… and so forth.
If we’re good at telling our stories, people love to hear them. My friend Jeff can tell stories like nobody’s business. I’d listen to just about any of his stories. And there are some stories that are so interesting, people like hearing them even if you don’t tell them all that well.
But there’s one story we all have that nobody wants to hear. That is the story of why I’m a good person.
I’ve certainly got one of those. You may even be able to dig out a scrap or two of it if you comb through my books and blog posts. But in my career as a writer I’ve been able to see that it’s definitely the least popular of any of the many stories I tell. So I’ve learned to keep that one mostly to myself. And when I forget to do so, someone always reminds me.
Here’s why the story is so unpopular. People who like you already think you’re a good person. So when you tell them the story of why that’s so, you’re forcing them to try to figure out why you’re telling them the story. And that is annoying. Even if they’re nice about it and end up reaffirming your story, they’re annoyed at having to do so and at having to tax themselves by trying to figure out why they have to do that. It’s better to say whatever else is bugging you and leave out the bit about why you’re a good person.
People who dislike you are unlikely to be convinced you’re a good person just because you, yourself say you are. So it’s annoying to them as well. You only end up looking like less of a good person because now you’ve added “annoying me with that story” to the list of things they already dislike about you.
Besides all that, the story isn’t true. You are not a good person. You are not a bad person either. You’re not any kind of a person. There is only what you do and what you don’t do. This is why, when you do something shitty, you can never justify or excuse it by explaining that you are a good person.
Your personality is real. Your personal history is real. Your likes and dislikes are real. But your “self” is a fiction. It’s a story created to tie all that stuff together. But it’s just a story.
Sure, maybe most of what you do is good and because of that others generally like you. Or maybe most of what you do is a pain in the ass and others generally avoid you. And sure, others also tend to believe in the fiction of self and behave as if it exists. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s only a story. Nothing more.
When you’re sitting zazen and you find yourself telling yourself the story of why I’m a good person that’s not a bad thing. That’s just the kind of thing you notice when you sit. It may be useful to resist the urge to respond to your story by saying, “That’s right!” and coming up with even more reasons why you’re good. It may also be useful not to try and analyze why you’re telling yourself this story. It doesn’t matter that much. And anyway, that can easily become yet another part of the story. Or it can become the story of “Why I’m Bad For Telling Myself the Story of Why I’m a Good Person.” There’s no real point in that.
I’ve found it more useful to sort of let the story play through. I usually don’t even watch it. I let it finish doing its thing and keep on sitting. Of course, sometimes I get caught up in it. But when that happens and I notice it, I try to leave it at that, just noticing it. And when I can’t even do that much, I just try to sit up straight till the bell rings.
That’s why I’m a good person.
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April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only! (It will still happen this Saturday Nov. 7, 2015 even though I will be up at Mt Baldy)
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