Unspoken Contracts: The Liberation of Letting Them Go (A Former Zen Monk Reflects on Telling Bad Jokes)

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Many of us are constantly, perhaps unconsciously, demanding that others around us agree to contracts we want to be true about our place in the world.  We define ourselves by these ideas we have of ourselves.

One great lesson I remember of Zen training is having to let go of the demands we put on others. Most of us come to training with certain unconscious or semi-conscious demands we put on everyone around us. That contract might state that we are any number of things:

A Really nice person

An open minded person

The smart one of the group

The wise parent or elder

Someone everyone likes

The cute one or most adorable one

Our jokes are funny!

A great storyteller…

A Spiritual genius (lol!)

We go around demanding that everyone agree to this contract. But in Zen training, it ain’t happening. We go to a tea break (sarei), and no one will affirm these contracts. We are not the most adorable one or well liked. No one will feed our bullshit. And if we’re a jerk, people won’t think we’re a great person even if we think they should. It does not matter what fancy academic degrees we have or how many friends or partners we’ve had, etc. The other training people won’t feed that. The environment feels cold at first, as we’ve been spending our whole lives making maneuvers to persuade people to like us or to feel in control.  But having people not feed those unspoken demands is great medicine.

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Me telling actually funny jokes at sarei! I promise!

And so honest practitioners begin to give up those contracts. Over time they become fresh, unclingy people. It is disorienting at first, because the normal world seems to function around these contracts. But with time, letting go of these demands transforms how those practitioners interact with everything. People begin to feel good around these practitioners for no reason. They’re not trying to manipulate the moment to their contract. They’ve kind of stepped out of the game. They can’t be pinned down, and they also begin to see very clearly how others are caught in a cycle of manipulation. So, this process is extremely liberating. Taking the moment for what it is, without an agenda.  And this orientation to being open to the moment allows the practitioner to go deeper in zazen, as zazen cannot have demands put on it.  We can’t broaden our samadhi into life if we are constantly hooked by everyone and everything.  This is part of the phenomena of meeting someone of deep practice and not being able to read them.  They’re out of the game.

Of course, the opposite also happens. Some practitioners become so adept at hiding these motives, hiding covert agendas, that they somehow thrive in the razor sharp monastic atmosphere. They become, instead of us giddy blank slate fools walking around, expert schemers. And the wild thing is that they sometimes become teachers.

All of this need not apply to just Zen practitioners. How can we all let go of the unconscious demands, the contracts we have about how everyone should view us or treat us?  It may be with our boss or parents or kids or partners.  Maybe we have certain expectations form a spouse or a coworker that they have no idea about.  Being more in touch with these subtle games can allow us to untangle ourselves from them.  Who hasn’t been upset for a whole day for an interaction we’ve had with someone where we felt misunderstood? In the monastery, it just won’t fly.  But in the outside world, it feels great if these contracts are working for us, but terrible if not.  We are all dealing with it all day long, every day, so its worth looking at.

Good luck!  Thanks for Reading!  I hope it is helpful!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ian Miller says:

    Another insightful post, thanks Cory.
    I always look forward to your writings.

  2. Robert says:

    Thanks Corey , I never really thought about this point before ,very interesting 🙏

    1. Oh great! Thanks for the feedback!

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