Over the course of the past few years, Zen teacher and writer Sallie Tisdale has watched 37 of the 40 seasons of the reality TV show Survivor. In her latest book, The Lie About the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze, she brings her keen eye and characteristic wit to the series, which she calls “a little microcosm of greed, hatred, and delusion with the occasional moment of grace.” Weaving together her background as a Zen Buddhist practitioner, her intricate knowledge of Survivor and its fan base, and the writings of philosophers Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, Tisdale offers an insightful critique of our culture’s fascination with perception and appearance.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief James Shaheen sat down with Tisdale to discuss what Survivor can teach us about performance, deception, and our own urge to self-display. Read a few excerpts below, and listen to the full episode here.
On Survivor and seeing each other
Survivor is one of the earliest and most influential of what are called “elimination game shows.” A group of strangers is taken to a remote place, divided into groups called tribes, and left to fend for themselves. They have to figure out how to make shelter, get food, and take care of themselves, and then, one by one, they vote each other off until only one remains. The show weaponizes our fantasy of being on a tropical island—and our deluded belief that we would succeed in extreme circumstances. Many of us don’t have a clear sense of who we really are under stress, and people can watch this show and imagine how they would act without having to actually go through it.
When are we really seeing each other? Are we ever?
In some ways, Survivor is an example of how our culture works: the contestants show up, pretend to be somebody while really being somebody else, and see each other pretending to be other people. The cameras capture all of this, and the post-production team edits it into a story, which is not really what happened. Then we watch it and respond with new ideas, judgments, and storylines. I’m interested in these layers of projection, appearance, and deceit: When are we really seeing each other? Are we ever?
On false revelation and rediscovery
Erving Goffman, the great sociologist of the mid-20th century, says that being present in the world is “potentially an infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery.” As people of practice, we are openly agreeing to make self-examination a central part of our life. When we come together in a sangha with other people, one of the foundational agreements is that we are all trying to show up as ourselves in an authentic way. We want self-revelation, and then we spend decades discovering how many layers of false revelation there are. We realize how many ways we show up as a false self in front of our teacher, in front of our community, and in front of the wall in our meditation.
We have so many deeply embedded patterns in our interrelational selves. From the time we are born, we are conditioned to respond in particular ways to particular triggers, and we develop very complex patterns of response, reactivity, and protection. At the base of everything is the fear of the extinction of the self, and here we are engaged in a practice in which we are investigating whether it’s true that there’s a self at all. Is there a self? If there is, what is it? We have a fundamental fear about the falseness of the self at the same time that we’re trying to let it go. Our false selves repeat themselves over and over out of our habitual conditioning. A person may be trying to be truly authentic, but a trigger can stimulate a repetitive response pattern, and suddenly they’re hidden behind that false self.
We have a fundamental fear about the falseness of the self at the same time that we’re trying to let it go.
As a teacher, I see this all the time when students come into the interview room. They come in ready to present themselves in a particular way, which Trungpa Rinpoche called “showing up in your Sunday best.” He said that students want to come and be seen as their ideal student self, but the teacher knows they’re naked. When I read that as a student, it was really scary. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe my teacher was seeing through some of my presentation. Now that I’m in the other seat most of the time, I realize I am seeing through a lot of presentation that people are not even aware that they are engaged in.
On love and recognition
There’s a Zen phrase of arrows meeting in midair—that something in me that is true recognizes something in you that is true. You and I, as conscious, identified selves, may not have anything to do with it. The ego is momentarily out of the way of what is true. My own experience of when that true self arises is that something is moving through me—it’s not my conscious self that is doing it. When I can let that conscious urge to manipulate the environment fall away, when I can just be present, something true can come out and meet the other.
Hannah Arendt says that the fundamental human condition is the urge to self-display. We self-display in order to protect ourselves. We self-display what we think others want to see or need to see. What is the safest self I can be with you right now? Sometimes we retreat altogether. Honestly felt love is the ability to let another person through those layers of self-presentation. When I see through your self-presentation or my self-display drops and you see me, love is the only response we can have—what is true in me meets what is true in you, and it is the same. Our natural response to that is love.
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