In the third line of her song, Thank You, Alanis Morissette sings, “How about them transparent dangling carrots?” In this article I’ll take a little look at what that line means.
Ms. Morissette’s entire song is about gaining enlightenment, and from that perspective, a transparent dangling carrot is anything that leads you to take a path of pursuing or gaining enlightenment. In the song she mentions things like terror, disillusionment, frailty, consequence (karma), and silence; each of these can be considered motivational “carrots” that are capable of pulling a person down a path where they want to seek enlightenment.
If you’re not familiar with the “carrot” reference, in the United States I can remember seeing cartoons when I was younger where a person would hang a carrot in front of a horse to motivate the horse to walk forward. Another example is that it’s fairly common with businesses here to talk about offering carrots, or incentives, to employees to get them to achieve goals.
- a carrot is any sort of motivational thing;
- a dangling carrot is what the cartoonists placed in front of the horse;
- and a transparent dangling carrot is a device that motivates you even though you can’t see it, or that you’re not consciously aware of seeing, or being led by.
It sounds like terror, disillusionment, frailty, consequence, and silence were motivations for Ms. Morissette. (Early near death experiences served as my carrots.)
From a Zen perspective a transparent dangling carrot is related to a story I wrote a little while ago about The Lone Zen Master. That story alluded to Zen teachers who live among us (not in monasteries) who “test” people. That link explains what I mean by this.
Another example of how a Zen Master tests a student is given in the following story, where a Zen student came to a new monastery, and after he arrived, a Zen Master began asking him some seemingly routine questions:
“How was your trip?”, the Zen Master asked.
“Fine,” the student said, “I made good time, ate some good food, and the scenery was great.”
“How did you spend your summer?”, the Zen Master asked next.
“Oh, it was great. I went and saw a few movies, hung out with my friends, blah blah blah.”
This went on for a little while before the Zen Master decided he’d had enough, and did the Zen equivalent of what Cher did in the movie Moonstruck, where she slapped somebody in the face and said, “Snap out of it!” (In this case, however, the Zen Master didn’t slap the student, but may have shouted at him, or told him to go wash his bowls, or something else.)
The Zen Master dismissed the student because the questions he was asking were intended to test the student’s understanding of Zen, and from his answers the student clearly had no understanding of it at all. (The questions the Zen Master asked could be interpreted in more than one way, but the student only saw one interpretation of his questions.)
In a sense, the Zen Master’s questions were transparent dangling carrots, but the student didn’t have enough understanding of Zen to see them. So the Zen Master “slapped” the student verbally, and then that slap became a transparent dangling carrot of its own, hopefully making the student want to know what he had done that was so wrong.