In the dining room of the meditation hall where I first encountered Buddhist practice, a stuffed green and scarlet parrot hung from the ceiling. It gripped a sign in its beak that read, “We are in training to be nobody special.”
I was taken aback. Hmmmm, I thought, isn’t that counterintuitive? Isn’t it kind of special to have found the dharma, to have the chance to learn how to meditate and encounter the Buddhist teachings? And out in the world, isn’t it good to be someone special? The best-looking, the smartest, the most charming, the strongest? In my family, as the baby and Daddy’s favorite, I got to be special for a while. Later I was viewed as special for being a feckless writer, a lesbian, a Buddhist, and, worst of all, a crazy Californian—singled out for being so not the Midwestern housewife and mother that I was supposed to be.
Our reaching out for singularity these days is not unexpected, given that social media bombards us with opportunities to acquire the latest product or the swiftest device to put us out in front of the crowd. Our jobs are sometimes less about intrinsic value or usefulness than position and status and salary. To be special is to be safe—from criticism, from dismissal.
Certainly we are indispensable to our children. And then when they grow up and leave, some of us feel a great emptiness. In our jobs and professions we have the experience of being special to a number of people. And much of our identity and sense of ourselves depends on that relationship. If we stop working, we find out how much we have depended on being so important to others.
But there’s another, not so obvious, dimension of being special: being distinguished in our misfortune or our misery. A victim is somebody special. I’m so unlucky, I’m so very ill, I have so much pain, that person really did me wrong and hurt me so much. Any one of these assertions may be true, but when we begin to build our identity on it, we’re in trouble. For instance, we can let a difficult childhood define our lives and control how we relate to others long after we have grown up. My suffering is unique. I had the worst childhood of anyone.
In the meditation hall, I sat beneath the hectoring parrot. “We are in training to be nobody special,” it instructed me. Here in this hall, my task was not to distinguish myself, but something else. What might that be?
After having practiced for 10 years and written a book about Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, I was asked to lead a meditation retreat based on her compassionate nature. I said yes, somewhat hesitantly, having never taught in a Buddhist environment. In the first half-hour of the retreat, I found myself nervous, wondering, Who am I to sit up here at the front? Shaken by this question and this feeling, I instructed the students as best I could in the Vipassana walking meditation. Walking with the circle of students, I felt my teacher Ruth Denison’s presence as if she were pacing behind me, and heard her voice in my head: “Remember, you’re in training to be nobody special.” During the walking those words became my mantra. Step by step, I surrendered the expectation of being any better or different from the men and women who paced slowly with me in the circle. I gave up any hope of distinguishing myself. Slowly I relaxed into the movement, foot lifting, moving forward, touching the floor—one step following another, and as my mind calmed and settled, I began to be able to sense what was needed, to feel what the group was experiencing and know how to guide them.
Being nobody special, in those moments, was a softening and opening, an experience of spaciousness. I began to see how the effort to distinguish myself had separated me from my students, setting up a tension and resistance in my mind and body. It created a kind of static that prevented me from hearing or seeing clearly. I thought of a model from the Zen tradition, in which one seeks to emulate “the true person without rank,” the one who expresses the emptiness of phenomena, even our cherished self. I learned about this “primordial person” from Maurine Stuart, Zen master of the Cambridge Buddhist Association. Maurine was also a mother, a concert pianist, and a middle-aged woman—in some ways quite special, in others an ordinary person. In Subtle Sound, she wrote, “The essence of our practice is forgetting the self. As we become less self-conscious, we become more open and more warmly present, and what we discover as this melting down takes place is that what we really are is the pure, clear, lighted mind itself—nothing else. So the . . . goal of our practice is to conduct our lives from this clear, lighted mind, this always just-beginning mind.”
Much of the time I exist in my special, separate, disgruntled self, resistant to change, trying to shore up that imaginary fortress that will protect me from the storms of impermanence. When my partner Martha and I came together, we were both 65 years old, with personalities already strongly established. I had been living alone for three years, my home conveniently arranged just for me, a predictable, comforting environment. Then Martha arrived in my life, moved to California and into my apartment. As delighted as I was by her company, the first months brought difficulties. It is amazing how threatened one can be by someone’s putting the dishtowels in the top drawer rather than the second one where they had always previously been kept. In reaction to Martha’s innovations I often retreated into stiffness and separateness—my usual defense—and in that condition of emotional isolation, with lots of chilly space around me, pushed beyond my comfort zone, I was able to hear the voices of my teachers, telling me to stop hiding and instead pause to look at myself. What I saw, with laser-like clarity, was that I depended on a hundred little details to reassure myself that I exist, that I’m special.
Next I found that when I reacted with coldness or anger, I created suffering, first for myself in my tight angry rejection. Then, when I snapped at Martha, she suffered too. I had to call upon my Buddhist practice of 20 years, to go to the second foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of feelings: that initial reaction in us to everything—either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That visceral, subtle response, the impulse to reach forward, pull back, or turn off.
My teachers have given me a method to interrupt this process. When I can calm down and remember to push the pause button on my programmed response, I attempt to return into the initial unpleasant reaction, to feel it fully and stop there. Holding still, experiencing the displeasure, I do not allow my mind to make a story, my emotions to take off from the story and start a firestorm. Immobilized in this way, maybe I can see the larger picture: here is the person I care about most in the world. Does it matter that the cupboard is different now because of her? Does it take away from my specialness that the shelves are rearranged?
Instead of being blinded by my amped-up emotions, I can touch the actual in-this-moment reality of the situation. I begin to know its wider significance for me in my life and to get an inkling of the actions, or refraining from actions, that will benefit everyone involved. And I am left pondering how closely I am linked with the suffering and struggles of other beings.
The most admirable people, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, would seem to be tremendously special. But if we view them in all their associations and interconnections—ethnic, family, training—all the conditions that made them what they are, they do not stand alone. They were able to have a great effect on the world because they were expressing the awareness and aspirations of those around them. They make great contributions not because they are separate and special but because they are so intimately connected to their world and thus able to embody empathy and compassion for all living beings.
In The Myth of Freedom, the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about the very un-specialness of the Buddha: “. . . that total openness in which the Buddha had no ground, no sense of territory. So much so, that he was hardly an individual. He was just a grain of sand living in the vast desert. Through his insignificance he became the ‘world enlightened one,’ because there was no battle involved.” Being special requires a battle. It requires that we stake out territory and then defend it. The Buddha had given up the battle.
We share the physical elements and so much else with other beings; our lives are dependent on the conditions prevailing in our environment. This is being nobody special. How do we recognize and surrender to this without thought of image, achievement, comparison? Maurine Stuart advised, “All the simple, ordinary, everyday things we do—walking, cleaning, sitting—are ways to deeply penetrate this.”
So we become the true person without rank, the primordial person, who simply walks, eats, shits, works, sleeps, loves. We see that even the fully awakened condition that we call enlightenment or liberation, even this is not special but as inconsequential as a grain of sand. To be fully awake is the normal human condition. It expresses the deepest truth of our nature, our oneness with the energy of the universe. We meditate and study and practice to penetrate into, or relax into, this awareness.
Inwardly, I bow to that brash parrot hanging from the ceiling, squawking at me to wake me up. Yet I still need reminders, as I find myself reaching for praise, recoiling from criticism, defending my position. Thirty years later I am still in training to do that apparently most simple of things, to be here, open to the pure, clear, light of the mind. To be nobody special.