my eyes are as cold as dead ashes"
-- Soyen Shaku, Roshi
"If nothing is special, everything can be."
-- Charlotte "Joko" Beck, Nothing Special, Living Zen
After another significant snow storm this past week, She turned on a dime and started to rain.
Now, a couple of days later, the National Weather Service is peering at a day in the lower 50's in their computerized crystal ball. (We've already seen the temps swing from -11°F to 62°F over the course of four days earlier this month!)
Gazing at the melting snow outside the window, my mind can readily create a rant about the specter of global climate change. There certainly appears to be ample scientific evidence that we humanoids are stewing in our own juices. Damn.
On the other hand, having seen lots of my friends suffer through some sort of nasty respiratory bug again this winter, I can readily forget about the global condition and narrow my horizons. What about a freakin' personal climate change! Why in the world don't I move my tail to warmer winters?
But, wouldn't that be selfish? Shouldn't I get off my tail and try to do something about the proposed change in the local zoning ordinance that may bring on more environmental degradation.
Buzz. Buzz. Yada yada yada.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Sitting a bit straighter at the computer, feeling the sensations of my breath and body, I come to my senses and gaze out the window.
It's beautiful out there. The gentle tapestry of soft color outside the window is soothing. A deep silence, occasionally augmented by the twitter of a sparrow, washes over me. In its embrace, it's easy to let the troublesome storylines dissolve.
The weather? No big deal. It simply is.
No Big Deal?
In contemporary American Buddhism, the notion of "no big deal" seems to be a big deal actually. Pema Chodron has taught about it extensively, entitling a chapter in her landmark book, Start Where You Are, "No Big Deal."
I was introduced to this phrase in my first visit to The Farm* in the mid-1970's -- in a way that spun my head around. Apparently, the Farm's Teacher, Stephen Gaskin, had picked up the term from Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center. I was a beneficiary of that transmission.
That evening, as was common practice in the single men's dormitory tents, a group of us were "rapping" after a full day's work. I had just poured my heart out, rambling on, at length, about the utter shambles that my life had become (my wife wanted a divorce, my career was in disarray, I was living in my van, etc.) When I paused, at last, a clear-eyed young man softly replied, "no big deal."
"NO BIG DEAL!!?"
"No big deal."
"NO BIG DEAL!!?"
"No big deal."
I was confounded. Mindblown. That the excruciating drama of my life could be seen as "no big deal" stopped me cold. At first, my stomach fell. My angst and concerns "invalidated,"a bevy of emotions emerged. I felt surprised, confused, frustrated, humiliated.
Yet, then, the very next instant, something shifted.
In the compassionate embrace of the attention I was being given by that small group of fellow travelers, a space opened. In that space, I saw clearly that the extreme drama I was experiencing wasn't solid. It wasn't real in any objective sense. It was just a collection of thoughts and emotions, self-created.
As that space opened, I saw that I actually had a choice. Rather than rub salt in my own wounds, it was possible to take a step back -- and take my own thoughts and feelings with a grain of salt! The tears that then emerged were not only of grief, they were also of relief -- and gratitude. In a few moments, the tears melted into a sense of deep peace.
Live and Learn
Being a neophyte in the Practice, much of the time stumbling ahead without the support of a teacher or a sangha, it took me decades to get a better sense of what had happened that day. Like all too many meditators here in the West, I came to believe that Spiritual Practice meant that I should strive to become fundamentally"unattached." The ultimate goal, it seemed, was to transcend the "drama" of my life. Since I'd done it in that instant back on the Farm, I knew what the deal was -- right?
Able to muster up a semblance of sustained calm through meditation, mistaking meditative quiescence for enlightened insight, I then managed to avoid, suppress, and repress a lot of emotion-backed conditioned patterns and deep set belief structures -- both on and off the meditation cushion. Driven deeper underground, these patterns then rose up to explode into extreme states. Again and again.
My understanding of "no big deal," and its close cousin, "nothing special," were superficial. These phrases had become intellectual bulwarks against my own deep feelings -- and the feelings of others. Although the original insight was sound, and sometimes helpful, all too often I had used these terms as a shield! Behind that barrier, there was a vortex of un-examined pain, fear, and resentment resulting from a deep and unfulfilled childhood desire to be loved, to be acknowledged and appreciated as very special, a big deal. (I still can still "wipe out" on this conditioning when I'm not paying attention.)
After all these years, I still believe that I should be loved and appreciated and acknowledged as very special. In fact, in my heart of hearts, I strongly believe that everyone on this planet (me included) should be loved and appreciated and acknowledged as Very Special. We each are, after all, each and every one of us, nothing less than unique manifestations of Divine Being. Whether it is called Buddhanature, or the Light, or the One Love -- or something else or nothing at all -- it's the Real Deal. Getting my act together well enough to serve this Reality is my primary commitment in life.
This is Very Special, a Very Big Deal to me!
|Harvest on The Farm, circa 1975|
(to be continued...)
*The Farm is a community in Tennessee. I spent a couple of months there in the mid-'70s. At that point in time, it numbered about 1700 people and was seen as a Spiritual School with Stephan Gaskin as its Teacher. Believing that interpersonal honesty enhanced an awareness of our fundamental telepathic connection to one another, many hours were spent in heart to heart communication, "working it out".
Originally posted, February 21, 2014. Updated and Revised.