"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Monday, March 6, 2023

Nothing Special. No Big Deal. (Part One)

"Though my heart burns like a glowing hot coal, 
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

Mother Nature's roller coaster ride continues.
In the past few weeks, she blasted us with sub-zero windchill, then turned on a dime to above average temperatures.  This past week, she's dumped two significant snow storms on us  -- then quickly began to wash them away with a mix of rain and sunshine.  It seems a bit more like April than the beginning of March.

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.  We're melting glaciers and an ice pack that has been around for eons. Damn.

On the other hand, having seen lots of my friends suffer through some sort of nasty respiratory bugs (including COVID) 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 more about the proposed change in the local zoning ordinance that may bring on more environmental degradation? What about all the kids willing to get arrested in an effort to bring about the needed change in public policy?

Buzz. Buzz. Yada yada yada.

Jeez Louise!

A Breath of Fresh Air
Ah!  A moment of Recognition emerges.  Then a grin.  Then, one slow, deep breath  -- and "poof!"  

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 sun-splashed tapestry of color outside the window is dazzling.  A deep silence, occasionally augmented by the twitter of a sparrow, washes over me.  In its embrace, it's easy to let the troublesome story lines dissolve.

The weather?  Nothing special.  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 school teaching career was in disarray, I was living in my van, etc.)  When I paused, at last, to take a breath, a clear-eyed young man softly replied, "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 permanent, lasting sense.  It was just a collection of thoughts and emotions, self-created, only a portion of what I was capable of being aware of at that moment.

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.

And yet...

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 always strive to become "unattached."  The ultimate goal, it seemed, was to transcend the "drama" of my life.  Since I'd experienced that in that instant back on the Farm, I knew what the deal was -- right?


Able to muster up sustained periods of calm through meditation, I mistook a semblance of 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.
It wasn't a pretty picture. 

As the Practice matured, I came to see that I hadn't really gotten it.  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 shieldBehind 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.)

And it even gets more interesting.  

To wit:

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
Yet, with this very next breath, I can also say, in all honesty, this is also Nothing Special, No Big Deal.  

No kidding!

How can that be? 

Stay tuned.  

(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".  It had a dramatic influence on me.

Originally posted, February 21, 2014.  Updated and Revised.



Mary Rose said...

What a good writer you are Lance! It's a "big deal" to be able to put words to your deep inner experiences and make them so relatable. Thank you. 🙏🏼

Lance Smith said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mary Rose. These writings continue to be a labor of love.
I trust you are well as Spring prepares to sweep into town.