“ ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.” —Larry Rosenberg
I decided I wanted a really, really happy birthday, before my birthdays run out. I mean the birthday to end all birthdays . Problem was, I knew it had to be something more than gifts of people, places and things I’d craved but never got and probably would never get.
So I’ve been conducting an experiment with my life for the past few years. Can I be happy without most of the things many of us in this culture consider important if not essential? I knew that Buddhist monks with just their robes and begging bowls looked happy usually. But I can’t pull off the bald look –although that brown robe would be excellent cover for my chubby parts. And on that basis I considered it. But, going the monastery route would be taking the easy way. No, I wanted the challenge of trying to achieve non-attachment in the belly of the beast we call the U.S of A, here in the thick of exotic St. Pete, FL.
To tell you the truth, my experiment was inspired less by choice than necessity I found myself without a lot of the safety nets most people in our culture think we need to live well. Also, I was at an age when time was starting to run out for snagging more nets. The reasons for the losses in my life aren’t important, and you don’t need to hear the grim details . I certainly wouldn’t win any trophy at the Suffering Bowl, so it won’t be news to you; I know you understand when I say the dramas and traumas were actually some of my best birthday presents. Not that you or I would asked for them even tied up with a pretty bow.
My enlightenment experiment began in the form of a blog 3 years (or 30 years ago—if you count all the books and talks and meetings on the way to this experiment). The blog began with the question I mentioned above: can I be happy with nothing? The question has led me to take part in a 6 month study called Deconstructing the Myth of Self. It’s sponsored by the Florida Community of Mindfulness and I am now starting month four. Thus the question “can I be happy with nothing” has come to be “ can I be happy with nothing as nobody.” I have been shedding self for a while now and look forward to the birthday of my no-self which will be in May at the end of this 6 month and 30 year adventure.
But enough about me. This is actually about you. I want to wish you a happy birthday. Happy birthday to who I think you really are. Or rather how I am you are me and I am you and Kookookachoo-we-are-the walrus. We are also the great muscled Banyan tree, and the developer who wants to chop it down, and Adam Lanza, the 26 children, and the Amish who forgave the trespass upon them, and the pure white dove hovering over all. That’s who I am and who I am not. You too. But of course this is only my opinion—oh, and the Buddha’s—not that I would be so petty as to pull the Buddhist card on you…
My birthday– which is your birthday too for me, anyway– will be coming up soon. I just wanted to let you know that I want a big fat, empty box of nothing, which I am certain you will gladly give my no self. And I will do the same for you who is also me, and the pelican fishing in the Bay and the drunk sleeping it off near the sea wall. You and me and my no-self are a motley crew.
Since you are all part of my pre-birthday bash tonight, allow me to introduce who I am not. In case you don’t recognize me anymore—either because we’ve never met or since when you meet me nowadays there is not much to see– I will describe who my illusory self once appeared to be.
First of all, I was a few pounds heavier, what with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had to run things, you see. You must have noticed that I was in charge, knowing what you should do and feel. Often, I was in a bad mood because you didn’t do what I wanted you to do or you were not who I wanted you to be. That led to some highly unsuccessful dates and unrealized fantasies. But that never stopped me from looking for true love– by which I meant making you the source of all happiness and my reason to live. Oh, come on, was that too much to ask? Although I could be both a hoot and a downer, I was always kinda jumpy since I never knew what was coming round the bend and that can make a person nervous—perpetually. Don’t forget I had to rely on my own best thinking. You called my highly astute observations obsessing, making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. But I still felt superior, because I was so smart. And, of course, right.
You might have felt a little jittery yourself around me, my hyper vigilance only allowed me to focus on maybe half of what you were saying because I had to constantly watch out for the past returning and the future showing up by surprise. I think you noticed my style; I dressed to impress, bought lots of lotions and potions, squeezed myself into what they call shape wear, waxed with great vicious anguish any hair that grew on my body so that I would always look pre-pubescent, and tottered on high heels, but made myself small if you needed to feel tall. I carried my judgments of you like a concealed weapon to protect myself from yours. Basically I was always locked and loaded to protect myself from you, to keep you at a safe distance.
How else can I remind you of this self you’ve probably met? I had my good side and I think you would have liked me. I was a nature-lover and that was nice. I cared about the environment and I thought of it as the outdoors where I would go sometimes to “be in nature.” I thought the mud, the sweet jasmine, the rotting tree stump and butterfly wings were outside of me—just like I thought you were.
I guess the difference between myself and my no self is mostly is that I’ve lost a lot of weight and I may have stumbled on the best diet in the universe. In fact, I’m not bragging here, but I’m nearly transparent. But not in a creepy anorexic ghosty way. I’d compare myself to air and water now—like what a tree is filled with. Let me finish by saying more about that.
Back at the beginning of my experiment, I found a clue to my real identity as nobody in three things: a dolphin’s breath, a tree, and a dog’s eyes.
During my nightly walks with Yogi, my sharpei-mix dog, I’d often encounter the same old dolphin that has lived in the Bay at least for the past 8 years that I have lived on its edge. I know it’s the same dolphin because his silver fin bears a couple of jagged but well-healed scars. I usually heard him before I saw him, and one day recognized the sound as my own swimming breath: inhale the warm tropical air, exhale into the cool blue water. That was when I first knew I was at least a distant relative to this dolphin.
As for Yogi, he led me into the present moment daily by just a glance. His clear-eyed gaze led me out of my past and future. He took me for walks under the trees and guided me to sit in the shade of the live oaks. And I saw that I would find what I was looking for if I stopped looking in my mind, my thoughts about things.
I kept coming across the message that I must discover the truth for myself through experience, but not by doing, and not by analysis, but by watching, witnessing, diving into emptiness trusting its fullness to buffer my fall–full immersion into breath and silence.
My teachers tell me that if I follow my breath, it will know exactly where to go and I will arrive safely. Thich Nhat Hanh, the renown Buddhist teacher, has described who we are this way: a cloud never disappears, but transforms into rain or evaporates to become sunlight. The cloud, he says, is still in the rain. If we look, he says, we can see the rain is still part of the sunlight. The lotus bloom still contains the soil, the air, the water, sunlight. I will add that the trees also full of air water and sunlight breathe for us, in and out of us who are full of air and water and sunlight.
So here it is, nearly the birthday of the nobody and everyone I am and am not. I am close to the conclusion of one chapter of my experiment. Can I be happy with nothing as nobody? Oh, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Now, of course if George Clooney suddenly appeared and declared his love for me and swept me off to his Italian villa, would I slip on my body and go? In a New York minute! I may be nobody, but I’m not crazy. Happy birthday no self. Kookookachoo!