On Being Nobody…and No One

Ivan Aivazovsky, Between the Waves, 1898
Notice how it feels to do nothing. Set aside a certain period of time to shift your attention to the experience of being present–not meditating in a formal way but noticing the gaps between thought. Our deepest insights often come when we are not doing, including thinking in a focused way, but just being. Ultimately, awakening takes willingness, not will. We must be willing to leave the known world of the thinking and rest in open awareness. We must let go of our incessant attempts to do and be How deeply we fear being nobody. One way to think of the ego is as a defense against pain, particularly the pain of being no one. It shores us up, reminding us that we are somebody. We update our internal resumes and narratives constantly. We seek new skills and go on self-improvement regimes of all kinds, including the practice of mindfulness meditation. And we may improve a little. We may feel a little more peaceful, a little more resilient and less quick to anger. This is good, and for many people good enough. Yet deep down we may sense that even in the name of spiritual practice we are seeking to plant a flag in ground that gives way under our feet. Nothing we do can stop time’s passage and all the things that keep happening that we don’t want to happen, like aging and loss. Even with a very deep and well-established practice that has grown new neurons and reduced stress and accomplished everything else that scientific studies promises, even then we still touch the sadness of life. We touch darkness and pain. And that fear of being no one. It may come as a relief that in ancient times, when people first heard of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness or no self, it was considered most auspicious to feel not joy but terror. One classical explanation is that to feel fear is to intuit what must come. The ego must volunteer to abdicate the throne in the center of your life. We must leave the skull-sized kingdom of our thinking and be no one, just presence, at least some of the time. We may begin a mindfulness practice just hoping for a little more peace or inner spaciousness, a better brain, and so on. But slowly, slowly the practice leads on to the realization that real peace and freedom come in those moments when we are no one. We notice that when we are more awake we are not thinking about a self–or not just thinking. We discover that being no one, or no one in particular, is not diminishment but expansion. It is awakening to our human nature, our shared nature, noticing that it isn’t frozen. It flows. We yearn to be part of a larger life. Yet sometimes, especially in winter, we discover that the way to a larger life is to be still.  We want to be in a place where anything can happen at any time, yet in our own “Fortress of Solitude,” as Superman called his polar retreat. We yearn to be in the world, but not of it. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the quintessential New York-based comic book heroes, swoop in to perform astonishing deeds at crucial moments, but they also retreat into protective identities, becoming Clark Kent, a mild-manner reporter at the Daily Planet, the philanthropist Bruce Wayne, or Peter Parker, a high school student living in Queens, who anguishes about teenage themes, rejection and loneliness and belonging. These heroes dazzle with their superhuman strength or resourcefulness and agility. Yet none of them want to risk being unmasked. It’s so interesting. They don’t want to risk the very human pain of vulnerability. We all fear being vulnerable, exposed as less than solid or coherent, changing with changing conditions. At one point in the unfolding saga of Superman, he tells Lois Lane that Clark Kent is just two words, a simple fixed identity. In reality, he is “The Blur,” the term used by a bystander who witnessed him in action. If we could see ourselves from out in space, we would all be blurs, streams of experience. Batman became a masked crusader after the murder of his parents. He vowed to avenge their death by dispensing justice. He trained for years, creating his identity as a positive form of revenge. Peter Parker became Spider Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider. We are all like this. We make do. We compensate. We learn. And sometimes, our wounds become our great strengths. Maybe superheroes express a universal yearning to soar above it all–to help this suffering world but then return to a comfortable perch. Many of us turn to spiritual practice in the first place, hoping for a way to smooth out our bumpy lives, or at lease find a bit of respite. For a long time, I thought of meditation as a portable fortress of solitude. But most of us also yearn to draw closer to life., including our own experience.  It turns out that the real gift of meditation may be to allow us to be with exactly what we are and what is arising. We learn to take off the cape and the mask, trusting that along with the vulnerability that appears we discover an awareness that is very still yet also very open and suffused with a power greater than our personality. Allow yourself to notice–or remember–times when you let go of control, trusting that you could meet life with presence, moment by moment.

10 thoughts on “On Being Nobody…and No One

  1. Great post – I think there is a general fear in a lot of people that they will be a nobody – so that when they eventually die they leave no legacy behind and are forgotten!

  2. Dear Tracy

    Thank you for your posts and the poem is timely for a misty morning in Santa Monica.

    Happy Summer


  3. I used to be ‘somebody.’ Then I lost myself. Now I’m everyone, everywhere, everything, always.

  4. I think that the problem resides in how we used the term nobody. Often being a nobody is being a loser somebody who don’t have anything and didn’t achieve anything in life, something negative. But being a nobody is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact I think myself as a nobody therefore I got nothing to loose therefore there is no risk or fear involve when it comes down to achieve my goals. When you embrace being a nobody you realize that you may have nothing, therefore u got the whole world to gain. The cup is not always half empty.

  5. Being someone is like being constrained by the blade of your own expectations. Being no one allows everything to flow as it is.
    Thanks for the reminder.

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