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You Are Nothing and Everything
Everything is within you, and nothing is without
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement!
Last Wednesday, I wrote about how saving the world is not your job. The comments on the post are beautiful because the beyond self improvement community comes with its heart open.
Speaking of people with open hearts, we have 3 new subscribers to Beyond Self Improvement since last Wednesday. My goal is 1,000 subscribers by December 2023. If you aren’t already, join 436 lovely people by subscribing now:
Yesterday, I sat down to write a rough draft of this article. I had been at Lake Tahoe for three days to watch a soccer tournament, and I was tired, and my head felt like a wooden plank. Three cups of coffee almost got my mind back to normal. But the rough draft was awful and not what I had in mind when I started. I was distraught and felt like crying. So I did the only thing possible—I went to sleep, woke up, and started writing again. Here’s the finished article.
We tend to invest special powers in people, places, and things.
As the youngest in my family, I looked up to nearly everyone—parents, siblings, classmates, neighbors, teachers, and famous people. I thought others were special because they were stronger, smarter, better looking, more accomplished, or simply because of their age.
Parents and teachers often tell us we’re special. But the only people we see on the news or in the history books are beautiful or brilliant people or those who have achieved great things. You never see a schoolteacher on the newspaper's front page reading to her third-grade class. Or a nurse tending to an elderly man in a hospital bed. Or a parent teaching their kid to ride a bicycle.
People like Reinhold Messner (the first person to climb Everest without oxygen) and Bill Gates captivated my youthful imagination. Bruce Jenner (Kaitlyn Jenner) grinned confidently at me from the cover of the Wheaties cereal box when I was in grade school. He was an American hero, the “world’s greatest athlete.”
History books bulged with accounts of people like Thomas Edison, who invented electricity; Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute mile in running; and Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution.
I thought these people were superhuman and wanted to be like them.
A friend of my stepdaughter, Amelia, was obsessed recently with a classmate. She and the said boy messaged back and forth nightly until 2 am. She talked about him incessantly to anyone who would listen. But when the boy said they were just friends, she became upset and talked about him even more.
A week later, he said he wanted to be exclusive with her. Once again, she was filled with joy and talked nonstop about how wonderful he was. A few days later, when he was at our house, I thought, “This is the boy I’ve been hearing so much about? This tall, gangly teen whose hoody is hiding everything but his pubescent mustache?”
Two weeks later, he broke up with her. Once again, she was devastated. Only this time, she was furious, telling everyone what a selfish, immature jerk he was. Mr. Wonderful was now Mr. Asshole.
Ultimately, he was just a dude like every other teenage boy at her high school.
“You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap. We're all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Nowhere else do we invest special qualities than someone we’re attracted to.
When I see a particularly attractive woman, my mind can become dominated by her presence, to my chagrin. On meditation retreats, this experience is called a “Vipassana romance.” You could be sweeping the floor or walking to the dining hall when you see an attractive person. The mind can begin planning your entire future together—wedding, where you will go on your honeymoon, what kind of house you will buy, and how many kids you will have.
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice
'Cause I gonna make you see
There's nobody else here
No one like me
I'm special (special), so special (special)
I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me
— The Pretenders
But it’s not just people in whom we invest special qualities.
We think cities like London, Paris, and New York are special, along with Tesla cars, Nike shoes, handbags from Gucci, and buildings designed by Bjarke Ingels. Once something or someone becomes a household name, we want it.
Since entering his teen years, I’ve witnessed my stepson, Preston, become possessed with everything from soccer cleats to keyboard caps, gaming computers and monitors, miniature Shiba Inus, and no less than fifty video games. Once he purchases an item, he only thinks, “Has it arrived yet?”
What is it about people, places, and things that capture us?
Seeing specialness outside of us feeds into our personal story of deficiency, of not being okay as we are. We think the person, place, or thing will complete us and give us a happy life.
Marketers tell us that whatever ails us will be cured by what they sell. If you’re lonely, our anti-wrinkle cream will bring the right man into your life like a ‘knight in shining armor coming to your emotional rescue’ tonight and every night. If you feel like an outsider, visit Los Angeles, where you might spot someone famous like Madonna, whom my co-worker once saw while dining at a restaurant. If you’re tired of other guys getting all the ladies, drink our protein powder, and women will swoon over you like a Chippendale.
We know intellectually that no product will magically solve our problems, but that doesn’t stop us from emotionally believing they will.
In some ways, investing special powers in external forces relieves us of being responsible for ‘living the life we imagined.’ Fantasizing is easier than facing our fears and risking failure. Wearing face cream is easier than exercising, eating the right foods, and getting sufficient sleep. Believing famous authors are special is easier than getting up at 4 am every morning before work to write a best-selling novel.
But if you don’t allow yourself to be the ‘man in the arena,’ you will never taste the joy of freedom or the purposefulness of meaningful work.
Really it’s this whole idea of seeing that something is outside of us and not within our power. But this is an illusion. We’re simply investing qualities in others that we’re not giving ourselves. Everything we want is already within us.
When meditation teacher Jack Kornfield studied in Thailand, he pointed out to his teacher, Ajahn Chah, that he was imperfect and contradicted himself. Ajahn Chah laughed and said this was a good thing. Otherwise, he might believe enlightenment existed outside of him.
If you’re lonely, maybe you need to be more accepting of yourself. If you’re angry, maybe you need to be more forgiving of yourself. If you’re sad, maybe you need to let yourself cry more often.
The truth is that nobody and everyone is special.
You’re special in a relative sense, as no one else shares your personality or life experiences. You're special to the people in your life because they know and care about you. My partner and stepkids may be special to me but not to others.
Great accomplishments are special, but not the person realizing them. Being a billionaire, climbing Everest, or graduating from Harvard doesn’t make you special. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics is exceptional, but that doesn’t make Kaitlyn Jenner special. Although the experience of enlightenment is special, as Jack Kornfield points out, enlightenment is not reserved for special people.
Such people will tell you they achieved great things not because they have magical powers but because they were disciplined and had good fortune.
What is truly special is a person’s way of being. We find the divine qualities coming through someone attractive, like being grounded, open-hearted, and spacious. We like being around people at peace with themselves, others, and the world around them. We enjoy people who are humble, kind, and constant.
The more a person embodies these qualities, the more attractive we find them. Their expression of the divine is special, not how beautiful or fit they are.
The spell is lifted when we see that what we call special are simply godlike characteristics expressed through a person, not the person themselves. Seeing that people, places, and things are not special, we no longer lust for them or fear “losing” them once we have them.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for being here and giving me this space to share with you. I’ll be back in your inbox next Wednesday.
Keep looking inside yourself,
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