“I always consider myself personally one of seven billion human beings. Nothing special. So, on that level, I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.” ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy.
I grew up an only child.
I was the first born grandchild on both sides of the family. I was doted on from day one; I was special.
Upon entering kindergarten and getting tested, I was deemed gifted and talented. One day each week during the school year, I got to attend school with other gifted children like me; I was special.
Fast forward to my adulthood. My mom passed away unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident when I was in my mid-20s. I was pregnant before I could legally drink. I was divorced before I finished college. These events made me a different kind of special, but special nonetheless.
Imagine my surprise when I was looking for an inspirational quote this week for my meditation session I was guiding, and I came across the words, “I always consider myself personally one of seven billion human beings. Nothing special,” from someone I have long considered a very special being—the Dalai Lama.
It was one of those moments that set me straight in my chair.
My first thought was how freeing it would be to not be special—to be on the level playing field of all other sentient beings on Earth trying to be happy. It brought to life a foundational teaching of Buddhism: we are equanimous by nature, and to see one another in such a way is the path of the heart warrior, a Bodhisattva.
My next thought was how this simple statement could practically allow for greater empathy for others. If the person driving slowly in front of me isn’t special and I’m not special, then we are both just doing our best.
How can we experience anger or frustration toward someone who is going along doing their own thing on their own time, doing the best they can?
What then followed was a flip-flop between torture and freedom. On the one hand, this was an epic ego destroyer. On the other hand, this was an epic ego destroyer. It forced me to look at all the ways I grasp to being special: I meditate. I climb mountains. I ride a motorcycle. You get the idea.
Something I love about Buddhism is that, practically speaking, it offers practitioners methods by which to become more helpful in the world. Whereas other traditions encourage us to “love our neighbors,” Buddhism offers practical ways to do so. This often begins by taking a contemplative seat, and so I sat with this idea of not being special on my cushion.
What I realized was that the Dalai Lama had given me an entire teaching on the Four Noble Truths, a basic and powerful Buddhist teaching that can take up volumes of books, in just one sentence: “Nothing special.”
1. Life is suffering. The Buddha didn’t beat around the bush on this one. He straight up said that life is suffering, and it is so because everything we experience changes. We get a new car and it gets a dent. We get a new partner and they become an old partner. Ultimately, we die. And when we die, our specialness returns to the dirt just like our mortal bodies.
2. Suffering is caused. This is the punchline from the Dalai Lama’s statement that he isn’t special. Special people suffer; it is the specialness that causes our suffering. Beings who know they aren’t special don’t suffer. They don’t suffer because there is no ego to defend. They don’t suffer because there isn’t any special-er or special-less people to compete with. When we lose our specialness, we become just like our neighbors: the ones we like, the ones we don’t know, and the ones we dislike.
3. Suffering can end. When we aren’t special, we know that because we are born we will die. We know that we will grow old. We know we will experience loss and grief. In short, we know that life is precious and rare, and so we live each day and move through our relationships as if it is our last. Not as a cliché, but as a living and breathing practice.
4. Which brings us to the final Noble Truth, that because suffering can end, we must practice! The question is to practice what? In some traditions, this might be practicing meditation and spirituality in order to become enlightened. However, I prefer to work with my life right here on Earth, and in this regard, practicing means we can walk in our own world more open-heartedly, or as the Dalai Lama says, with the knowledge that “the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.”
Not sure how? Next time someone inconveniences you, join me in saying to yourself, “I’m not special” and notice how quickly it takes the charge out of your reaction. Think about the profound ripple effect this can have in your life and the life of those around you while being completely not special.
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