‘Anatta’ as not-just-me

30 05 2013

This post starts with nihilism and ends with chickens. Please bear with me.

Anatta – a pali word for non-self—can sound totally bizarre, or threatening, or simply undesirable to a Western ear. It’s easy to collude references to emptiness (of a solid permanent identity or essence) with nothingness, and then the whole thing seems, albeit mistakenly, rather nihilistic. But my practice community in Myanmar – all Asian, from various countries—lived anatta in a way I’d never felt before, and it totally inspired me. It’s anatta as “not-just-me.”

Culturally, I experienced it as a perpetual focus on group wellbeing rather than individual wellbeing. Anatta as not-just-me meant that when we gathered to wash a gigantic pile of heavy curtains at the end of the retreat, people focused on how effectively and fluidly the group as a whole could complete the task, rather than worrying over their individual role and contribution. Sounds nice, right? But it’s not easy – it means that the bossy person gives directions, the cheery people shout encouragement, and everyone else puts their head down and scrubs and rinses and wrings those curtains with joy – and the anatta here is in not believing there is something better about bossing or being bossed as long as it comes together as a whole. Or, if there aren’t enough seats in the taxi van to accommodate everyone who needs to go into town, people start vying for the privilege of staying behind, thus enabling the group to proceed. Not having is a form of giving. For a Western mind this is radical.

Applied to my own life, Anatta as ‘not-just-me’ changes the way I conceptualize and approach work, relationships, money, everything. What if we didn’t try to ‘get somewhere’ in a job, but rather focused on how to help the group or project as a whole? What if we didn’t spend any energy wondering if so-and-so thinks poorly of us, or strategizing on how to be accepted by one community or another – what if we instead focused on supporting the wellbeing of whoever is around us, all the time, even if they don’t seem to like us? What if I thought of my dharma center (or dance community, or regional parks, or…) as my second home, and contributed time and resources accordingly? Maybe I wouldn’t end up with a big title, or a ton of friends, or a big yard. But imagine genuinely living in that state of mind—everyone is your friend, everywhere is home, and you don’t need to be a Somebody to be content. It would be nice. But okay, enough with the idealism, let’s break it down.

I have to be careful here; if this ‘not-just-me’ perspective is limited just to the group I identify with, then it is still the same self, just substituting group for self and applying all the same habits and neurosis. Similarly, if I make ‘myself’ unimportant and the group important, the unimportance of self is the same as its previous importance; believing that I am nothing, a nobody, is just as full of ego (and the related suffering!) as believing that I am more important than you. My mind loves to do this bait-and-switch and then feel pride about some kind of insight or progress, but it’s totally a red herring.

So listen, I don’t have any answers, but I promised to end with chickens, so I’ll tell you a couple tricks I’ve been using to strike a balance between discipline and levity in exploring this. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you to be grateful or think positive. When I notice a sort of heaviness of mind, a weariness or general dissatisfaction, that’s my flag to check my thoughts. My question is, “In my thoughts, how big am I and my problems and plans, compared with [this neighborhood] [India] [the world] [the universe]?” When I’m feeling that weary dissatisfaction, ‘I’ am always WAY out of proportion with even my basic surroundings. This simple recognition doesn’t require fixing anything. Just the recognition seems to change, at the very least, how I’m relating to all these thoughts about what I will do/eat/see/become–it keeps the thinking in more realistic proportion. The sense of isolation and importance drops and with it, sometimes, the weary-heavy-dissatisfied mind.

For particularly stubborn times, when the train of thoughts seems SO compellingly real and persistent, it’s time to play the chicken game. Meditation teachers often instruct a student suffering from endless thinking mind to imagine that their thoughts are coming from the person in front of them. Sometimes this just isn’t ridiculous enough to cut through for me, so I imagine a chicken, or a rooster strutting around squaking and crowing all my thoughts. Try it. It’s exhausting, this effort. So I let the rooster just summarize the essence of the thoughts. It usually comes out as either “I’m SO great and Important. I’m a great Meditator. My thoughts are so Profound,” or else it’s a chicken clucking “I’m terrible, I’m nothing, I’m just this chicken wandering around, it’s such a pity, wasting my life, I’m such a terrible chicken, all the other chickens are better than me…” and so on. Try it. Please let yourself laugh. It’s really hard to take such messages seriously from a chicken. Putting the ego on display like that lets me see it in full ridiculosity, in its full hilarious ego-ness. I can laugh, lightly, and say hello – hello to ‘me’ and hello to everyone’s ‘me’ – it’s not just me, after all.


A new Canadian neighbor

2 07 2010

“So, where you from?”

“New Jersey”

“Ah, New Jersey, that’s over by Canada right?”

“Kinda, yeah, kinda”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve never been there”

“Yeah, it’s like maybe 300 miles from Canada”

“Oh, well, that within range – so maybe one state between it, eh?”

“Yep, something like that. It’s the third smallest state in the nation.”

“No, really? I hear about it so much, you know, thanks, thanks for that, that’s a good one. Third smallest. Yep. Say, what are the two smaller ones?”

“Well, Delaware, and Rhode Island. And Washington D.C. if you count it as a state”

“Delaware, yeah, is that where the constitution was written?”

“It was D.C. I think, that’s why the capitol is there.”

“You’re probably right, yep, probably right. It was so long ago anyhow…”

he ain’t retarded, he just plain fuckin’ lazy (29 Sunset bus)

11 05 2010

He was like “it’s just hard for me to make it every day, ya know?” and I was like “how hard can it be to get yo ass to school? you ain’t got no job, you livin wit’cho mama,  what thehellareyoudoin?” you feel me?

“I feel you, man any ni–a who don’t realize they got to get they diploma to make it in this world, anyone think an education ain’t important, man, they just a stupid ni–a.”

“He keep askin me to cover for him, ya know, cuz i’m the TA for that class, and i’m like, look, i can get you sometimes, but –”

“i can’t get you ALL the time, right?”

“that’s right sister, that’s right, you know what, if you don’t come in you ain’t gonna pass the class and that’s the whole point of it anyway, ain’t it? i’m tellin you, he jus need this one semester – and this is a continuing ed high school, you feel me, so it ain’t like rigid n’shit, and it’s just one freakin semester – and our ‘semester’ is short man, i’m tellin you it’s one ‘semester’ for every two in a normal school, so we got four of em a year. he just gotta get through ONE of em an’ he’s tellin me he can’t make it. bull-shit! but i can’t make someone stay, so he just come n’ go”

“i try to get my sister to class, i wake her up in the morning and say ‘darly you got to get to school now’ and she say “i don’t wanna i’m sick!” and i can’t make her, i ain’t her momma, but momma done let her run around the block all day long when she supposed to be sick!”

“my grandma, she never let us out of bed if we say home sick, no ma’am we weren’t goin to move an inch if we stay home sick, she say, i don’t care what age you are child, if you ain’t got your diploma yet you followin my rules, and you stay in bed if you ain’t in school today – made you think twice ’bout skippin, you know”

“Or feel this – my brother, he goes to school, he shows up, but he failin every damn class. you think he pay attention in that classroom, or he just sit his ass in that seat and be dreamin all day? He ain’t stupid, man he smart, he just lazy. i keep tellin them teachers don’t let him get away with that shit, he foolin everbody, he ain’t no special needs, he ain’t retarded, he just plain fuckin’ lazy.”

“yep and you can’t do nothin with a person who don’t wanna learn. me, i got my priorities straight in line, yes, i’m goin to get my diploma, not no GED or some shit like that, i’m not coming in second place, i’m gettin my diploma. i don’t want no kids, no man, no nothin in my way, i’m not even fuckin around no more i’m just stickin to what i gotta do. i see my sisters, they all run-right-over with kids man, already, they so busy and so broke–”

“why ain’t more of us women got our heads on straight? I got my priorities, i done lost all my friends when they see how i’m fixin to make something of myself. man, i tell you Sharly stole my card when i weren’t lookin? she put $500 on it an’ i’m still payin for it and my phone gone missing – i know she done it but she won’t fess up. they always wantin to have some fun but man i tell you i don’t want none of their fun, i ain’t fuckin around no more, just goin to do what i gotta do and that’s it.”

“honey, that’s all there is to do, just do what you got to do and forget everybody else. everybody else just trying to fuck wit’cho. just do what you got to do.”

“amen sister, amen”

She was like, “Facebook!”

16 04 2010

“Haha she was like, “Facebook!”


“I was like, how do you know about Sheila’s being registered at Babies R Us, and he was like, “Facebook”-

“‘Dat the Papa?”


“Don’t’choo ever do that to me, hey?”

“Don’t’choo ever get me pregnant, okay? I don’t want no Babies R Us in my life. But seriously, Facebook? It’s, like, bad manners.”

“Real bad manners.”

The last day

8 04 2010

It was my last day at work today. Here is the story of my last commute home:

I am so heavy with bags and rain I think I could fill a whole Muni train. But it is rush hour, so I sit on one of those sideways benches near the entrance, tuck a moist satchel of papers under the seat, crunching an empty mcdonald’s cup and fries box up against the wall, settle another bag full of files between my feet, rest my backpack, toting my disassembled cube decor and several sets of tupperware, against my shins, and balance the soaking wet paper bag exploding with my goodbye bouquet of lilacs and daffodils on my lap.

I am quite a sight. I imagine I would write about me if I saw me on the Muni.

An Asian woman boards with a young man. She wedges herself next to me, smiling from under her umbrella-hat as I try to manage my lilac entourage. She waggles her hand at the young man, gesturing him closer. He turns his head, a brief, curt, “No.” He looks away. She watches him, holding an Abercrombie & Fitch bag on her lap. Must be his mother. A shirtless man stares up at me from her bag, mouth half open. It looks like he is trying to eat my lilacs.
I really must look like I have a story to tell. This afternoon the parade of men in suit jackets stared my way as I trekked through the financial district one last time to hand over my computer – my Siamese twin of the last year and a half. It was raining. The Transamerica pyramid faded up into the fog of afternoon. Shy green maple leaves bobbed alive-ly from the tops of a few trees. I felt like the district’s bag-lady, overflowing with files and wet daffodils, petals translucent in the rain. My hair had lost its lion-look, flopping damply around my ears.

I wasn’t sure how to feel at the quiet conclusion of such an epic phase of life.

Mom next to me reaches out, batting at her son’s backpack, his back to her. He shakes his head like shaking off a fly, does not turn around. She watches him. He is drinking a frappuchino, thick with caramel. It reads “Ken, N/W” on the base.

Harmonica blares out – European rustic flare tickles the tired car. It’s Friday, and all the faces are sloping down at disappointed angles. I’m guessing the harmonica player is the large black man in a bomber jacket and green purse I saw enter last stop, but I can’t see his face or hands through the crush of people. Random landscape harmonica tones fuse into “twinkle twinkle little star”. The bomber jacket and purse man gets off the train, but the twinkle tune continues. I guessed wrong.

Mom is waggle-handedly gesturing at her son again. He has found a seat across the aisle. She is offering to hold his backpack. I feel for the mother, watching her son, her baby-turned-sullen-teenager, with a love thorough and unrequited. The way his elbow crooks sharply, jutting into the aisle as he lifts his Starbucks cup to his lips. The way his mens plaid button up shirt is shoulders-too-wide for his narrow frame, but he sits tall and straight enough to bring it dignity anyway. The way he masterfully dismisses her with a practiced art.

The car clears of its crowd. The harmonica player turns out to be a small child. Hands full of rectangle chords, emo haircut, and an enormous blue lunchbox on the seat beside her. She swings her legs off the seat, puffing out indignant blasts & chirps, which vaguely resemble “Mary had a little lamb” for a moment, them disintegrate again into some sort of free jazz sound.

My stop is here, across from the 24 hour fitness. I rise, saddle myself with my quartet of bags. The son immediately scoots into my seat, beside his mother. He taps at the Starbucks cup with a long fingernail, speaking rapidly to her in a language I can’t identify.

I step out of the car, the final leg of the last commute. The harmonica soundtrack fades, doors close, dinging behind me. The rain has lifted. A shaft of light plays at the top of a church steeple down the street. I’m home. It’s done. Finito.

Networking for the needy (DC metro, Green line)

23 03 2010

“So, he worked in the stock market?”

“Yeah, we should ask my boyfriend’s roommate if he has any contacts for him.”

“Seriously, cuz he needs some help. He’s struggling right now – drinking too much – it’s bad.”

“I bet he has no idea how bad it looks, too, I mean, I wouldn’t hire him if I saw him over the toilet like last weekend.”

“I know. I’ll see who I can put him in touch with. He needs all the extra chances he can get.”

“It’s like networking for the needy.”

Again (DC Metro, Red line)

23 03 2010

“He can’t pay his bills — again — so his lights are going to be turned off — again. I don’t know, it’s fascinating, right? How people make choices. I would have supported him, too, if I’d lived there, waitressing or something, I would have found a way to make it happen. Good thing –“