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.
And yet, deep down we may sense that we are still 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. And that fear of being no one….of being hopeless.
I believe that giving up on hope is giving up on life. I believe that the sun is still shining behind the storm clouds. The hard part is remembering that it’s always there and that the storm will pass.
Three years ago, I began my struggle with Major Depressive Disorder. The clouds of self-hatred began to roll into my mind. My world was quickly darkening as I felt hopeless, out of place and inadequate in so many realms of my life. Despite the constant support of my Sangha and family, I kept slipping farther into my dark hole of depression. Thoughts of self-mutilation and suicide attempts entered my mind and my life. The light was gone. I could see no other way to escape this darkness then to permanently end it.
I was sitting on my bed, cupping a bottle’s worth of sleeping pills in my hand. The thoughts that had been attacking me hadn’t stopped raining down and I wasn’t able to push them aside any longer. I felt like a burden and a waste of space. The constant love that had been shown me had to be a lie. Who could love someone as messed up as me? After all, I was there to solve problems, not be one. My mental storm was blowing hard and I was sure I wouldn’t survive. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked around my room for what I thought was the final time. I saw pictures of my Teachers (Ven. Sudharma, Swami Rishi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) faces smiling back at me. Memories that had once kept me going were now going to see me off. The small calendar hanging on my wall looked curiously at me as the future plans it held had no relevance anymore. All my hope was gone and with it I was giving my life. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to prepare myself. Any sense that I had once had was gone. Consumed by what I thought was impossible. I was lost and knew I wouldn’t be found.
As I opened my eyes a picture caught my eye. I wiped the stinging tears from my eyes to clear my vision. It was a picture from the United Nations Upasanti Village bio book of one of the children that had recently been rescued from the atrocities of human trafficking. Next to her photo was a picture she had drawn for the on-site social worker in Myanmar…..a picture of her crying and Buddha with his arms wrapped tight around her. A gray cloud above her head poured rain upon the duo, but in the corner of the paper there was a sun.
When my dear Teacher, Ven. Sudharma was in the process of passing, she told me that even though it’s raining there will always be sun, which means there has to be a rainbow. I couldn’t see it yet, but it would be there. A rush of hope flooded my body as I realized that the children I’ve worked so hard for…..dedicated my life to….were actually saving me. My hands shook and the pills that were going to be my answer cascaded to the carpeting beneath me. The sun was there, the rainbow was coming, and the rain would finally end on that July evening when I boarded a plane for India….the “no one” I had been, was finally shed.
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. It must agree to die or at least diminish and let you be no one at least some of the time. These days the secular mindfulness movement takes the sting out of this death. It practices a kind of bait and switch, benevolent but still a bait and switch. It promises people a little more peace and inner spaciousness, a better brain, and so on. And slowly, slowly it leads on to the realization that real peace and freedom come in those moments when we are no one. When we are willing to give up. We notice that when we are more awake we are not thinking of a self. We find that being nobody is not deadness. It is awakening to the flow of life.
Before leaving India for Myanmar, and after sharing my experience with His Holiness, he hugged me and seized both my hands and held them for a long time in His, and looked at me with a smile. He assured me that without rain, the beauty of a rainbow wouldn’t exist and that the sun’s light has been there all along. Storms are temporary but the sun is permanent. The sun is a symbol of hope. And, like all conversations, this one led us to a peaceful silence.

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