A shamus is a guy who takes care of handyman tasks around the temple, and makes sure everything is in working order. A shamus is at the bottom of the pecking order of synagogue functionaries, and there’s a joke about that: A rabbi, to show his humility before God, cries out in the middle of a service, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The cantor, not to be bested, also cries out, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The shamus, deeply moved, follows suit and cries, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The rabbi turns to the cantor and says, Look who thinks he’s nobody! (Arthur Naiman, Every Goy’s Guide to Yiddish)

Most spiritual traditions teach the value of casting off self-importance and allowing the boundaries of the small self to melt into sacred suchness. This is not about unworthiness, but rather a reflection of the reality of our essential interconnectedness with the web of all life. While there are numerous spiritual technologies that have been developed to facilitate this process of dis-identification with the small self, it is not really something we can do. Instead, it is a gradual (or sometimes sudden) matter of discovering who we really are: a drop in the vast ocean of the divine. Beautiful, yet ephemeral.

A state of deep meditation can yield these holy moments. They can also happen in the midst of ordinary life: walking on a quiet beach, chopping garlic for dinner, listening to chamber music, making love. I am grateful every time they occur. These tastes of “no-self” can be intoxicating.

Paradoxically, such experiences can sometimes fool me into thinking I am something special, like the rabbi and the cantor. Those poor schmucks, I catch myself thinking. They’re all walking around believing they’re somebody. Don’t they know the whole point is to realize they’re nobody (like me)?

I can usually spot these attacks of spiritual vanity as they arise, and they make me smile. I have come to recognize the thoughts for what they are: illusions, all dressed up like Elvis, strutting around the stage, but their fly is open. They are naked, fooled into believing they are wearing the emperor’s finest clothes. My task is to tenderly wrap them in a cloak of humility and send them on their way. The same traditions that tempt us to congratulate ourselves for achieving states of grace also outfit us with the cloak of humility, which we are called upon to put on again and again. No shame. Just another opportunity for yielding to love.

Grief can have the effect of stripping us of spiritual pride. Whatever props we had constructed to hold up meaning in our lives, whatever mastery we thought we had achieved through the careful cultivation of spiritual practice, come tumbling down in the earthquake of loss. We are disabused of any illusion that we are special, or specially entitled, by virtue of our spiritual discipline and any rarified states these practices have engendered.

What irony! Grief and loss saves us from ourselves. The blessed state of nobodyness we had been striving for all those years on the meditation cushion comes upon us with a rush of flame, and we are consumed. Whoever we thought we were is annihilated. For fleeting moments, at least, we can rest in the reality of our humble membership in the family of all that is.

I think this is why I love being with grieving people. They are the most authentic beings I know. Their hearts have been purified by fire, and they radiate.