Look Who Thinks She’s Nobody

August 29, 2011

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.

8 Responses to “Look Who Thinks She’s Nobody”

  1. Annapurna said

    I am radiant with grief and open fly!

  2. Emma said

    My dearest Mirabai, I put my palms together, place them over my heart and bow deeply to you. Your inner light shines ever brighter, and how blessed we all are for our course to be lit by the beams of the lighthouse that you have become.

    From the heart, Emma

  3. April B. said

    What happens when I try to stay in nothingness is that I just stay empty and confused. There is no rushing in of flame or insight. It’s hard for me to trust the no-thing-ness because all I am left with is myself. I wish I could say that that leads me to truth (I wish). But instead it’s just this shell-person. I don’t know where to walk or how to best plan my life. And the desires for *things* keeps me hooked long after I’ve used my last tissue. And yet I can’t stop the desire for union no matter how pissed off or empty I get. That irony is all I’ve got sometimes. And signs. Lots of butterfly kisses. At least I know there really is something behind the curtain.

    • The hazard of this nothingness business is getting so hollowed-out that we cannot function. Lucky for me, I keep getting slammed back into somebodyness, where I am high functioning (while looking forward to return to nobodyness all the while). I’m not sure the shell-person is about emptiness, but more about the natural cynicism that arises in the fave of the apparent meaninglessness we witness in this wounded world sometimes. You write beautifully, April.

  4. Doug said

    I love humility (well not really, but I love the idea of it anyway and realize its benefits). Your comment Mirabai on loving to be with grieving people because they are the most authentic people you know struck home with me. That is one reason why I love 12 step groups. What is respected most in a 12 step meeting is not some great philosophic realization on the nature of reality and God (something I can get caught up in), rather it is someone who can come into the meeting and be absolutely honest with the pain they are in and share it. I know no other place (outside of your workshops perhaps or therapy), where a person is encouraged to be honest with their feelings and simply, “come as you are” so to speak. Society in general, encourages us to do just the opposite and pretend things are ok and provide a brave front. Being around recovering people who are in pain is one of the most powerful ways I know of to get outside of myself and simply “be” with another; if only to give witness. I could see working with others going into the transition of death being just as powerful. The point here is to get outside of that self you speak of that has spiritual pride and all those trappings by focusing on another’s suffering and giving witness. .
    I love the example of the court jester, who in playing the fool leaves no room for false pride or the manipulation of others. The court jester has nothing to gain by being the fool, the ego no place to take root and the wisdom of humility can show its fruit.
    The last point that comes to mind is can an ill self really heal itself? Isn’t by definition the very nature of illness trying to heal illness contradictory? Isn’t what we really need to do is simply get out of the way, remove our own blocks to the healing process and let it happen? If we can understand this we can stop chasing our own tale so to speak. Some of us don’t need time to heal as much as we need to give up the part of ourselves that gets us hurt as well as the part that reacts to being hurt (it took some time of reflecting on these words to begin to understand them for myself).
    In 12 step work, the first step is always about surrender and is often considered the most difficult step. To stop relying on our self to solve all our problems and reach out for a different solution often takes the most extreme pain or circumstances. In this state there is no, “Praise or Blame” just perhaps the courage to stand pat and allow change to occur. The power of grief accessed in this way I believe yields the same results as any other path of grief. The universal principles involved in all spiritual paths cut through the definitions which often separate us from ourselves, others and God. I think the definitions of a spiritual path, recovering person or any of the myriad of, “ human conditions” we encounter all can carry with them this power of separation…
    What a great post Mirabai! I hope you are finding what you need after your busy summer and all the changes that are going on. And yes next time I will introduce myself!
    As always, thank you for letting me share…. I think it helps me to do so….

  5. Mirabai said

    Sending you a warm hug, dear Doug.

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