One of the hazards of meditation practice is a growing awareness of familiar thought patterns. I know – it should be considered a blessing. But at times it can prove a bit embarrassing, to see how often certain kinds of thoughts arise.
Yesterday a friend came over for a bit, for a cup of tea and a little sunshine, and somehow we found ourselves admitting to each other the primacy of a certain familiar thought pattern; the need to be thought of as “special.”
Here’s an example: I realized yesterday morning that my new jasmine-scented candle, which has been smoking a lot, had blackened the face of my buddha. One good scrubbing removed most of the blacking, but when I scrubbed again it became clear that the paint was coming off as well.
So I decided to repair him: I took him into my office, got out my paints, and set about matching his particular patina. And even though he looks rather bluish-green, with maybe a bit of yellow and white around the edges, the colors that eventually worked to achieve the match were a silvery purple and a dark brown (go figure).
I was pleased by the result, and as I returned him to his customary post, that “special” thought came riding in on her grand white horse: “Damn, I’m good at color matching! I love color; I’ve loved color all my life. I should get a job at Pantone!”
The heart of this thought is always the same: maybe if I’m good at this, someone will notice and/or reward me. But with what?
As we talked, my friend noted that it happens at work: complete a project, do it well, and wonder if someone will notice, will realize what a treasure you are, will promote you. We've both observed it happening at church: sing a hymn, even just standing in the pews, not in the choir; wonder if someone will notice your voice, will think it’s special… and… what? Invite you to sing a solo, or join the choir? What is it we are hoping for?
What (we wondered, with a certain amount of embarrassment at being caught thinking such covetous thoughts) are we thinking, and why? What is this need to be special, to be better, to be noticed, promoted or invited? Is it universal, or unique to us – two 60-something women, both born and raised on the East Coast, both having grown up in difficult families with highly critical parents? Is this human nature, or just OUR nature?
The blessing we found, in noticing and observing this trait, was a wry amusement, even if it was tinged with embarrassment. And there emerged a sense of compassion for each other, and for ourselves, and, ultimately, for other humans we know, whose efforts to draw attention to their gifts may seem clumsy or foolish: now that we’ve seen that side of ourselves, we’re more likely to look on those traits with empathy.
Monica Furlong, writing in Ordinary Magic, describes it this way:
Meditation practice, she says, offers “a new kind of strength which allows us to admit our weakness to ourselves, and sometimes to others, and live with the weakness of being human, not a superman. This love for the humanity in ourselves and others is perhaps the most costly and humiliating thing we ever have to undertake. We discover that we are “just human,” not saints, not gods, not angels, not devils, not unusual, not special, not “good men,” or even bad men. Progress,” she concludes, "is to grow in respect for “ordinariness” and to learn to live it gladly, accepting our weakness and failure just as much as our strength and triumph. It is the road to wholeness.
The ordinariness, despite its costliness, is disappointingly undramatic, and is a blow to the exhibitionist side of us which would love to figure in some more flattering role. Its value, however, lies in its reality. It is only interested in things as they are, not as they would be if we lived up to our idealized picture of ourselves, not as they may be at some future date. It is the reflection in the mirror before we have put on our best expression, or the photograph of us which was taken unawares.”