What does it feel like to be a nobody?
For the last four days, I’ve been a nobody surrounded by about 500 other “nobodies” from all over the world. We are all attending a retreat with Eckhart Tolle in a seaside conference center in Pacific Grove, California. The only two people I know at the entire event are Eckhart and his partner, Kim Eng. Everyone here knows these two are “somebodies”. They have expectations to uphold. They need to demonstrate their spiritual enlightenment to everyone. They need to say just the right thing, so we all go home feeling satisfied somehow.
I don’t envy them. I’m enjoying being a nobody.
Everyone here beside Echkart, Kim and my husband is a stranger to me, and I’m a stranger to them.
The other retreat participants and I meet three times a day at the dining hall, where we are randomly placed together around a table for the meal. Sometimes we speak to each other and sometimes we don’t. The first evening it seemed that everyone was eager to meet, and the conversations were animated. As the days progress, however, the introverts are asserting their right to silence and the extroverts seem to somehow find each other as necessary.
When I sense an openness and I’m willing to converse, I greet the person sitting next to me and we begin a light conversation. There’s no pressure, I can still remain a nobody. They don’t know what I do for a living (no one asks), they don’t know how much or how little I know of Eckhart’s work. They don’t know how much money I have or what kind of car I drive. They know nothing of my expertise and skills, or how much time I’ve spent learning what I know. They don’t know my history or the things I’ve suffered or accomplished. All they know is that I’m from Colorado, because everyone here is curious about the places in the world people are from.
I haven’t asked any person here these questions about their life, either. I allow them the space to tell me how much or how little they wish about themselves, and usually it isn’t much beyond what their home town and its residents are like.
I’ve never been such a “nobody” around so many people for so many days in a row.
It’s been liberating.
By being a nobody, I am free to be anybody. I don’t need to uphold some kind of egoic version of myself or defend my opinions. I don’t need to explain anything. I don’t need to prove anything. I don’t need to be a good example of the kind of person I say I’m supposed to be. Perhaps my attire and age narrow the possibilities, but not much, because everyone here has the same uniform of casual, warm clothing to repel the bone-chilling dampness that permeates the central California coast this time of year. I know that everyone here has to have at least enough money to pay for this retreat and what it took to travel here, but I haven’t seen any Rolex watches, overpriced technical clothing or flashy jewelry.
By allowing myself and others to be a “nobody” I am allowing the space to be instead be completely present to the essence of the other. I have sensed timidity, eagerness, preoccupation, agitation and openness. I have sensed high energy and subdued energy. I have sensed emotional pain lurking beneath the friendly surface.
In between sessions with Eckhart, or during longer periods of “free time”, we’ve escaped from the conference grounds to experience nature near the Monterey Peninsula.
Nature, in the form of the ocean breakers along the coast, the birds in the water and in the trees, the cypress grove, and the ancient redwood forest, accepts my presence. It asks nothing in return for my enchantment and sense of wonder and relaxation. Nature doesn’t care what I do for a living, or if I do anything at all whatsoever. It doesn’t even ask me where I’m from or whether or not I’m enjoying the retreat so far.
My experience of nature can be the same, whether I’m a famous spiritual teacher walking from my room to the meeting hall or just a hotel groundskeeper on my lunch break. In nature, I don’t need to worry about being judged or ridiculed or scoffed at. It doesn’t expect me to get anything done. I can be present with any emotion, I can scream and cry and stomp my feet, and it won’t matter. The trees won’t buckle or tell me to leave. The ocean’s roar is always louder. The birds will chirp no matter what story I tell them.
Nature allows us to be exactly who we are. This is why we may feel so at home in its presence. This is why, when we feel demoralized by life, we want to run to the woods and lose ourselves under the branches of a large tree. For some of us, not even a mother’s or a lover’s embrace feels quite as comforting.