Can an Attitude of “Nothing Special” Work in Life?

Question: I really like the idea of this “nothing special” attitude. What I wonder about is when you meet the rest of the world with an attitude like that. For example, suppose you’re working on a project with other people and you have this attitude when something goes wrong, “Okay, nothing special! It happens.” I’m afraid that other people would think that you’re not taking things seriously.

Dr. Berzin: Don’t misunderstand the attitude of nothing special. It isn’t one of not doing anything. It’s also not the indifferent attitude of not caring: “Whatever.” “Nothing special” means we don’t get upset about whether we feel happy or unhappy and don’t make a big deal out of either of them. We just very rationally and calmly deal with whatever we’re doing. We just do whatever needs to be done without getting upset.

What if other people get upset?

If they get upset, your calmness can help calm others. To give a classic example: suppose we’re writing a document on the computer and press the wrong key and it gets deleted. That happens. It’s not going to help to get upset. If we don’t have an undo function and we can’t correct it, it’s gone. Crying about it is not going to bring it back, getting upset about it and feeling unhappy is not going to help at all. It’s going to be a hindrance. We just say, “Okay,” and write it again. If we are trained well enough to remember what was written, we can reproduce it and maybe the second time it’ll be even better. We just deal with it and avoid being what we call a drama queen about the whole thing. If we’re part of a team and the document was for the team, our calmness will help calm them down as well.

Are we talking about feeling happy or unhappy because of a circumstance or in general?

I’m talking about dealing with ourselves. If we’re feeling unhappy or happy, we just get along with our lives and don’t make a big deal out of it. What about when somebody else is feeling happy or unhappy or upset? The baby is crying, for example. What do we expect? It’s a baby. We don’t get upset, “Oh no, the baby is crying!” We don’t make a big deal out of it and we just take care of the baby. Why is the baby crying? Whatever has to be done, we do. It’s like that.

Shantideva says it very nicely, he says, “People are infantile.” Therefore, they get upset. It’s like the baby crying. What do we expect? We don’t make a big deal out of it, but try to calm them down and try to bring things more in line with reality.

Getting upset is inflating the existence of something, making it into a big deal. That’s what voidness is all about. There are no big deals. Big deals don’t correspond to reality. Things happen, that’s all. We just deal with them. Do we have emotions? Sure we do, positive emotions like love, compassion and patience are great. But we don’t have to act out negative ones like anger, impatience, and intolerance, as these aren’t helpful at all.

It seems to me that if we want to take this a step further then it would be like from the lojong mind training teachings. We can actually learn from our problems by using them as stepping stones for deeper insight.

That’s right.

Do you think this mind training method is unrealistic? Do you think it’s more realistic for people to work on nothing special, no big deal?

We have the lojong methods of mind training to try to change our attitudes. For instance, we can view negative circumstances as positive circumstances. These are great methods, but we have to stop inflating what we’re feeling and see what the situation actually is, I think, before we can transform it. It’s very difficult to transform it when we have inflated it into such a disaster. “Oh, this is a disaster! The baby has soiled its diaper again.”  We need to have a more realistic view before we can change it to, “May everybody’s soiled diaper come to me. I will change everybody’s diaper.”

We need steps: first the baby soiled himself or herself. So what? It’s a baby. We change the diaper. Now, while changing the diaper, we might not find this pleasant contacting awareness, as it doesn’t smell nice, and we can use the lojong practice such as, “In cleaning the baby, may I be able to clean all the stains and dirtiness of everybody. In doing this may it serve as a cause for being able to cleanse everybody.” But, first we need to deconstruct it as being a disaster. We do this step by step.

I just think about changing all these diapers for everyone. What a mess.

Right, nobody will want to be a Buddhist if we have to take all the crap of the entire world onto ourselves, that’s true. As a general principle, if we can use humorous examples of things, it makes a deeper impression than using boring examples. Right?

I was just wondering about how, on a day to day level, when we experience something unpleasant like in a destructive relationship or something, do we incorporate this?                     

If we’re in a destructive relationship and things are going badly, we don’t say, “So what, this is samsara.” What we want to use is our discriminating awareness, what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls our “marvellous human intelligence.” We need to be able to discriminate if a situation is helpful or harmful. Is it beneficial or not beneficial for ourselves and for the other person to be in this relationship? If it’s not beneficial, if it is harmful to both sides, then we end it. The point is to be able to think clearly, and not on the basis of exaggeration and projections of things onto what’s happening that just don’t correspond to reality. Sometimes it’s better to part, definitely. But make that decision based on clear thinking, clear analysis.   

Can it be a positive thing to try to be aware of our unconscious feelings and express them honestly?

Often, we experience emotions, using the Western term, on an unconscious level. The question is if it is better in some circumstances to have them be more manifest? I can think of two different cases that we would have to examine, one being a destructive emotion and the other a constructive one. Let’s examine anger or love, for example. If we have unconscious hostility toward someone, then we certainly want to become aware of it. Becoming aware of it doesn’t mean necessarily expressing our hostility toward someone. Again, we need to analyze and differentiate different aspects of what's going on. 

Let’s say, for example, I have friends and when I interact with them, I always ask them, “How are you doing? What’s going on with you?” However, they never ask me how I am or how I’m doing. They never ask me and it’s annoying that they’re so self-centred and they don’t think to ask me how I’m doing. Now, there’s a difference here. Is there unconscious hostility about that? There may be; but, to express that and to get angry with them is not going to help the situation. By saying, “You’re really selfish! You’re terrible,” that will lead to compulsively acting in a destructive way and yelling at them. That’s not going to help the situation. “Why don’t you ask me how I am? What's wrong with you?” This type of thing doesn’t help at all. If we notice that we have hostility about something like this, then we really have to take care that it doesn’t manifest, because if it manifests, then we lose self-control and act destructively.

However, when I notice that hostility, I can try to remedy the situation, without getting angry. Usually I do that in a joking way. I find that humor is a very helpful medium to lighten the situation. I will say after they’ve told me their whole story about how they’re doing and they’re starting to change the topic and never asked me about myself, I’ll say, “And how are you doing Alex? Oh, thank you for asking me!” It becomes a bit of a joke and the person realizes that they need to reciprocate and ask me how I’m doing. Like that, there’s no hostility. 

It is helpful to become aware that we have this underlying hostility, if we have any. If it didn’t bother me, then so what? I don’t care whether they ask me how I’m doing or not, it’s irrelevant. Do I have to tell them what I’m doing, how I’m doing? Not really. If I really would like to tell them, I just tell them. It’s like if your grown children or grandchildren never phone you, then if you want to hear from them, just call them yourself. But do it without hostility and without trying to make them feel guilty for not calling you.

What about a constructive emotion? Now, we have to start analyzing that. I will ad lib because I haven’t really analyzed that before. Perhaps we have un-manifested love? What does that mean? We aren’t talking about the destructive emotion of veiled or concealed lust and sexual attraction to somebody. This isn’t “I want to get you in bed,” or something like that. Now, we have to talk about a really positive emotion. For example, we love our child, okay? We love our child, but how often do we express that love? Do we want to bring that up to a more manifest level? Yes, that could be helpful. 

Then, we have to use discriminating awareness because we don’t want to smother the child. For example, if we have a teenage child and they are with their friends and we come in as a mother and say, “Oh, I love you so much,” and hug and kiss our child, we embarrass them in front of their friends and that is totally inappropriate. Another example might be that we constantly call or text our teenager when they're out. “Oh no, it’s my mother again, asking am I all right?” 

We need to use discriminating awareness to determine when and how to express our positive emotion. The way we express it to a two-year-old is different from the way we express it to a fifteen-year-old. Positive emotions are okay to express; but again, one doesn’t have to be a drama queen and make it a real dramatic show. More subtle levels are okay.

Emotional Currencies

This gets into another topic which I think is very helpful. A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, pointed out this theory using economic terms. We need to learn to accept that people have different currencies and they will pay with these different currencies. We need to learn to be able to accept their currency. For example, some people show their affection physically, by hugging and kissing. Other people show their love and concern by taking care of us. They’re not so physically affectionate, but they are caring and protective. 

A classic example is from older generations where the father usually was not terribly affectionate with the children. However, the father expressed his love for the children by the fact that he went out, worked, earned all the money, and provided everything for the child. This was the currency that the father paid in. As a child or even later on as an adult, we need to recognize that. “My father did love me and did show his concern and care. He might not have paid in the currency that I would have liked or preferred, like hugging me or saying how much he loved me, but he did show affection.” We learn to accept different currencies. It would be like paying in kronas here in Denmark and not in Euros. Money is still money. Different people show their affection in different ways.

In the story you told about your friends that didn’t ask about how you were, what if you don’t get angry but you have an attachment or need for them to consider you and how you are? It doesn’t mean you are angry, you don’t want to shout. You just feel a little sad about it, less loved. You can still say it, but if they don’t change or pick up your little kind suggestion, then how can you deal with that sadness? Is that by trying to get over your own attachment to these things?

There are two possible types of sadness in this situation. There’s the sadness of self-cherishing: “I’m sad because they’re not paying attention to me. I’m not angry about it, but I wish they would pay attention to me.” That’s based on just thinking of “me, me, me.” That’s one type of unhappiness. However, we could also be sad that they are so self-centered, but we don’t take it personally at all. In this case, we are sad that they have that problem. That leads us to develop compassion for them. We can then think of ways to try to help them. 

If our sadness is based just on concern about ourselves, “I’m sad that people don’t pay attention to me,” then we really have to work on that. Even if people did pay attention to us, what do we want? Do we want paparazzi around taking pictures of us all the time? Do we need so much attention paid to us? I mean, of course, it’s not going to satisfy. Even if others pay attention to us exactly as we wish, it’s ordinary happiness and doesn’t last. On the other hand, as with the example of an over-protective parent, someone can pay too much attention, asking every five minutes, “How are you? Do you feel okay?” or “Is everything all right?”  

I might think it’s fine in my relationship, but the other person doesn’t. We should talk about currencies, “I’m like this and you’re like this.” We become aware of each other. We can work on each other’s likes and dislikes and learn. It’s good to talk about it, communicate about it, and be aware about it. 

If it is an ongoing relationship and the other person is receptive, then we could speak about it: “I like affection shown in this way.” The other person can express that they like affection shown in that way. That is in a partnership relationship; but, it doesn’t work very well with a child and parent relationship. If the parent is already deceased and we’re looking back at our childhood, it’s not up for negotiation. It’s important to see whether the two people involved are basically of fairly equal status. Could they change and deal with the communication? It could be that the boss never asks anyone at work how they are. We don’t negotiate with the boss about this type of issue. With a boss, we should be concerned about work related issues such as, “That’s really too much work that you’re giving to me. I'm not very happy about that.” You need to see the situation and view it with discriminating awareness. 

Let’s say we haven’t realized a level of awareness of voidness and that we still feel we have very real reasons, maybe not even exaggerated reasons, to be angry. We avoid that and don’t express our anger. We try to not make a big deal out of it, but is there a mechanism by which this could turn into something that could be unhealthy psychologically?

This is bringing up the issue of repression. When we haven’t realized or attained any level of realization of voidness and we’re just repressing hostility, then of course it gets turned inwards toward ourselves. That can cause all sorts of troubles. What do we do then? If we’re going to manifest our anger or upset, and if it has to be expressed, then again, use discriminating awareness to choose the appropriate time. It’s not the time to express anger when the other person is also really, really upset, or very, very busy. Use intelligence to see when would be the most appropriate time to express it. Don’t express anger when it’s too strong because then it can get out of control.
It all comes down to using our common sense and intelligence. When will it be helpful? What is the appropriate time? If the other person is really exhausted and just wants to go to sleep or is half-asleep, that’s not the time to go into a deep and meaningful conversation about their insensitivity. This also applies if they’re really super-busy at work. That’s not the time. Okay?