I wrote elsewhere that part of me (my thinking mind) feels like it's still seventeen.
Comparing my profile picture to the high school yearbook photo above will confirm that the rest of me definitely is not.
A couple of years before the photo was taken, a very dear English teacher (Mr. W. L. Hardie) made a lasting impression on me. His presentation of Emerson's essay Self-Reliance was a gift that 50 years later, I still remember fondly.
The tenet is simple: don't be afraid to be yourself. Since we are each unique, it also means have the courage to be different.
To an often painfully shy introvert, those words were music. I took the advice to heart - perhaps, I hasten to admit, a tad to the extreme. If you look closely, you may detect some subtle differences from my classmates below (hint: check the hair length, sideburns, glasses, shirt and tie colour)...
Many years later, noticing my tendency to be timid and overly self-effacing, the abbot of our zen centre offered some kindly advice that can be reduced to one word. Manifest!!
Or, in the language of the Heart Sutra, less emptiness, more form.
As we act out our lives and our practice ripens, no doubt maintaining a skilful balance between nonduality and differentiation becomes more natural and effortless. However, a concept that came of age, like me, in the hippie era was that ego is to be avoided and even, to be ashamed of. Consequently, a well-aimed self-administered kick in the pants is occasionally needed to get me 'out there'.
And what a strange world 'out there' can be.
The flip side of being aware of our individuality is noticing the wonderful, the weird and the heartbreaking. Interwoven with wordless beauty and breathtaking kindness are idiotic thoughtlessness, meaningless self-absorption and unspeakable cruelty, all of which, through encouragement, great sorrow, some despair, and yes, anger, kindle our compassion, fuel our resolve and launch us into action.
I admit that when the 'stranger in a strange land' feeling comes upon me, I have a tendency to disassociate myself from the perceived evils of the world, to set myself above them and to cling to an idealistic construct of myself. Before too long, hopefully, I also realize that these are warning signs that I'm allowing unification anxiety to creep into my life and that it's time to dive back into practice.
We can be strangers in a strange land, as long as we keep our hearts wide open and remember that everyone else is a stranger in this strange land too.
May we make the other strangers feel at home.
May we love the ones we're with.
Well, the last bit is true....