"OK, undress," she says in her thick accent, nodding with a smile to the bench where I should set my clothes. I am in Bali and about to have my first Balinese massage. I was expecting her to leave the room while I readied myself under the sheet on the massage table and I'm frozen for a second, suddenly completely aware of my body in all of its American excess and the thought of undressing in front of her makes me feel panicky and self-conscious. I'm oh-so-close to saying, "Actually, never mind," while pulling my long workout tank over my thighs.
But I push past that thought, quickly undress and hop up on the massage table, because I really, really, really want my Balinese massage.
And for the next hour, I do some deep thinking that knocks at the door of an idea that is proving valuable. The idea is this: I am not special. (And actually, if you're wondering, neither are you.)
I've spent a lot of my time here on planet earth being told (and telling myself, as any proud American might) all the various reasons and ways that I am special. Among them, I make incredible toasted coconut chocolate chip cookies, I am cool under pressure and I have great hair. And yes, all of these things are true and helpful to know about myself in certain contexts, but I start to realize as I'm being kneaded and stretched by this woman (OMG it's AMAZING), that it is just as true and helpful to consider all the various reasons and ways that I am, in fact, not special at all.
Let's start right here with this massage. If I remember that I am not special, I can step outside myself and realize that how my body looks is of absolutely no interest to this tiny but unusually strong woman. She is not evaluating me or concerned with those extra fifteen pounds I was hoping to lose before this trip. She is not thinking about the large mole on my side. She won't be talking about me later to her sister. She is concerned with doing a good job, helping me relax, and hoping to be hired again before the end of my trip. She is most likely thinking about her own life, what to prepare for dinner, if she remembered to hang the wet laundry to dry. I am one of many forgettable bodies that will lie on this table. Thinking that I am somehow unique in this situation could keep me from the experience altogether. Embracing the fact that I am not special allows me to enjoy a full hour of pure indulgence. I'd be an idiot to let anything get in the way of that.
And I realize after this magnificent massage, that my new idea can be applied in many more areas. In fact, since then I've been wearing the "I am not special" lens and this is what it has taught me so far:
If I realize that I am not special, I stop seeing the world with me at the center. Instead, I see myself along with 7.125 billion others orbiting the sun together. I see fewer and fewer lines that divide us into cruel and meaningless hierarchies that highlight our differences and ignore our common threads.
If I realize that I am not special, I don't see the planet as mine to exploit like a master with a servant, but as a resource and a relationship that will be as good to me as I am to it.
If I realize that I am not special, I can embrace statistics and probabilities and data to predict risks and opportunities in a realistic way. I can stop thinking that somehow my plane will just happen to be the next one to go down over the ocean, or that I'll somehow be protected from skin damage as I continue to reach for SPF 8 instead of 55. Both of these scenarios are much more about math than me in particular.
If I realize that I am not special, I can see that my customs and traditions are not superior to others. They are inherited perspectives and also very local. I don't posess the right or only way to think, worship or vote. It becomes impossible to be self-righteous and patronizing, and so much easier to listen and learn.
If I realize that I am not special, I don't view fortune as a blessing or misfortune as a trial that is handed out in some cosmic way, but instead a casserole of factors that are mine to accept and manage as best I can. My health, wealth and general happiness are largely determined by things beyond my control, like where and when I happened to have been born and the DNA that spirals throughout my veins. I can get rid of concepts like "deserving" and "undeserving," and instead focus on my own reality and, when possible, be of help and service to all the other very special non-special people who share my world.
Does everybody leave a Balinese massage with a new outlook on life? If so, they should probably charge a little bit more.
There is a black and white checkered fabric that adorns the ornate stone-carved temples all over Bali. It's kind of a large gingham print, which seemed out of place to me at first, giving me the sense that these beautiful Hindu temples might be a great place to spread out a blanket and share a bucket of fried chicken and maybe do some square dancing. Instead of sharing my joke, I asked our tour guide if the fabric represents something.
"Oh yes," he says, "it represent the dual world. White good. Black bad. Everybody have them both. Everybody have good. Everybody have bad. Everybody have happy. Everybody have sad. Always important to know both."
Well. Yes. So much more valuable to hear than my lame punch line. Everybody special. Everybody not special. I think I'm getting the hang of it, but it may take another massage to really get it down. Maybe three. I'll let you know.