By Alex Chong Do Thompson
When I arrived at Parris Island for Marine Corps. Recruit Training there were men from many different walks of life standing with me.
There were guys from the country who’d been hunting deer since they were six years old, guys from the city who’d never seen wildlife outside of Central Park, and then there was me: a scrawny bookworm from the suburbs who was still trying to find himself. We came from all walks of life, but our drill instructors stripped away any ideas we might have had of being different or better than one another. They did that by taking away our identities.
First, they took our hair. One by one, we sat in barbers’ chairs and had our heads shaved. Next, they took our clothes. Our civilian attire was placed in plastic bags with our names on them with the promise that we’d get them back if we graduated training. Phrases like “Hurry up!” and “Keep moving recruit!” were shouted over and over again as we ran between stations in our boxers gathering boots, shirts, and other uniform items.
Once we were fully dressed in military-issued attire, they sat us down in chairs and took our names. For the next 13 weeks, I was no longer “Alex.” My first name was “Recruit” and “I” did not exist—as in I was literally not allowed to use the pronoun “I.” For example, if I needed to go to the bathroom or “head” as we called it in the Marines, the proper way to ask was, “Drill Instructor (insert last name here), Recruit Thompson requests permission to make a head call, sir!” That’s right, I was 19 years old with a year of college under my belt, and I couldn’t use the restroom without permission.
It sounds like a nightmare—and it was. But there was a method to the madness. With everything that I thought of as “I” stripped away, I was forced to take a hard look at what was left. In the end, I was just a scared kid who wanted to make it to chow without being sent to the pit.
This was also true for my fellow recruits. We came from different places and listened to different music, but we all just wanted to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom without being hassled. We were different, but that didn’t stop us from being the same.
As a Marine, I watched men who wouldn’t be caught in the same neighborhood under normal circumstances become close friends. I watched women who barely weighed 120 pounds carry 60-pound loads. They were able to do those things because when we put on that uniform, “I” didn’t exist anymore. There was only “we.” And we were a bunch of badasses.
I think that’s why Buddhist monastics shave their heads and wear robes. That’s why Buddha placed such a strong emphasis on leaving home and giving up worldly possessions. Because when you strip away all of the nonsense that people think of as “I,” then they can’t help but see the shared humanity that exists between them and everyone they meet. Throw in some seated meditation, and you’ve got the recipe for things like empathy, compassion, and inner peace.
But for that to happen, we must be willing to let go of “I.” We must be humble enough to look past the illusion of a separate self and see ourselves in others. It sounds difficult—it is difficult—but it’s certainly achievable.
Trust me, if the Marines can do it, anyone can.
From Alex’s blog, The Same Old Zen.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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