More than once, on an introductory retreat, a person new to Buddhist practice has expressed the concern that training might strip away their personality, that in letting go of attachment to self they would become bland. I chuckle inwardly and think about the community of monks I live with, who could be described in many ways, but who could never be called bland!
I am writing this at Shasta Abbey in Northern California where 50 monks are gathered from temples of the OBC throughout the US, Canada and Europe and we are certainly a pretty diverse and interesting bunch. I think it does everyone good to spend a bit of time occasionally with a different group of people. We have a tendency to regard our usual group as some kind of norm whom we measure ourselves by. Putting oneself into a different situation can show up how arbitrary our comparisons really are.
What am I getting at here?
Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. It is very common that people modify their behaviour in order to be more acceptable to the group that they wish to be part of, whether this is a group of friends, family, work colleagues or indeed a spiritual community. It is also natural to try to emulate a revered teacher or person whom one greatly respects. But often we find that we are comparing ourselves with others and deciding that because we find ourselves to be different, that we are at fault. For example, I have almost no grasp, or interest, in politics. So if I find myself in the midst of a conversation about current affairs it would be easy for me to feel inadequate in that area, to feel that I ought to educate myself about politics and current affairs. But put me with a different group of people and this would never occur to me. So this shows me that measuring myself against others is a pretty hit-and-miss affair and it is just more thoughts in my head.
My point is that Buddhist training is not about setting up an ideal of the person that we aspire to be and then trying to achieve it. Letting go of attachment to self is letting go of being pushed around by our thoughts and it leaves us free to truly be ourselves in all our wonderful uniqueness. So if we are to use any measure at all, let it be how at ease we are with ourselves, as we are, (perceived) warts and all, and how little we feel the need to compare ourselves with others.