Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dare to be Ordinary

"Just Another Day"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Throughout this week, college and university students on campuses all across America will be gathering together for assemblies and colloquia to listen to "pep" talks designed to help motivate the students as they begin a new academic year.  

Over my career I've attended many such gatherings to help "jump start" the new year. They usually follow a pretty routine pattern,  as various and sundry speakers stand behind a podium, wave their arms and enthusiastically urge their students, "Dare to be different. Dive headlong into your studies and find new ways to stand up and be counted." 

The hope is that their young charges will be so fired up at the prospects of an upcoming academic year that they will rush home, crack open the books and devote themselves to their education, dreaming about future careers that might lead to fame and perhaps fortune. 

I used to think that this call to "dare to be different" was a noble if not somewhat idealistic sentiment. I have come to believe that telling people to "stand up and be counted" may not be at all that helpful at all, in fact it may even be harmful. 

Back in the ninth century, Chinese Zen Master Linji also gave advice to students in his charge, only instead of urging them to stand out from the crowd and to dare to be different, Master Linji advised:

Be Ordinary!
Just put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time.

Now at  first blush this injunction may sound like a call to complacency and indifference, an excuse for being lazy. However, when you scrape beneath the surface of this wisdom, the opposite is true.

The Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun, recently featured a very insightful article about what it means to "be ordinary" and why "ordinariness" is indeed a goal of the spiritual life and a necessary ingredient in the pursuit of a more meaningful life:

Being ordinary means giving up any hope that we might be the center of any universe. It means we don't have any coattails for others to grasp, no bragging rights to offer up, no exciting news about our great successes to be posted on a Facebook page.

It turns out that, when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up to us. We get to watch for what each day is telling us and asking of us, heading off to work or school, cooking a meal, maybe staying in bed all day to give a cold a chance to move on. We notice more -- a whole world of miracles that unfolds and unfolds without end.  Anxiety lessens, gratitude expands, creativity grows, joy happens and we feel free. We become available.

This all makes such great sense to me. 

So many people today anxiously live their lives in order to be acknowledged and recognized for their great successes -to be successful is to stand out, to be different, extraordinary, somehow better than others.  Ordinary everyday life is seen as boring and the common tasks of everyday living are dismissed as menial. 

But ordinary life is the place where miracles are indeed always unfolding in every moment of every day.  When we spend our days striving to stand up and be counted, to stand apart and be different, making our self as the "center of the universe," we miss all the miracles. 

If I were ever asked to give a speech to an assembly of students beginning a new academic year, the best advice i could give them would be, "dare to be ordinary." In fact this is the best life advice any of us ever need to hear,

Dare to be ordinary! 


  1. Paul: Great thoughts. I resonate with this a lot. It makes a lot of sense and helps to keep the ego in its place. Dave

    1. Yup--all about losing self to find self isn't it?

    2. Yes. It was Paul in the new testament who said "I die daily". It makes a lot of sense now whereas a few years ago it was not understood by me.

      That is the only way to walk humbly and it makes so much sense.