Monday, August 3, 2015

The Center of Attention

"Just an Ordinary Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It’s only early August and yet, at least in this part of the country, the kids are already preparing to go back to school. Yesterday I was talking with a family who commented that they were getting ready to “ship the kids off to school so that they can learn how to make a difference in the world.” The comment was a lighthearted remark and yet it was also made somewhat seriously.

In fact from their very earliest years we send our kids to school where they are taught that they are “ unique, gifted and special” and challenged to study hard so they can somehow “make a big difference” - maybe start up their own businesses, or become a movie star, find that cure for cancer, or develop techniques for growing enough food to feed the world.

Personally I think its probably a good idea to help kids build their self esteem from a very early age and to challenge them to live into their potential; but there is also a dark side to all this “make a big difference” motivation.

When the “kids” eventually grow up and go out into the everyday world of everyday life many if not most of them discover that the lives they live are quite ordinary and nowhere near as spectacular as they might have imagined. Most people find themselves getting up on a Monday morning, going to work, doing the shopping, household chores – pretty ordinary, routine and mundane - leading some people to feel that they are “failures” in life, never having lived into their dreams. At the very least, leading many people to conclude that by and large, life is boring.

Not long ago I read an article in a magazine of Buddhist essays that made a great deal of sense to me.  The article offered some powerful wisdom about our obsession with being special, extraordinary, and making a big difference in the world. Oddly enough, the article suggested that we might do well to balance our desire to be “special” with an equal reminder to do our best to practice a discipline of being “ordinary:”

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

It turns out that when we honestly dare to be ordinary,
the wisdom of the universe opens 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.
We notice more - a whole world of miracles unfolds without end.
Anxiety lessens, gratitude expands, creativity grows, joy happens.
We become available.

I think of my life, my own obsessions with my lofty goals and great ambitions. I had visions of myself establishing new churches teeming with people, making religion revitalized once again for the 21st century. As I look back at it now, I fear I may have spent so much time dreaming about all that might been that I lost sight of all that was. As I set my gaze on “making a big difference,” I may well have lost sight of the everyday miracles staring at me in the face of every single moment of every single ordinary day.

So now at this stage of my later years in life, I want to reclaim the “wisdom of the ordinary,” to make myself “available to the universe” as it opens up to me every day.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until you get older to claim that wisdom. 

There is a story about a Zen master who, early every morning, would assemble his students before the day began; and instead of urging them to great spiritual heights, instead of challenging them to pursue spiritual disciplines on a path of extraordinary enlightenment, he offered them this one simple piece of advice:

Today, work at being ordinary.
Now go put on your robes, eat your food and pass the time.

It seems to me that this may be some good advice for us all to heed.

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