Monday, February 22, 2016

Work at Being Ordinary

"An Ordinary Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

We were away from the Desert Retreat House all last week visiting our kids and our little baby grandson back East. Our time away was filled with tenderness and joy as we played with the baby for hours on end, spent a whole lot of quality time with our son and daughter-in-law, and took in the sights and sound of a bustling, big city.  It was an extraordinary time.

This morning when I woke up I realized how quiet it is now that I am back home in the desert. There were no sounds of a cute baby, no new adventures in new places. I was back into my ordinary everyday routine.

As usual, this morning I went outside to watch the desert sun rise over the eastern mountains and it struck me that although I had witnessed a sunrise like this hundreds and hundreds of times before, today I was experiencing it for the first time again. It affirmed my belief that whenever I pay attention to my ordinary life, nothing is ever ordinary. My everyday life is always full of surprises continuously being revealed to me in every present moment.

I am reminded of a little Zen wisdom story about a master who would assemble his students every morning in order to encourage and motivate them before beginning the activities of the day. One might expect that the master would give a little “pep talk” urging his students to use the day in pursuit of great spiritual heights; instead he would begin each day by offering his students this simple and “rather odd” piece of wisdom:

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

The first time I ever read this story (a few years ago) this spiritual advice sounded a bit strange and even somewhat disconcerting to me. It seemed as if the master was promoting laziness or even apathy among his students; but I have since come to understand that the master was extolling the virtue of ordinariness. He was telling his students that it is in the ordinary routine of everyday life that they would find themselves on a road to enlightenment - the ordinary path is the path to great spiritual heights.

Not long ago I came across some very similar advice in one of my books of Buddhist essays. The article also recommended the importance of practicing a discipline of ordinariness on the spiritual path:

Being ordinary means giving up any hope that we might be
the center of any universe.
It means we don’t have any 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 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.
We notice more- a whole world of miracles unfolds without end.
Anxiety lessens, gratitude expands, creativity grows, joy happens.
We become available.

On this ordinary Monday, plenty of people are off to work or school or off to the market or perhaps off to the gym, off to accomplish the everyday tasks of their routine lives. This sure doesn’t sound very exciting, but in fact if we just pay attention to the seemingly uneventful moments in life and work at being ordinary, a whole world of miracles unfolds without end.

I miss the delightful sounds of our cute baby boy, I miss the new adventures of a time away and a family visit, but I also welcome my everyday routine. I am paying close attention to what today is telling me and asking of me.


  1. Beautiful post and words that are very close to my heart and my own experience. When we focus on the everyday ordinary things in our lives they become richer for it. The simple act of folding laundry, or watching the clothes flap as they dry on the washing line, or a chorus of birdsong as we walk to work. These are the miracles, and the ordinary moments that become extraordinary if we pay attention to them. Thank you for reminding me xxx