By Nandini Murali
The spiritual path can be described as the journey from being nobody to becoming somebody and finally to being nobody again. Here, we look at the processes that govern this movement.
And while it takes courage to achieve greatness, it takes more courage to find fulfillment in being ordinary.
-Marilyn Thomsen Thomsen
The greatest truths are simplest. Profound insights lurk in everyday occurrences. To discover them we need not trek to mountaintops or explore caves, but just open our ways of seeing by being aware that in the ordinary lies the extraordinary. Like nectar in a flower or oil in the infinitesimal mustard.
The uncarved stone syndrome
I recently came across a simple stone bench in a manicured garden. It rested on bricks that functioned as its support. Its naturalness fascinated me, a stark contrast to the contrived perfection around it. Its utter simplicity and un-self-consciousness seemed intrinsic. Its essence permeated its entire being and the stone seemed aware and alive to the presence within it. The stone celebrated its ordinariness. Something stirred within me. In contrast, unlike the stone I camouflage myself through wearing myriad masks that distance me from my Essence and thereby from others too.
Paradoxically, as we move into a state of awareness and begin to peel away our lifetimes of masking, life becomes simpler and joyful. Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh writes about the wisdom of learning from ordinary everyday events and occurrences that have hidden messages for our souls – the P’u or the Principle of the Uncarved Block.
“The essence of the Principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoilt or lost when that simplicity is changed… From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as it may appear to others at times,” writes Hoff.
It is hardly surprising that among the characters in this delightful Taoist fable, it is the bear Pooh with his simplicity and harmonious way of living who epitomises the Taoist ideal of “going with the flow” in contrast to the intellectual Rabbit, Owl, or Eyeore (the donkey).
|Things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power.|
Seeking the extraordinary
Ordinary. The word stems from the Latin ordinarius that means regular, normal, customary, boring or commonplace. We humans have a natural affinity to latch on to literal meanings of words. Like we have done with ordinary. If you ask any person to respond to the word ordinary, chances are that most often, they will react negatively to the O word. Few words have been as stigmatised and thereby the target of our discriminatory attitudes and prejudices as ordinary.
Most of us seek the extraordinary – in either or both the material and spiritual paths. Indeed the mantra of modern living is to seek the extraordinary. As seekers on the spiritual path, a spiritual trap that we need to be aware of is this elusive yearning for that magical moment of transcendence; the acme of sublimity. Alas, that might never be! Yet we do so because “we run our story of differentiation – of dividing the world into the mundane and the spiritual – we put our lives on hold. We are in wait and in lust for some future extraordinary event, hoping it will overtake the ordinariness of everyday living.” (http://www.sentient.org).
I often wonder why advertisements use celebrities with their halo of “extraordinariness” to peddle “ordinary” products used by “ordinary” consumers! Why not “ordinary” people instead who would be more credible? Or ads that use the morphed version of the crown of Albert Einstein over a young child’s “ordinary” body to suggest an extraordinary strife towards excellence!
Certainly ordinary is the warp and weft that weaves together the fabric of what it means to be human. GK Chesterton spoke about the “ecstasy of being ordinary”. Chesterton derived an immense satisfaction at being able to connect with the essential nature of things. He delighted in the “sudden yellowness of dandelion”, the “wetness of water”, the “fierceness of fire”, or the “steeliness of steel”. According to theologian David Fagerberg, for Chesterton, “on every encounter, at every turn, with every person, there is cause for happiness…We have been given a world filled with a million means to beatitude.”
In other words, our ordinariness is the kernel that holds the promise of fulfilment and contentment. Yet, disconnected as we are from our intrinsic nature of being “perfect, whole, and complete,” we seek to fill our emptiness from the outside. For most of us, this quest to fill our emptiness comes from the striving to be somebody.
Fear of being ordinary
All our lives we fear being ordinary. The ordinary frightens us. Relying as we do on an identity based on external labels and achievements, we strive to stand out from others. Alas, trying to fulfil our need for being special through external means is like filling a bottomless pit. No matter how successful we may be in our professions or how much fame and glory we may attain, our sense of self will be shaky. After all, there is always someone who has achieved more than we have, and even fame and glory fade. In the meanwhile in our struggle to be better than the other, we alienate them, for there is nothing that rents the fabric of our interconnectedness and interdependence as feeling superior to others.
The pitfall of personality projection
The struggle to be special is an inner Kurukshetra. We see this struggle being played out in many spheres of our lives. As a meditator, I recall how the occasional mystical experience would often create in me a hankering to consciously try hard to replicate such visions in almost every meditation. Of course, the harder I tried, the more elusive these spontaneous moments of sublimity became. It took me several years to even glean that spirituality is not about transcendence but about living – in the here and now.
Most of us are conscious of our image. We consciously project a certain image with branding skills and professionalism that make top management school graduates look like amateurs! Ironically some of us may not be aware that we are doing so! It seems so much less painful to sail through life clouded by ignorance or avidya.
GL Sampoorna, psychologist and healer, talks about her tortuous journey from projecting a certain kind of personality to her current complete acceptance of being “myself”. According to her, as a young adult, she was obsessively self-conscious.
|‘Identification with the mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels,words, judgments and definitions that block all true relationships.|
I was conscious of how smart I looked, how intelligent I sounded. I was conscious of what I read, the music I heard, the knowledge and information I had. In short, I was conscious of everything. I was who I was only to create a specific image in people’s minds. My focus was to be different. I rode on the pride of having an air of mystery and being unique. It validated my existence.”
Ironically, Sampoorna in retrospect admits that this struggle was fraught with tension and in doing so she became a “stranger to myself” as the real she was submerged in an ocean of inauthenticity.
“While practising the ‘different’ image that I wanted to project I stopped being myself. Maintaining this image constantly and consistently was a strain. I had to think, see and hear through the minds and senses of people I intended to impress; often people I didn’t even relate with. Maintaining this image constantly and consistently was a strain. Our thinking and emotions would clash and I would abandon myself. My own genuine feelings would be pushed down, while I imagined that I was feeling the emotions I was ‘supposed’ to feel. All very trying and tiring. A life of drama within drama,” admits Sampoorna.
|When I am just myself, simply me, completely ordinary and unassuming, |
I am seen as different.
Poised as we are on the cusp of a new dawn of consciousness, it’s time we reinvented ordinariness and opened ourselves to the experience of being ordinary: a powerful means to reclaim and reconnect with our Original Nature. I recently gleaned a new perspective on Emily Dickinson’s immortal lines:
I am nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!
How dreary to be Somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name to a livelong day
To an admiring bog.
Dickinson’s lines reveal her complete acceptance of her ordinariness and her disconnect from the mainstream strife to be somebody.
Not surprisingly the spiritual quest is all about being comfortable with our ordinariness. On the face of it, it looks deceptively simple and perhaps even simplistic. What does being ordinary mean? To start with, ordinary is not to be equated with being mediocre. To do so would mean to fall into the trap of polarities, mutually exclusive opposites that only divide and fragment. This is the invisible trap of evaluating, judging, and labelling both ourselves and others: me v/s them mentality. The struggle then becomes one of the self v/s the other. In this case, however, we completely negate and destroy our authentic selves. The quest towards being ordinary is all about discovering the joy of being oneself.
The charisma of being ordinary
People who have embraced their ordinariness are loved for their unpretentiousness, openness and simplicity. Editor of this magazine, Suma Varughese, recalls meeting Eckhart Tolle in Mumbai in 2000. According to her Eckhart was “affable, simple and silent”. She adds, “So open and unresisting did he seem that I almost thought of him as Casper, the friendly ghost. A biff in the midriff would simply bring the fist out on the other side. He seemed so boneless and fluid. One person whose non-resistance has actually impacted on his physical self.”
Another memorable encounter for Suma (when editor of Society) was with the Dalai Lama. She still recalls his candour, humanity and his ability to level with people. The Dalai Lama shared with her his struggles with “lustful thoughts” as a young monk, which he overcame by constantly reminding himself that he was only a monk. He pointed out that he never ever told himself that he was the Dalai Lama. “Although the Dalai Lama’s secretary was distinctly uncomfortable that he was sharing these intimate details, the Dalai Lama was far too secure within himself to be less than totally open,” recalls Suma Varughese.
Another person who embraces his ordinariness is former president APJ Abdul Kalam whose simplicity and authenticity are endearing and refreshing. As a teenager, I was an avowed fan of the late Princess Diana. Today, when I look back at her life and times, I relate to her trials and tribulations as the struggle of a person who just wanted to be: ordinary. She paid a heavy personal price for her courageous struggle, and the People’s Princess is certainly an example of a person who dared to challenge the establishment and just wanted to experience the joy of being herself.
A friend recently told me about two doctors (both physicians) with divergent approaches to life and living. One was a successful doctor who worked round the clock with a hugely successful practice. The other was content with his work in a local medical college and instead of pursuing private practice at a feverish pace preferred to devote his evenings to his passion for violin. Mainstream culture would probably award the apparently ‘successful’ doctor with its stamp of approval. But in my opinion, the second doctor exemplifies a life of being rather than doing. Perhaps in his ordinariness lies his extraordinariness!
The achievement trap
“Greatness and ordinariness is conferred on a person and it does not rest with the person herself,” says M Shyleswari, founder, VedVyas Inner Space, an HR consulting firm in Chennai. According to Shyleswari, if asked to confer ‘greatness’ between Sachin Tendulkar and her maid who struggles with an unemployed husband and yet manages to educate her children and extraordinariness, she’d choose the latter!
According to Shyleswari, the fear of being ordinary stems from two reasons. The first one, which she considers ‘healthy’, relates to the need to become a better person in this lifetime, fleeting as it is.
“The second fear of being ordinary comes from a space of deficit. I want everyone to look up at me. The only way I know how is to inflate myself through some means. In most cases it is unconscious and is propelled by societal demands and values,” says Shyleswari.
According to Mark Antrobus, seeker and naturopath, the discontentment with life springs from “an overgrown sociological ego or analytical intellect. We urban educated human units are socially conditioned by extrinsic and intrinsic cultural imperatives that reward ‘winning’ and condemn ‘losing’ like the kindergarten prize for finger painting. We are taught competition rather than co-operation.”
A question of identity
The underpinning of the fear of ordinariness is the issue of personal identity: Who am I? What am I? We acquire our identity through the significant others in our lives. As a result of such a fragile sense of our self, we are never sure of ourselves.
“We are never told who we are but are told what we have to become. As we have created our identity—our self sense—on the basis of becoming and being somebody, when we fail to achieve our extraordinary goals, we experience a fear that is akin to the fear of death,” says K. Anandh, Tamil poet, short story writer, and therapist.
Most of us derive a false sense of identity through overidentification with the egoic self or the mind. Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, writes that disidentification with the mind is the most crucial step in the journey towards enlightenment or the experience of wholeness. “Identification with the mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments and definitions that block all true relationships. The word enlightenment conjures up some superhuman accomplishment and the ego likes to keep it that way, but it is simply your natural state of felt oneness with Being. It is the inability to feel this connectedness gives rise to the illusion of separateness from yourself and the world around you. You then perceive yourself, consciously or unconsciously, as an isolated fragment. Fear arises, and conflict within and without becomes the norm,” writes Tolle.
Identification with the spiritual Self
Once we realise that we are not the physical body, or our thoughts, emotions, or the mind, but a spiritual Self, then the awareness prods us out of our slumber.
Jasmine Bharathan, therapist and healer, talks of this as a vital step in the journey towards being ordinary. According to her, the false identification with the physical body, the emotional or intellectual self leads to fear and conflict culminating in competition.
“We all have an intrinsic need to feel acknowledged but we make a big issue by having that need met by competition. The spiritual essence is not of different quality in anyone, so if each identifies with the spirit within, then each of us is special and ordinary at the same time. If indeed I AM spirit, then I am neither ordinary nor its opposite. I just AM. We are an expression of Spirit. An orange tree doesn’t get confused and strive to be an apple tree. Why humans?” wonders Jasmine.
So where does one centre one’s identity? Certainly within and not exteriorising it as encouraged by societal mores and norms.
“Society measures us by what we ‘do’. Our true worth is based on what we are. As we step into our beingness rather than what we do and achieve, we can find what we are. May be we can call it non-extraordinariness! We sense the feeling of myself and where it arises; we have to get back into the body sense of our true identity rather than in the mind as we do now,” says K. Anandh.
We don’t carry burdens. We carry what works for us, feeds our false identity. Hence as we journey along the ordinary path we need to shed this excess baggage and travel light. This is the surrender or abdication of our disempowering beliefs and notions that weigh us down like the albatross around the Mariner’s neck. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev in Flowers on the Path talks about the necessity of this surrender of illusions.
“In spirituality when the word surrender is used, it means you surrender that which is false. It is just that the way you have existed up till now is just a falsehood. What you refer to yourself right now is simply a collection of identifications that you have taken in your life. Yet if you sincerely look at your essential Self, what have you got to surrender? You have nothing to surrender. Your essential Self is that which has always been and that which will always be. When you realize this fact, your spiritual work is done – you have already surrendered.”
Sampoorna talks about this letting go of her need to be somebody as a profound transformative experience with lasting repercussions in her life. When she surrendered her overwhelming need for perfection and order, it meant a deep degree of comfort with all aspects of herself.
“Today, I am getting free of drama. I am comfortable with everything about myself. I am I, simply because I am I. I am not an image projected for the world to see. While I was striving to be what I was not and be ‘different’, I was simply a stereotype of a different image. And today when I am just myself, simply me, completely ordinary and unassuming, I am seen as ‘different’. Yet I’m not even ‘trying’. I am just being who I am, being myself, without the defences. Today, I accept this recognition as a simple statement of fact. It adds no value to my self concept. My joy in just being me, myself, is all the recognition I need,” writes Sampoorna.
Facing your vulnerability
A central aspect of being ordinary is accepting and owning one’s vulnerability. For being comfortable with one’s vulnerability is to dispel false notions of strength. Instead it helps us be centred and experience the spectrum of human emotions.
Like water, which is both yielding and strong simultaneously, total invulnerability springs from total vulnerability. The absence of the “carapace of hardness” into which we retreat turtle like at our convenience enables us to come to terms with our humanness. When we accept our vulnerability completely nothing affects us because we allow it to flow through us completely, taking complete ownership and responsibility that fills us with incredible serenity.
Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now talks about the need for surrender for until then unconscious role playing constitutes most human interactions.
“In surrender, you no longer need ego defences and false masks. You become simple and real. ‘That’s dangerous,’ says the ego. ‘You’ll get hurt. You’ll become vulnerable.’ What the ego doesn’t know, of course, is that only through letting go of resistance, through becoming ‘vulnerable’ can you discover your true and essential invulnerability.”
As a seeker my current challenge has been one of also helping others see my vulnerability and not just my strengths. In a couple of learning spaces in which I participated in recently, I was stunned when people commented that I project “self-containment” and a “Zen like stillness” that makes me come across as not needing the support of others because I have all the resources I need. Of course, I realised that although this was certainly not my intention that was the unintended message that I was transmitting!
When I introspected, I discovered a similar pattern in my relationships. I was more comfortable in giving than in receiving. I realised if people were to connect with me at a deeper level, I would also need to expose my vulnerability instead of stonewalling it and presenting the “complete” façade as I currently do. It also means that I would have to be more forthright in expressing my needs and feelings. The emerging awareness of my subtle patterns has enabled me to shift my habitual patterns of behaviour from the darkness of the unconscious to the light of “conscious awareness.” As I begin to do so I “increase my bandwidth” to receive from a variety of people, not just those whom I feel comfortable with.
Ariana Khent and Annaliese Hagan in a Journey into a Fulfilling Life talk about the need to embrace all aspects of ourselves including our opposites and polarities in our journey towards wholeness. “Being human encompasses the entire spectrum of expression. When we embrace all aspects of ourselves, we transcend the limitations of fear and expand into our wholeness.”
Being ordinary means being human
When we are truly ordinary, we are inclusive in our approach to life and people. It underscores our interconnectedness and interdependence. We desire to level with people and thereby imbue our relationships with intimacy.
M Shyleswari recalls how she struggled to come to terms with the premature sudden death of her eight year old son in a freak accident. She, however, decided not to suffer but accept the pain and says that today she lives her life with awareness and gratitude. According to her ordinariness is a label within a set mind frame and we can go beyond it if we can see, accept and relate to each person.
“Does this make me extraordinary or great? Neither! I am just another parent who grieves for her son and another parent who strives to make meaning out of this life. This ordinariness gives me the freedom and liberty to live the way I choose to, to live it meaningfully and with fulfilment with all who I meet and relate to in my daily life. I find joy and contentment working with myself, witnessing my own trials and jubilations,” says Shyleswari.
To be ordinary one need not go beyond it but rather we need to go beyond the human tendency to brand and label people and events as ‘ordinary; or ‘extraordinary.’
“We need to accept people as people and not identify them with their power, recognition or success. The work we assume as ordinary could also be done in an extraordinary way. We often meet such people but fail to recognize the extraordinariness in them or the work they do. We have lost our capacity to relate with people as people. The human identity is lost or replaced by social markers such as a person’s job, status, success and power. We need to reclaim and own our lost humanity,” says Reji Chandra, a development professional.
We need to celebrate the divinity and ordinariness in ourselves and others. As we do this we create empowering and fulfilling relationships in which we can just Be. Our essential Self, the embodiment of wholeness and perfection is a storehouse of talents, capabilities, and potential. We are, however, unaware of this sacred Truth and we seek to complete ourselves from the outside. The spiritual quest is a journey from fear of being ordinary to complete acceptance of one’s ordinariness. To be great is to be truly ordinary!
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