An ordinary life

‘Ordinary mind is the way.’ Dogen

‘You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.’ Abraham Lincoln

There are certainly two very different philosophies of life at play in the above two statements. Having an ordinary mind doesn’t sound very appealing – after all, what’s the point of working hard, just to be ordinary? We’re unlikely to see many ads for a product which, if we buy it, promises to make us completely ordinary. Dogen was a famous Zen teacher who founded the Soto sect in Japan in the thirteenth century. This tradition is known for its long hours of sitting meditation, zazen, and its strict, rigorous training of the monks. All this discipline and sacrifice, simply to sit with an ordinary mind?

Yet the second statement also sounds exhausting to me. Do I really need to be capable of absolutely anything I put my mind to? Out of the more than six billion people in the world, do I really need to distinguish myself by being amazing and extraordinary? And not just once, but every day, my entire lifetime – all just by harnessing the power of my mind?

‘You’re living a very ordinary life’ is not usually regarded as a compliment, and yet, what is an ordinary life? It’s essentially the life we have. In fact, we are blessed if we’re able to live an ordinary life – if we’re not one of 60 million refugees, or fighting in a war, or caught up in a natural disaster. According to Dogen, an ordinary mind is all we need in order to live well. To have an ordinary, human mind is a tremendous gift. Who could ask for anything better?

Of course we want to feel special, unique, to at least a few people in the world. We don’t want to feel trapped in a dull rut, where every day seems like all you’re doing is trudging on a treadmill. We want to have a sense of spark in our lives, of vitality. Ordinary doesn’t have to be boring. Perhaps walking down the street you walk down every day, and seeing it with fresh eyes, with a sense of joy and gratitude, can help us to better appreciate the precious ordinary life we have.

As Blaise Pascal puts it so beautifully:

‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something in your life which you take for granted, but which you would miss if it were no longer there. For example, sometimes people who’ve had a stroke lose their sense of smell and taste. Slow down and allow yourself to appreciate this ordinary part of your life.

Anja Tanhane