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

A gentle half smile

Light up your face with gladness

Hide every trace of sadness

Although a tear may be ever so near.

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile what’s the use in crying?

You’ll find that life is still worth-while

If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realised human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’ 🙂 when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense. It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them. It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

A warm and friendly voice

Imagine spending a week with someone who only ever criticises you. You’ve achieved something great at work, and the best they can manage is a miserly, ‘yes, well okay, that wasn’t too bad, BUT…’ This person specialises in ‘buts’ with capital letters, finds it very difficult to be happy for you, and looks slightly anxious if you insist on being joyful for a few moments. It’s as if this person knows more about the world than you, understands that the world is really a very dangerous and unpredictable place, and so is trying his or her best to keep you on your toes, prevent you from being complacent, and ensure you will always strive a little harder than you did the day before.

If this were a person in the real world we’d probably soon tire of them, but the fact is many of us carry such a person around in our heads, constantly criticising, analysing and finding inadequate pretty much everything we do. When we learn mindfulness, we become more self-aware, and we can use this self-awareness to catch ourselves when we are caught in certain thought-patterns, such as negativity or anxiety or rumination. This increased self-awareness is valuable, but it will only really improve our lives if we can manage to talk to ourselves in a warm and friendly tone of voice. Otherwise, our self-awareness might only add extra grist to the mill of self-criticism which is perhaps already out of control.

We spend a lot of time in our own company. And most of us give some thought to how we interact with others – hopefully we are friendly, polite, and considerate to our friends and colleagues most of the time. We all know how wonderful it is to be with someone whose voice is warm, calm, and resonant. Yet what is the tone of voice we use to communicate with ourselves in our own head?

People often comment how learning mindfulness is helping them to be more kind towards themselves. There is a place for self-reflection, self-evaluation, and also self-criticism. Yet when we do find ourselves being self-critical we can ask – is the criticism constructive? Is it measured? And is it friendly?

Weekly practice idea:

Listen to the tone of voice you use towards yourself, especially in situations when you’re feeling under pressure or aren’t performing as well as you’d like. How would you describe your tone of voice then?

Anja Tanhane

Cultivating enthusiasm

‘In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week, we looked at enthusiasm, and some of the joys and challenges it can bring to our lives. Enthusiasm which isn’t grounded in reality is like a tree with shallow roots which is blown over by the first gust of wind. It’s relatively easy to kick-start a burst of enthusiasm, but even easier to deflate it again. You may know a person who, every time you meet them, breathlessly extols the latest self-help book or diet or guru or TV preacher. They’ve finally found ‘it’ – the one thing which will turn their lives around and set them on the path to happiness and fulfillment. Except that next time you see them, they’re preoccupied with a completely new ‘it’, the formerly wonderful ‘it’ quite forgotten.

It’s much more difficult to stay with something long-term – to remain committed to a teacher or a craft or a sport or religion through the inevitable ups and downs and the tedious, repetitive parts – and still retain some of that enthusiasm which probably helped you to get involved in the first place.

One of the greatest barriers to enthusiasm might also be that it makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves on the line when we show enthusiasm – we’re saying, in effect, this is precious to me, this is something I feel passionate about. It’s so easy to deflate someone’s enthusiasm – just a little pinprick, and the bright red balloon becomes a sad scrap of rubber. It might seem much easier to be cool, cynical, to not show the world what we care about.

Mindfulness meditation can help us with all three of these factors. It can provide a grounded counter-balance to over-excitement, to be more realistic about our present reality – to neither overplay nor underplay our expectations. Mindfulness can help us develop beginner’s mind, an appreciation of what is happening right now, which is useful when we want to stay with something long term without getting bored by it. Mindfulness also helps us become more comfortable with our vulnerability, to be honest about those things we care about, but perhaps to also choose more wisely who we share our enthusiasm with. Not everyone wants to hear all the ins and outs of the novel you’ve been working on for the past ten years, but sharing it with a person who does, and who actually, genuinely, wants to read the latest version of Chapter 1 – that is priceless!


Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down what you feel enthusiastic about. If little comes to mind, perhaps remember some things you enjoyed doing as a child. Pick one of these and find a way of including it in your week, even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Anja Tanhane