Learning to be Ordinary

Learn­ing to be Ordi­nary  —  being ordi­nary is not bor­ing. It’s using our selves ful­ly, with­out com­par­i­son to oth­ers. It’s being present and con­tent, with­out comparison. 

This topic is described in my book, Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall. You can read more about it here

Want to learn more about liv­ing a full and mean­ing­ful life?

Want to have the best rela­tion­ship ever?

Check out my books

So, have you ever heard of “Place­hold­er The­o­ry”? As I lis­ten as friends try to come up with the mean­ing of their lives, I often hear some ver­sion of it.

In Zen, another way of looking at “things” happens as we explore the interplay of “light / darkness.” For example, in The Blue Cliff Record, we read, 

Yun Men impart­ed some words say­ing, “Every­one has a light; when you look at it, you don’t see it and it’s dark and dim. What is every­body’s light?”
He him­self answered on their behalf, “The kitchen pantry and the main gate.” He also said, “A good thing isn’t as good as nothing.”

~~~~Yun Men

The uni­ver­sal prob­lem is this: there are two simul­ta­ne­ous real­i­ties (you can call them light and dark, as above.) In one real­i­ty I exist (and things exist) as unique and spe­cial. In the oth­er real­i­ty, every­thing just “is.”

The oth­er day, a friend told me about a book she’s read­ing, and the book’s premise is that we design our lives, point by point, before we’re born. We even cre­ate “choice points,” where the road forks depend­ing on what we do.

“Can we send him back?”
“No, I think we’re stuck with him…”

Apparently, all of this starts when we choose our parents. Yeah.… Right…

Real­ly? But… what if my par­ents chose me, when they were design­ing their life?” Or, what if “I” got cho­sen by more than one set of par­ents? Did they fight it out? And if I chose my par­ents, did they get to say no, or were they stuck with me?

I suspect they were stuck with me, because the whole system depends on “me” being the “real, important person,” while everyone else on the planet has somehow agreed to be a bit player in my drama.

And, of course, this means that my friend is also a bit play­er in my life. And my friend has kids, so doesn’t that mean she was cho­sen to play a role in their lives, and there­fore is a bit play­er there, too?

Another version of this weirdness is called The Placeholder Theory

The Placeholder Theory comes from parking spaces, and is something I’ve heard a million variations of  —  sometimes in jest, but usually semi-seriously.

I’ll give you a com­mon illus­tra­tion, and then we’ll spend a lit­tle time explor­ing the theory’s uses and abuses.

Here’s the the­o­ry: some peo­ple serve as place­hold­ers for others.

There is the pri­ma­ry per­son, (I chose my par­ents!”) and the bit play­ers, who pro­vide expe­ri­ences the pri­ma­ry per­son needs in order to learn.

I’ll just stand here ’til you’re ready to take my place…

Here, final­ly!, is an exam­ple: Emma Enti­tle­ment is late for a meet­ing. So she puts out “a vibe,” (prayer, inten­tion, what­ev­er) and as she approach­es her des­ti­na­tion, some­one (the place­hold­er) backs out of a park­ing space right in front of her destination.

I’ve heard this sto­ry (and specif­i­cal­ly the park­ing spot ver­sion) from many people.

What I’ve nev­er heard is some­one “own­ing” the place­hold­er role: “Yeah, I was going to leave the park­ing lot, and then I got this vibe that I should wait a bit. When I did pull out of the park­ing space, I looked in the rear view mir­ror, and the guy who took the spot  —  boy was he look­ing pleased! I’m so glad I could be his place­hold­er, even if it meant I was late for work!!”

In other words, most folk resist the idea that they are in the placeholder role for others.

I call this the arrogance of the quasi-wise.

We who profess to “get it” are often caught in our delusions.

And one of the biggest delu­sions is the idea that “get­ting it” means we are spe­cial. That we are here to learn, and oth­ers are here to sup­port our learn­ing. That our role is to “make a dif­fer­ence” that oth­ers will notice and admire.

We really believe that we have been working hard to get here (wherever “here” is”) and we rebel at the notion that our role is placeholder for someone who “gets” more than we do.

Here’s the prob­lem: If I think that oth­ers are place­hold­ers for me, and you think oth­ers are place­hold­ers for you, then we all need to look in the rear view mir­ror the next time we exit a park­ing slot, just to catch a glimpse of who we are place-hold­ing for!

Because you can’t have one without the other. It has to work both ways.

This is the point of the Blue Cliff Record I men­tioned above. Light, in this case, is sim­i­lar to “get­ting it.” The ques­tion is, what are you hooked on?”

What I mean is, if you think you “get it,” or are “get­ting it,” you are hooked on the idea of how spe­cial you are. “See!!! I get it!!! I’ve done the work!!! I see the light!!!”

Except, en-light-enment (Learn­ing to be Ordi­nary) is not spe­cial. It’s right here, right now, and it is all about sim­ple pres­ence. As soon as you think it, or you, is spe­cial, the light goes poof, and you’re lost.

The light is the kitchen and the gate. It’s every­thing and every­one (even Trump! Yikes!) As soon as I have an opin­ion about it, the light goes poof. Thus, “A good thing isn’t as good as nothing.”

If I cre­ate an enlight­en­ment scale and place myself on it, there are always going to be peo­ple “fur­ther along.” So long as I’m look­ing “down” on oth­ers, I can feel “spe­cial.” But as soon as I look “up  —  ” Yikes!

The way out is Learning to be Ordinary  —  the ordinariness of simple presence and being.

Learn­ing to be Ordi­nary is “just get­ting on with it.” Doing what I do because that is what I do. Learn­ing what I learn because that’s the les­son I choose. It’s under­stand­ing that far from being an up / down sys­tem, life is a bal­anced ecology.

I depend on you, you depend on me, and actu­al­ly, we are, at our core, the same entity.

We’re all in this together, and “special,” “secret learnings and paths,” placeholders  —  it’s all a game to futz with the reality that we are here to get over ourselves, and to get on with what we choose to focus on.

Ram Dass used to say that his process was, “nobody spe­cial train­ing.” And then he’d talk about get­ting caught in his ego, and using his “guru sta­tus” to get all kinds of spe­cial favours. (“Want to come up to my room and see my holy pictures?”)

He told these sto­ries with a rue­ful smile, as get­ting caught in this game is a part of the human con­di­tion. The real game is to wake up enough to notice the gme you are play­ing, and then… to choose anoth­er way. Because “A good thing isn’t as good as nothing.”

I wrote about my own games and eva­sions in my book, This End­less Moment, in the chap­ter on Decon­struc­tion. Being “The Min­is­ter!” got me all kinds of perks, until I couldn’t sus­tain the game.

Learning to be Ordinary equals “Having a sole focus on presence during the walk of life.”

The real rea­son ther­a­py (any ther­a­py) works (when it works) is that the ther­a­pist and the client are ful­ly present with each oth­er. It is much more so the pres­ence as opposed to the tech­nique. In pres­ence, we can drop our sto­ries and eva­sions, work on what hurts, and let go of specialness.

If I am present and focussed, then there are no ups and downs, no bet­ter or worse, no right or wrong, no clean and dirty. There are no place­hold­ers, because there is no dif­fer­ence between me and not me. It is as if the stuff of the uni­verse is every­where, and appears in dif­fer­ent, unique forms, but is always what it is at its essence.

Sounds pretty mystical, right?

Nonetheless, it is the nature of the universe, down to its core. Light and dark, dancing. 

There is no real sat­is­fac­tion from think­ing, “I am bet­ter than ‘Joe’ and worse than ‘Sal­ly.’ ” Oue egos des­per­ate­ly want us to play that game, and much of life is wast­ed on com­par­isons, but to use a con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence, “In a fire-storm, every­one is equal.”

Nature is there to remind us that the cos­mos real­ly does not play favourites. We live in an essen­tial­ly neu­tral uni­verse. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, all are born and die alone.

We are on the walk until we aren’t. The quan­ti­ty of the days of our lives is total­ly out of our hands. Ah, but the “qual­i­ty”  —  that’s anoth­er story.

Yet, because each of us has to con­tin­u­al­ly deal with our sense of spe­cial­ness (enti­tle­ment, the ego voice scream­ing in our heads, what­ev­er) we get caught in iner­tia  —  some vari­ant of either help­less­ness, or stomp­ing our feet and say­ing “It’s not fair,” or look­ing for res­cue  —  are common.

When­ev­er I find myself in that place, I remind myself of a Zen story.

A man goes up the moun­tain, look­ing for the Mas­ter. After 6 months of look­ing he’s about to give up. He sees an old man com­ing down the hill, car­ry­ing a bun­dle of fire­wood on his back. He asks the old man if he is the Master.

The old man nods.

The seek­er says, “What is Enlightenment?”

The old man drops the wood and says “Ahhh!”

The seek­er is instant­ly enlightened.

Then he asks, “What comes after Enlightenment?”

The old Mas­ter bends, picks up the wood bun­dle, and con­tin­ues down the hill.

This sto­ry is expand­ed upon in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall

What comes next? Liv­ing. Until we aren’t.

Learn­ing. Grow­ing. Understanding.

It’s enough.

Scroll to Top