Ordinary Life (written 2015)
I've been thinking about “ordinary life”. We usually use this phrase to mean the humdrum and neutral quality of living. Sorting the socks, driving to work, taking a shower, eating a sandwich at our kitchen table, listening to the weather on the radio, walking the dog. The list is endless when we move beyond our own context to what might be considered “ordinary” by people in different places and times. Drawing water from a well, sleeping in doorways, dodging bullets. If ordinary means what we, as human beings, come to expect in our days, what fills most of the hours, then its content is huge.
Of course, most of the time, I don't think a lot about ordinary life. What's ordinary for me goes by and my work is to be mindful, to pay attention. And to see when reactivity to ordinary things might lead me astray, using the interval of awareness to allow me to choose more skilful responses. When a sock goes missing as I sort the laundry, I see the irritation that itches briefly, before setting it aside and accepting the task of the hunt when it's convenient. When I'm driving and a truck passes spraying sludge on my windshield, I note the tiny flicker that could become anger, and choose to just turn on the wipers and wash fluid and move on. Taking a shower, I allow myself to relax and enjoy the steady and reliable warm and clean water and to notice gratitude, or to plant the seed of gratitude if it doesn't arise on its own. This is ordinary mindfulness for ordinary life.
Then there are the times that life doesn't seem so ordinary. There are extremes of good news or bad news. We win a trip of a lifetime. Or we lose a loved one. We tend to think of this as unusual, as lucky or unlucky maybe, as blessing or as curse. Yet, the truth is that every life holds these events we label as extremes. We know the times of perfect and unexpected joy. And we know the times of devastating and unanticipated tragedy. And so, my thoughts go, if this happens to all of us, in some measure, all the time, why don't we see this as ordinary too?
When life hands us these kinds of extremes, we may lose our equilibrium for awhile. We fly or we dive as the occasion seems to dictate. Yet, just like the missing sock or the spray of mud on the windshield, these are moments in our life when paying attention and using the interval of awareness can make all the difference. These, no less than walking the dog and reading the mail and going to the dentist, are ordinary life.
Ordinary life holds it all. Mindfulness may mean we find more enjoyment in the little things, but it also means we see the movement of the mind that wants to fret and complain, that wants to hold on and push away. It means we can choose other than to go with that flow. We can begin to see the flux and flow of life, the ups and the downs, to live in them and be with them even when they are not to our liking, not becoming bitter by the mistaken view that our lives are cursed, and not becoming caught in the endless restlessness of the adrenalin junky who needs peak experiences all the time. There is happiness here, riding the breath, knowing what is and opening to the vast possibility of ordinary life.