Being Ordinary

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:
For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

Ordinary-FeatureThe sons of Zhang and Li.  At the time and place this poem was written, those last names were like Smith and Jones.  Really common. An ordinary person.

I have the pleasure of teaching at two different yoga studios that could be given the title of the “Cheers of yoga studios” – all the students know each others’ names.  As you walk up the stairs to the second floor studios – it can sound as if you’re walking into a café, as the rooms are often filled with the sound of laughter and chatter as yoga friends connect and share life before class starts.

This level of community is fairly unique in New York City. And also, it’s so intrinsic to the nature of each studio – it’s ordinary.  Like Zhang and Li.  Most of the time neither the students, nor myself, find it remarkable at all.

Going to other studios as a student serves a dual purpose – to realize how special each studio is, hopefully inspiring everyone to go deeper in the ways they participate in and build community.  And it also provides the experience of being anonymous – of being ordinary – just another student.

beauty_ordinary_things-2It can feel like being undercover, or playing hooky. Just being ordinary can be exhilarating. It gives us a chance to show up without our stories a little bit more easily. Without the long list of injured/ailing body parts, maybe it allows us to show up healthy today. Without the shared personal history, maybe it allows us to break free of the shell of habitual interacting that has slowly crusted around us. Without the history of poses achieved or failed, maybe it allows us to try something new or take childs pose or not be the one to demonstrate.  It allows us to show up with space. Being ordinary, not being someone special, can be freeing.

Perhaps you practice at a “Cheers studio”, perhaps you have no idea what that would be like.  You can still work with Zhang and Li in your next class:

First, acknowledge the stories you wind up practicing with at that studio – about your body, about your health, about your personal life, about your professional life, about your relationship with the people in the room.

Second, after seeing them, drop them. Shake them off, let them drop.

Third, if one gets stuck, say to yourself “neti neti”, not this not this. Because if you were no longer any of those things, you would still be you. So be that you now. Be beyond “you”ness.

Shunryu Suzuki describes life in community at the monastery Eiheiji from the perspectives of within and without it:

“That is all. And when we were practicing, we did not feel anything special.

We did not feel even that we were leading a monastic life. For us, the monastic life was the usual life, and people who came from city were unusual people. When we saw them we felt, “Oh, some unusual people have come!”

But once I had left Eiheiji and been far away for some time, coming back was different. I heard the various sounds of practice- the bells and the monks reciting the sutra- and I had a deep feeling. There were tears flowing out of my eyes, nose, and mouth! It is the people who are outside the monastery who feel its atmosphere. Those who are practicing usually do not feel anything. I think this is true for everything. When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all that they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual. That is, I think, the way everything is.”

So perhaps our work, in the end, is a balance: between appreciating how special our ordinary is, and making time to be truly ordinary.  Where, in your ordinary daily life, is there something quite special actually going on? There is an Oscar Wilde quote: “Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”  Chances are, among your loved ones, you are being treated quite extraordinarily, it’s just so intrinsic we miss it.

Where could you inject a truly ordinary experience into your life? Or take stock of one that might already be occurring, like being on a business trip? How could you be a bit anonymous and step into the freeing space of being Zhang or Li?

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