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Excerpted from

Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path


At any moment, whatever we are experiencing, only one of two things is ever happening: either we are being with what is, or else we are resisting what is. Being with what is means letting ourselves have and feel our experience, just as it is right now. When we choose to be actively present with what is, we radiate a powerful energy that is most compelling. This is where genuine creativity, health, and communication, as well as spiritual power, arise from.

Yet oddly enough, we rarely let ourselves simply have our experience. We are usually resisting it instead-trying to manipulate it and make it something other than it is. As children, we first learned to resist our experience as a way of coping with what seemed like overwhelming influences in the world around us. Because we were so open and sensitive to begin with, we learned to shut down and turn away from what we were feeling, as a way to avoid feeling pain. Yet when we contract ourselves against the painful aspects of our experience, we actually stop being.

As a verb, the word be-ing means actively coming-into presence, energetically connecting and engaging with what is, here and now. When we habitually contract against an area of our experience, such as anger, it's as though we create a hole or dead spot in our being. Then when anger arises-in ourselves or in others-we go dead and become somewhat dysfunctional in this area. And the more dead spots we have in our being, the less freely and flexibly we respond to life's challenges and opportunities.

Whenever we resist what is, we become tense and contracted; we're not much fun to be around. In fact, even we don't enjoy being around ourselves. No wonder we check out and wander off into distractions-seeking entertainment, driving ourselves to achieve, resorting to drugs and alcohol, desperately striving to be some other way than we are, living in fantasies of future happiness. All these forms of distraction are ways of trying to fill up the void that is left when we don't let ourselves be.

So the first step on any path of personal or spiritual development is to become aware of how we contract and turn away from our experience. Spiritual practice involves both becoming aware of this resistance and discovering that it is all right to open ourselves to life, that we can handle it, and that we will grow and expand by doing so.

To bring spiritual practice into daily life we can only start with where we are. The first step in cultivating a more open, wakeful presence in our lives involves settling down, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in the opening chapter. Once we settle down, the sun of our awareness can begin to shine forth. The first thing it illumines is the river of our perceptions, constantly flowing and changing. To be mindful does not mean stopping this river of thoughts and feelings, but rather bringing them into the light of consciousness. When we do this, we start to settle down, not because we necessarily feel tranquil, but because we are not resisting what is happening. Then whatever we do-whether it is washing the dishes, drinking tea, or confronting problems in our work or relationships-becomes more interesting, a teaching, a meditation in itself. The sun of awareness is what can bring out all the rich and varied colors of our daily life.

One way that our culture subtly encourages us to resist our experience is by rewarding those activities that are glamorous and fascinating, while devaluing the simple, ordinary activities that make up much of daily life. (Basic but necessary tasks such as farming, cooking, or teaching usually receive the least financial reward and social recognition.) However, as psychologist Karlfried Graf von Diirckheim points out, daily repetitive tasks, such as driving the car, walking, or waiting in line at the grocery checkout, provide excellent opportunities for inner work and development.

When we try to escape from irritating situations, such as waiting in line, by reading a magazine or spacing out, we actually stop being. And the more we go unconscious in these situations, the more of our lives we spend in a state of deadness or non-being. On the other hand, when we regard everything that happens to us as part of our path, we can make use of even the most dull, repetitive activities as a form of spiritual practice. For instance, we might use waiting in line as an opportunity to pay attention, to ride the wild horse of our impatience, or to explore our resistance to this experience. Then it may serve to remind us of the challenge and humor of living in two worlds; here we are, a spark of the divine, standing in a supermarket line!

Chogyam Trungpa echoes this theme in the next chapter. He emphasizes that to bring spirituality into everyday life we must relate properly to the earth. In New Age circles these days, it is common to imagine that spirituality is an ascent above the ordinary to some "higher" plane of reality. Yet that approach does not help us cultivate respect for and attention to the concrete, ordinary details of our lives. If we rush through our meal, leave grease on the plates when we wash them, or don't respect another person's feelings, we are not relating properly to the earthly dimension of life. How we handle these concrete details reflects our state of mind, and therefore gives us immediate feedback about who we are, where we are in our development, and what obstacles stand in our way. What can help us relate to life's little details with greater clarity and respect is bringing the spacious, mirrorlike quality of our awareness into whatever we are doing at each moment. That is also how to bring together heaven and earth, the two sides of our nature.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests that we also join heaven and earth when we can simultaneously hold in our heart life's pain and sadness along with its power and joy, without having a bias toward one side or the other. Though this is not easy to do, it does open us to life's vastness and depth. The music or art that affects us most deeply is never just happy or sad, but always combines these two qualities. Like art, ritual is a conscious act that points beyond itself to the larger rhythms of the whole. Pema's recounting of the poignant meeting between Queen Victoria and the Sioux Black Elk beautifully portrays how ritual, as a sacred language transcending our limited conceptual or cultural frameworks, brings the two sides of our existence together. In this sense, relating to ordinary activities-waking up in the morning, cooking, sweeping the floor-as ritual helps us bring a deeper quality of awareness into everyday life.

If awareness is like the sun, then attention, or focused awareness, is like a flame that can burn through our egocentric confusion, as the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck points out. But when our attention is scattered and distracted, this is like burning soft coal, which scatters soot all around. We keep making messes out of situations, and having to go back and clean up these messes. Being mindful, on the other hand, is like burning hard coal. When we attend to the details of each situation, our actions leave no messy, sticky residues. Hard as this may be to grasp, the Buddha, or awakened mind in each person, is whatever we are experiencing in the moment-the wind in the trees, the traffic on the freeway, the confusion we are feeling-if we but surrender to it. Surrendering to it means experiencing it fully, giving it our full attention, without struggling against it or trying to make it something other than it is. In opening to what is, without strategies or agendas, we touch what cannot be grasped-a moment of nowness, sharp and thin as a razor's edge. And walking on this razor's edge cuts through the struggle between self and other that separates us from a more immediate presence to life.

Tags: Religion and Spirituality