Nothing Special: The Joy of Being Ordinary

Geri Larkin tells us that when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up for us. Joy happens. We feel free.

Geri Larkin6 July 2014

No one wants to be just another person in a world of seven billion people. Geri Larkin shares what happened when she embraced being ordinary.

I shop for groceries early, typically before 8:30 in the morning. At that time of the day, it’s easy to do a week’s shopping in less than half an hour since I pretty much have the entire store to myself. At the checkout, the same cashier invariably greets me with, “How is your day going?” My response is always some variation of, “It’s early yet, but so far so good.” Sometimes we laugh a little together before I head off into the rest of the morning. The last time I went shopping, though, I remembered—mid-parking lot—that I’d forgotten Bodhi’s dog food. I went back into the store and found it. Then when I got to the cashier, she looked at me and asked how my day was going. She didn’t remember me even though I see her every week and had seen her just five minutes before.

I’ve become invisible.

It’s not that I haven’t been warned that this would happen. Doris Lessing, for one, has written about how, as we age, we lose the attributes that may have kept us visible—our thick curly hair, maybe, or a great body, smoldering eyes, or easy strength. We become smaller, and if we allow ourselves, more gray. We blend in with backgrounds. At some point, most of us also lose any straightforward occupational identity that others can use to categorize us. For example, whenever I meet a new person, one of their first questions is, “What do you do?” These days my answer can change by the minute. Sometimes I garden. Other times I watch various small children. Or clean. Or write. Or study sutras. The list is long.

In Western society, pressure to be other-than-ordinary is constant. We want to be recognized as special.

Early in the 1980s, I was in a long cross-country ski race in northern Michigan. Signing up, I didn’t bother to mention that I had no idea how to cross-country ski. I figured I’d just shuffle my way through the race pretending that my skis were simply elongated clown shoes. This method worked until the first hill, and I learned that the downside of shuffling was that I had to sidestep up each hill, and there were lots of them. To say I was slow doesn’t even begin to describe it.

When I finally made it past the finish line, I was at least an hour behind the second slowest racer. It was dark. The only person left in the lodge was the groundskeeper, who was earning some serious overtime waiting for my arrival. And the other thing waiting for me? A trophy that was over three feet tall for coming in first in my age group.

I thought it was pretty funny.

When I took the trophy to work the next day, it was like I had won the Winter Olympics. Even though I told my story honestly, the trophy was prominently displayed and I was called “the company jock” forevermore. Perks were included with this title, including free tickets to sports events. It didn’t matter that I didn’t deserve any of it. The trophy proved that I was extraordinary.

In transitioning to today’s life of ordinariness, I’ve been helped by invaluable guides. Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) is a favorite. Zen Master Linji, who lived in China in the ninth century, is best known for his skillful use of shouts and whacks and his penchant for referring to the Buddha as a dried shit stick. What is less known is his skillful insistence on the need to live as ordinary beings. As he put it, “There is no need for hard work. The principles are: not to try to be anyone special, and to have nothing to do.” He said, “Just put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time.”

When I was first introduced to this component of Linji’s teaching some years back, it was confusing. Be ordinary? Don’t plan? Just eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired? It sounded boringly simple. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Being ordinary means giving up any hope that we might be the center of any universe. It means we don’t have any coattails for friends and family to grasp, no bragging rights to offer up, no news for Facebook.

And yet.

It turns out that, when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up for us. We see our own conditioned habits and understand how they can be untangled with a minimum of harm done to those around us. We get to watch for what each day is asking of us; maybe it’s doing some volunteer work or heading off to a job or staying in bed all day to give a cold a chance to move on. We notice more—a whole world of miracles that unfolds and unfolds without end. Anxiety lessens. Gratitude expands. Our intuition may skyrocket (and often does) and our creativity grows. We become available. We learn to rely completely on our direct experience, not on our thinking and reasoning.

It gets better. Joy happens. We feel free. We are no longer shaken up—by anything—finally realizing, if we are lucky, that being ordinary is just the ticket to a wonderful life.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of the Shambhala Sun.

Geri Larkin

Geri Larkin

Geri Larkin gave up a successful career as a management consultant to become a Buddhist teacher. A practicing Buddhist since 1988, she completed seminary and was ordained in 1995. She is the founder and former head teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, a Zen meditation center in the heart of inner-city Detroit. She is the author of many books including Stumbling Toward Enlightenment, Building a Business the Buddhist Way,Tap Dancing in Zen, First You Shave Your Head, and The Still Point Dhammapada. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.