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Being just this moment: ordinary or special? Barry Magid March 29th 2008

Everyday Zen... Nothing Special... Ordinary Mind... When we say these phrases in a "Zen" context we all nod and act like we understand and agree with what they signify. But if we're honest with ourselves, in our daily lives with want nothing to do with these kinds of words. "Everyday" we look forward to the weekend or vacation or retirement, always ahead to something else, something different, something better. Who really wants to think of themselves as "nobody special?" Who is really willing to say that their problems are merely "ordinary?"

In the traditional Zen literature, we read of the Absolute and the Relative - the Absolute being the experience of no separation between ourselves and this moment, just as it is; no separation and therefore no sense of a separate Self - just the oneness of the whole universe. The Relative refers to our ordinary world of distinctions: good and bad, self and other, special and ordinary. Much of traditional meditation practice was geared to pushing students to have some experience of the Absolute - which can feel like a very special experience indeed. But the way we're trying to practice here is to always stress the identity of the Absolute and the Relative, of the special and the ordinary, as paradoxical as that may seem.

One of the ways I've tried to integrate psychotherapy practice with sitting practice is to explore the origins of our sense of what's ordinary and what's special. For small children, it's the most ordinary thing in the world to feel special and to feel that their parents are special. And it's perfectly ordinary for parents to feel that way about their children. And at those moments, there really is no difference between ordinary and special. But no real life family seems able to sustain that sort of harmony all the time. Parents inevitable do things that disappoint and disillusion their children. And usually the parents sense of their child's specialness becomes contingent on the child being a certain way: well behaved, talented, obedient, whatever. As that original identity of specialness and ordinariness begins to unravel, or sometimes is suddenly and traumatically disrupted, the child is inevitably hurt and confused about what went wrong. Sometimes the child concludes they are responsible, that something about them is especially bad or damaged. Sometimes, disillusioned with their once idealized parents, they go up looking for new special people to love or admire, or to be loved by.

As we sit week after week, year after year, the distinction between the ordinary and the special begins to blur. Being just this moment...ordinary or special? An old sutra says that "the Absolute fits the Relative like a box and its lid," seamlessly so we can't quite see where one leaves off and the other begins. Or like someone here said about the sound of the little gong we ring, there is the sound of the vibration of the metal, and also the sound of the wood striking it, the two sounds barely discernable from one another, making one RING.

As we sit fully experiencing this moment, our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings, whatever this moment brings, what's special?, what's ordinary?

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