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Ordinary Life: A Source of Reflection

July 25, 2011

Could we come out of our fog

into the blazing light and delight

of being here at all?

Could we be awestruck by the love

that made us,

by the sheer radiance offered us

in the gift of being?

~ Gunilla Norris, Simple Ways

We spend much of our lives in anticipation of the extraordinary, yearning for something that will alter our circumstances and result in greater happiness, wealth, fame or success.  What we expected our life to be may be very different from the existence we find ourselves struggling to accept from day to day.  We may wonder what happened:  Did my true life direction get mysteriously derailed at some point?  Can I really claim the  current state of affairs as “my life”?  What should I be doing – what can I do? – to transform my life to make it correspond more faithfully to my deepest aspirations?

     Curiously enough, while the ordinariness of everyday life is something from which we often seek escape and relief, spirituality depends on it.  Prayer and spiritual practice in general thrive on a habitus, a way of life and being in the world that is regular, evenly apportioned and unexceptional.  Great mystics and spiritual teachers – St. Teresa of Avila, to name one – noticed, for example, that their spiritual life and prayer suffered when they were for too long taken out of their ordinary circumstances.  Special events and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences may be a boon to our spiritual life in the short term.   But the highs do not and cannot last.  Inevitably, we must return to our everyday “common” life, where we are called to integrate and make fruitful each new experience, insight or learning we have received.  The ordinary is the setting of our ongoing formation and personal restoration.  In reality, the extraordinary resides within the ordinary.  The spirit reveals itself and is authentically encountered in what appears to be commonplace and unspectacular.  “Truly,” said Jacob, “God is in this place and I knew it not.”

     When we pray as we were taught – ”Give us this day our daily bread” – we do not seek  escape from or avoidance of our given reality but rather to live wholly and with integrity in the life that is presently ours.  We hope to receive what will be required of us to live up to the demands of this day.   The prayer is meant to activate trust that there is a Plentiful Source upon which we can rely, that it does not all depend on us, and that indeed there is “more” than meets the eye in everyday living.

     Meditation may go further still in opening our eyes to the mysterious source at the heart of reality.  When we meditate we begin a process of uniting our spirit with that source.  In the quiet of meditation, we “leave” the world on one level.  But in opening ourselves up to the beyond, we are deepening our relationship not to only to the transcendent source of all life.  The spiritual activity of relating that is the essence of meditation also restores us to our concrete life.  The spiritual unity we seek is therefore to be attained within the ordinary situations of life.  The following lines from the Upanishads testify to the power of meditation to effect this union:

May we harness body and mind to see

The Lord of Life who dwells in everyone....

May our senses through meditation be

Trained to serve the Lord of Life.

Hear, O children of immortal bliss,

You are born to be united with the Lord.

Ignite spiritual energy in the depths of

Meditation.  Bring your breathing and mind

Under control.  Drink deep of divine love,

And you will attain the unitive state.

     Prayer and meditation are the primary means of transforming ordinary human experience, of helping us to see the extraordinary within the ordinary.  Another important tool at our disposal is reflection.  Our mode of thinking affects our presence in the world.  Abstract, detached and unrelieved analytical thinking can distance us from lived experience.  We may become isolated in a world of introspective or problem-solving and calculative thinking.  The philosopher Martin Heidegger described the dangers of this style of thinking in his 1966 Memorial Address essay:

Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself.

Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking, not

thinking which contemplates the meaning which

reigns in everything that is.

     Heidegger believed, along with the great spiritual traditions of humanity, that we are in essence meditative beings.  This means that our thinking is capable of being more reflective and meditative.  Heidegger was advocating that alongside our ability to think abstractly, technically and calculatively that we also develop our innate capacity to give our thought to our experience of being alive and present.  He actually believed that this style of reflection was the more demanding and challenging.  He wrote:

It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate

on what is closest, upon that which concerns us, here

and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in

the present hour of history.

Meditative thinking is challenging.  It calls us to “bloom where we are planted”, to gaze on the ordinary life that is our life, and to flourish in our home ground.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.