My friend and Zen teacher, John Tarrant, taught me a koan about enlightenment and every day life. It goes like this:
Student: What is enlightenment?
Teacher: Ordinary mind
I think about this a lot … enlightenment and ordinary life. For 37 years my life was focused on the one thing that seemed ordinary (and necessary) at the time – making enough money to pull my family out of poverty. As a child, I watched my mom, a single parent, work three jobs while raising my sister and me, and I was determined to help. I went from selling gum on the schoolyard to selling flowers on the street corner to an endless series of deals, ideas, and businesses, desperately seeking the feeling of peace and safety I believed would come with money and power. But when I arrived at the top of the entrepreneurial mountain to claim my prize, I found more pain in the form of my second divorce, and the sudden death of my mom from cancer. And as I held her in my arms, none of the trophies of my business success seemed to matter anymore.
So I turned my mind toward a new means of finding peace and a new focus — spiritual awareness. I figured since I’d climbed the figurative mountain of business success and found heartache, I’d go to China and climb an actual mountain, the path up Wuru Peak from the Shaolin Temple to Bodhidharma’s cave, looking for enlightenment. I thought if I tuned into my soul and checked out of the external world I’d find what I was craving. After all, that’s what all the movies and books I’d read said. What I found in actuality was a deeper truth — that the more mountains I climbed and the more I ran from where I was, the farther I found myself from the peace I sought.
My experiences taught me that numbing myself on the meditation cushion or yoga mat was no different than numbing myself in the executive chair. There wasn’t a good place or a bad place — the busy obsessions of my mind showed up no matter where I was standing. It turned out that dreaming of enlightenment and dreaming of million dollar ideas were two sides of the same coin of never being present. It didn’t really matter where I was, it was about making where I was matter … by actually being there. So I did as I had done my entire life in business … I trusted my intuition, took a calculated risk, and let go of the edge of the pool. I pried my fingers one by one from the thrill of the deal and the intoxication of enlightenment. I let go and breathed into “ordinary mind.”
As I learn to surrender into life as it is versus how I think it should be, I’ve begun to see my every day life and my spiritual practice as one in the same. I no longer identify myself as two opposing figures – businessman and spiritual student; rather, two parts of a whole surrendered to life while fully engaged in it. The lessons I’ve learned in business apply to spirituality and the spiritual truths apply to business … they are all part of my version of ordinary life.
So back to the koan:
Student: What is enlightenment?
Teacher: Ordinary mind.
What is ordinary mind? It’s how you are with whatever is going on, wherever you are right now. It’s your thoughts as you care for your children. It’s the emotional ups and downs while you work at your job. It’s the peace and the wanderings of your brain at your weekly yoga class. It’s even the experience of reading this article. It’s being present to the moments as they unfold in life … and accepting yourself as you show up in those moments.
For me the koan also has another aspect to it … an invitation from the teacher to the student in us all to relax into our journey, to not search so hard and, perhaps even more compelling, to look within every day, ordinary life for the enlightenment we are seeking.
My journey has taught me that spirituality isn’t where I go to hide from the pressures of life, it’s where I am when I’m fully aware and engaged in the entirety of my life. This week I invite you to take some deep breaths as you go about your life and to be open to the possibility that peace can be found just as easily at your desk or the laundry mat as it can in a cave or a temple … and that by opening our hearts and embracing ordinary mind, we can experience extraordinary lives.
Big hugs of love,
Spirituality isn’t where we go to hide from life, it’s where we are when we’re fully engaged in the entirety of life.