Part of my heart has always been drawn to the Zen tradition. I think it is because Zen carries within its stories a sense that the little spark or burst of enlightenment can happen by incident, and by accident. By tripping on a stone, by getting all your belongings stolen, or by the instant and angry shout of “MU!” Don’t get me wrong, I believe in work and dedication, sthira and process, but it is also beautiful to think that breaking out of the ordinary mind can happen spontaneously and instantaneously like a serendipitous clumsy dance.
Perhaps I should capitalize a bit of that: “…it is also beautiful to think that breaking out of the Ordinary Mind can happen spontaneously and instantaneously…” Ordinary Mind, or what we might loosely call the “Self” or the “Ego” (in a western psychological context) is the day-to-day mind, and the stories it constantly weaves: Who am I, what do I do and what am I like? Of course we need ordinary mind in our daily lives…we need to buy groceries, we need to walk to the store to get them and we need to remember to get dressed before we leave so we don’t get cold (or arrested). Ordinary Mind is pragmatic, practical, necessary and useful. However, the shadow cast by ordinary mind is it has a tendency towards compression, divisiveness and isolation. It takes the great big world and cuts it up into categories to understand then squishes the pieces into little boxes: This is mine, this is not mine, I do this, I do not do that. And if your Ordinary Mind is like mine, it makes up a plethora of stories that keep me too busy to notice, as in, “notice anything at all beyond whatever story I am currently hooked on”; It is the artifice in front of the edifice.
Zen is not the only tradition that makes reference to the “ordinary” part of our minds. In the Yoga Sutras we might say that Patanjali refers to the “Ordinary Mind” by a different name: the Ahamkara (N.B. Yoga Sutra scholars, I am using broad brushstrokes here). This too is the “I” maker; the part of our psyche that designates what is I, ME and MINE, with both necessity and downfall. So what is the big deal with breaking the world up into “mine, not mine”, “this versus that” (or subject and object)? In short, it misses the yoga. It forgets that we are woven into all things: life and death, wind and water, stardust and the spaces and string theory in between.
Ordinary Mind isn’t just a “boring autopilot” or a “nuisance”; it has created some real problems for humanity (and fish and birds and forests and climate). Because when we fall into this pattern, we tend to make choices that benefit ourselves without concern or understanding of the outcome. So what does this look like in regular life? An Ordinary Mind buys the next iPhone just ‘cause it wants to. It disregards the (poorly paid) labor that made the phone (they are far away, anyway). It throws out the old phone without thinking about the lead and other toxic chemicals that will end up in the landfill (soaking through the soil and entering the water table). Then it complains that the new apps on it run too slowly. A trite example perhaps, but consider it a small piece of the greater challenge facing humanity since the adoption of industrial revolution values as the mainstream and status-quo.
Luckily, Ordinary Mind has a counterpoint; a foil, the broader vision of “Big Mind”. We’ll talk about “Big Mind” in Part Two of this blog.
Written by John Veiga
John Veiga teaches yoga, makes furniture, practices Thai Massage and walks his dogs. Please join John for the Yoga Experiments, four workshops on interconnection Thursday evenings in June.