I don’t usually pick up the Shambhala Sun magazine that is sitting on the rack at the end of the checkout station at my local market, New Leaf. I am content to gaze at the bold color of the cover, the image of some Buddha from somewhere in the world, or the large smiling face of the Dalai Lama. Or maybe Pema Chodron, with her twinkling eyes and spiky shaved hair.
But yesterday, for some reason, I did pick it up. I placed it on the conveyor belt behind the avocado, ahi tuna, maple syrup, and coffee beans. The mustard colored background with cayenne pepper red lettering that said, “The Wisdom of Anger”, was what captured my attention.
But when I opened it and started reading at home, it was Geri Larkin’s piece on “Nothing Special” that really stuck to my ribs.
I’ve always had a hunch that courage is a very personal thing. What looks like bravery to one person may be simply conditioned behavior for the other person. We can’t really know what courage is being mustered by another person. We can only see our own projection.
So when Larkin wrote of Zen Master Linji’s teaching on the need to “live as ordinary beings”, I leaned in a little closer. She wrote:
“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. Just put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time.’…
“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.
“It turns out that, when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up for us….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.”
And, earlier, this:
“In Western society, the pressure to be other-than-ordinary is constant. We want to be recognized as special.”
People are often puzzled by the apparent break in my resume that occurred when I left medicine after graduating from medical school. They often ask, “How could you go through all that training, and then give it up?”. I get the sense that they can’t understand doing something “so hard” as getting through medical school, and then not sticking around for the rewards, the recognition, the payoff.
What they don’t understand is that “getting through” medical school was easy. It didn’t require any courage at all from me. That was my auto pilot. It was what I had been trained and conditioned to do all my life. I followed instructions. I played by the rules. I did it as perfectly as possible. I was a model student. So passing tests and being a good worker and “doing the right thing” according to the book were not at all challenging for me. It was my way of getting through life.
Courage, as I see it, is what is required to step outside of the conditioned habits that protect us and form the shell of our daily social selves. Courage is the ingredient we call upon when we dare to take off the shell and expose – to ourselves first – the soft underbelly we so don’t want others to see or touch. We all have this soft underbelly, this vulnerable and tender place. It’s not about being self-critical or having low self-esteem or being damaged or feeling unworthy. It’s not that we have any opinion of this part of ourselves, necessarily. It’s mostly that we don’t know this place. It’s unfamiliar, unpredictable. So we want to avoid the danger of chaos.
Courage is the willingness to be with the chaos. To see it and allow it to happen.
Courage, in my case, would have been choosing to concentrate in 18th century French History and Literature my freshman year at Harvard, instead of what my AP credits, preceptor, and parents indicated would be the prudent thing to do — Biochemical Sciences. It would have been the willingness to receive my parents’ threats to pull the plug on my tuition, their visions of my future homelessness, isolation, and disgrace as someone who wasted her potential and never got a job. It would have been accepting the possibility that I would not be welcome in my home for a few years. Or ever. And doing it anyway.
That would have been courage. For me.
But in each moment of our lives, for each of us, what constitutes “courage” is a different thing.
In medical school, I saw many classmates for whom the quest to conquer medicine was indeed a journey of courage. This was a stretch for them, a dream, a fulfillment of a lifelong desire. Perhaps they were tapping in to their own courage to find success within that system. Perhaps it was new and unfamiliar to them to push their own bodies to their physical limits, to expose themselves to the humiliation of an attending surgeon quizzing them on facts about microbiology as they stood with a team over the open abdomen of a patient.
For me, I knew it was not.
It has taken far more courage for me to practice patience, kindness, generosity, mutual support, non-judgment, and presence. But that’s just me.
I feel that I have become more and more courageous – less and less afraid of life – with each decision I have made to follow my true desires. But have I really experimented with the daring of being ordinary? In recent years, I have fallen into a more ordinary daily existence, doing more household chores, cleaning my own bathroom and kitchen, growing my own vegetables, exercising not with a personal trainer but by pedaling an actual bike or hiking on an actual hill.
But I still have the fallback of being seen as a performer, an artist. I have something I can point to and say, “This is what I am doing.” Not having that to point to is one of the most painful voids that my ego has been asked to endure. Much of the past four years has been spent in that battle between accepting the ordinary and striving for something at least a little bit out-of-the-ordinary. Some “news for Facebook”, as Larkin so astutely included in her article.
With the framing of ordinariness as an act of courage, I am wondering what it will be like to embrace being ordinary with a more curious, more experimental mindset.
Can I dare to sit still and be with the ordinariness of this moment? Can I dare to be ordinary?
P.S. Today is the last day of 50|50. I have three panels to put finishing layers of color on. Then, varnishing (when my spray arrives tomorrow in the mail), photographing, and making the final list of names.
Some work from the past three days: