The importance of being ordinary

Ordinariness and happiness are more related than we think. Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash

The quest for enlightenment often includes the idea that, if fully enlightened, we would be completely at peace. It raises the interesting question: does this mean that, if our attitude is right, we need not experience suffering at all? Would an employee, for instance, who was fully wise and realised, be able to evade any sense of hurry or discomfort?

One can imagine a guru on top of a hill, meditating, but on the verge of being fired by their boss for not processing enough parcels today in their postman job. They and their family might then suffer from lack of food or other essentials. Would that guru really not feel any sense of pressure or difficulty from the implicit dilemma?


The problem goes away if that employee is able to find ways of meditating, or being enlightened, that are compatible with their job. In that case, there is no conflict any longer between enlightened activities and work activities, and the pressure disappears. That person has found a way to be quite ordinary in their practice.

Generalising from this, if we can find a way of incorporating our spirituality into our daily life, then we greatly reduce the danger of inconsistency, and therefore we greatly reduce personal suffering, for ourselves and those around us. If we can be compassionate and wise everywhere, in all situations, then we can avoid the separation-ism and perfectionism that often goes with extreme spirituality.


Even if we can eliminate most pressure in this way, there will be times when we are called upon to do something faster than our body is built for. Just as an endurance athlete has to put pressure on their body, so, we could argue, a conscientious person has to put pressure on themselves in order to maximise the work they do.

The key to the philosophical problem is in the word ‘maximise’. As soon as we choose to maximise one thing, we are bound to have to steal resources from somewhere else to do the maximisation. The athlete has to steal resources from the rest of their life to maximise their performance. Surely, we might think, the ‘successful’ spiritual person has to do the same.


And yet there are examples of spiritual people who don’t seem to experience a sense of rush, pressure or difficulty. For them, compassion and wisdom doesn’t involve an excess of effort. I guess that, for these people, even an urgent war situation would not be enough to disturb their peace.

For this type of spiritual person, just being is enough. There is no requirement to perform sufficient works, to acquire points, to push the mind and body beyond a comfort zone. The idea is that we find a way of accepting everything that surrounds us, including the modest way our material body is built. We can see suffering in the world and accept it. We can see limited capacity in our physical organism, and accept that too.

If we think about it, indeed, there will always be suffering in the world, and we therefore need to learn to witness it and accept it. It will also always be true that our capacity is limited. Where we draw the line is up to us, but maximising any particular activity is always going to conflict with other activities. In this way, acceptance and moderation could be said to be essentials in any person.

We could consider this ‘artful optimisation’. We choose our level of activity, and yet accept that this level of activity will never be enough to do everything. We apply ourselves to life, but also accept that suffering exists, because everything is not done yet. We accept our limitations as human beings in a world of conflicting resources.


Happiness is a form of ‘artful optimisation’. Psychologically, acceptance and moderation play an enormous part in happiness. People who cannot accept some part of life, are usually unhappy in some way. Equally, people who cannot moderate their own manic attempts to ‘do all the things perfectly’, also end up unhappy in some way.

Think of parents and their children. A parent, however well-intentioned, who tries to maximise challenge and perfection, may end up with a burned out child, excessively self-critical, who cannot find happiness.

Going back to the quest for enlightenment, we could redefine enlightenment as happiness, and therefore say that, instead of maximisation and perfection, it involves ‘artful optimisation’.

If we are that postman on a hill, meditating, but under threat of losing their job, we can moderate our meditating habits, and incorporate some meditation into our job.

If we are that endurance athlete, wanting to improve, but in danger of breaking our body and ignoring our friends, then we can moderate our training, and accept that not everything will always get done.

True happiness involves the ability to be happy whatever we are doing, even if it seems ordinary and unexceptional, and does not match up to extreme excellence. It involves the ability to moderate whatever we are doing, even if it leaves some suffering in the world, and some things undone.

True happiness is kind of messy, but kind of fun.