Falling In Love With The Ordinary

Erin Roberts
May 10, 2023
7 min read
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How living more in the here and now is helping me appreciate everything around me so much more.

“The moment is not found by seeking it, but by ceasing to escape it.”

— James Pierce —

I listened to a delightful podcast episode the other day. It’s an insightful conversation between spiritual teacher Jeff Foster and Jonny Wilkinson, host of the I Am . . . . With Jonny Wilkinson podcast, the premise of which is to explore human potential in all its various facets. We are never more living in a state of human potential when we are in the here and now, which is a theme explored deeply in the episode.

It was not the first time I’d listened to this particular episode. It’s one I keep coming back to because the conversation is so nurturing and affirming. It makes me feel okay exactly as I am. That seems to be Foster’s gift.

I also keep coming back to it because theme of the episode — and of Foster’s work — is one that is coming up a lot in my life right now. And that is: falling in love with the ordinary.

Foster himself is enchanting. He is warm and humble, has a beautiful way of looking at the world and an easy way of conveying his message.

The episode begins with Foster chronicling his spiritual journey which was preceded by a very difficult time in his life. He speaks about becoming obsessed with chasing spiritual awakening. Reading all the books and doing all the practices. He explains how, when he realized that those weren’t leading him to what he expected, he descended into despair. He describes the frustration he felt:

It was like, ‘Come on’. Twenty four hours a day I’m bloody doing spiritual practice. I’m the best spiritual student. Where’s my effing stuff? Where is my prize? Where is my enlightenment?

Underneath it all, he recalls, there was a rage. Having put in years of reading “boring spiritual books” he wondered why enlightenment was so elusive. And he was angry that it hadn’t come after all the work he’d put in.

I relate to this so profoundly. For so long — like most people — I looked for happiness outside of myself. Chasing accolades. Collecting degrees. Writing papers. Driven by changing the world. All so that I’d feel better on the inside.

But it never came. It. Never. Came.

The voice in my head, what another spiritual teacher, Michael Singer, calls the inner roommate narrating our lives in The Untethered Soul, continued to tell me I wasn’t good enough.

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

— Eckhart Tolle —

The breaking point for me came during the spring session of the international climate negotiations in 2015. It was a hectic year and there was less than six months before the Paris Agreement was to be finalized. A lot was on the line.

And I was a mess.

During the session, which unfolded over two weeks of meetings preceded by ten days of preparatory meetings, I would find a quiet place to escape to throughout the course of the day. Even a few minutes to meditate and do breathing exercises just to feel okay enough to engage with the outside world. And then I’d go outside and try to look normal. Like there wasn’t chaos raging inside my head. It wasn’t easy. Because I felt anything but normal. Anything but okay.

After the session I decided enough was enough. I packed a backpack full of books and headed to Corfu for a week. I sat on the beach reading. All the books were by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödron, whom I admire greatly, but her writing is heady. And it was a lot to take in.

In retrospect I wish I’d started with something a little lighter. But that’s me. Always jumping in the deep end with everything I do. Why should this be any different?

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu —

Over the next few years I became obsessed with chasing relief, with finding a way to escape my inner roommate. Or just compel it to get a bit quieter. I just wanted to shut it up. To feel okay.

And the relief did come, little by little. But it was also an exhausting search. I too read all the books. I listened to podcasts, went to meditation retreats, hired coaches and took dozens of course. All to feel okay. And all while continuing with my intense day job and relentless travel schedule while doing a PhD. It was a lot. Too much.

I hadn’t heard anyone describe just how frustrating this experience can be until I heard Foster put words to his own experience. And as he says, we are all chasing something outside ourselves:

We are all seekers deep down . . . . We’re all doing that same mechanism, looking for happiness outside ourselves. Looking for peace. Looking for love. Looking for onenes outsideof ourselves. We’re all doing that in a million different ways. Searching for spiritual enlightenment, it’s the same game. You want the shiny new car or you want the enlightenment. There’s not much difference really.

When Foster found himself in this state he became frustrated and what he calls “spiritually knackered”. He just wanted to go home. But he’d resigned himself that it was never going to happen. So he let go.

And then one day when he was well and truly fed up — more lost than he’d ever been but now spiritually lost in addition to everything else — something profound happened, something which was also profoundly ordinary.

One day while sitting alone in his bedroom, he happened to look at a chair in the corner. And then he really saw it. And while doing so he had this simple understanding on a soul level, on a heart level, that the thing that he was looking for, chasing, obsessed with, was here all along. It was there in the chair.

In that moment he realized that the miracle was in the “ordinariness” of life. And when that happened, he felt the whole spiritual search “falling away”, replaced with a knowing that had always been there. A knowing and a presence that was in an ordinary chair in an ordinary home. In his own words:

It was shockingly ordinary. It just a chair.

In the midst of that experience Foster realized that home is here. As he looked around the room he saw not just the chair but also the carpet. He recognized a presence that was in the peeling wall paper and, indeed, everywhere around him.

In the last place he’d thought to look, in presence, this moment right here— was everything. The experience was a remembering. It wasn’t that Foster became anything else. It was just that he remembered what he had always been. He remembered that he was already whole.

“Live in the present. Launch yourself on every wave. Find eternity in each moment.”

— Henry David Thoreau —

As Foster went about his life after that experience with the chair he realized that the presence is always there. It’s not defined by time or anything that happens to you. It’s not a special experience. He describes it as quiet and ordinary.

Once he saw the chair — really saw the chair — he no longer believed in the idea of becoming enlightened. He describes falling in love with the ordinariness of life.

Foster realized that he had been for so many years trying to transcend his body. Trying to escape his body. He had always thought that he needed to become perfect in order to achieve enlightenment. But once he realized the presence is always here and in everything, even and especially in the ordinariness of life, he realized none of that was true. And that his body was already perfect. He describes:

This oneness — It’s all inclusive. It includes the body. It includes our imperfections. It includes our lonliness. It includes our anxiety, our fear, our broken hearts. It includes our doubts.

For so many years Foster had been trying to “erradicate his doubts”. But after the “chair awakening” as he calls it, he realized that this is the mind’s version of enlgihtenment. And that there’s nothing wrong with sadness. There’s nothing wrong with doubts or imperfections. Because the presence is in everything. In the doubt, in the sadness, in the anger — In. Everything.

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh —

My experience hasn’t been quite as profound as Foster’s. Though he might not call his “chair awakening” profound in its ordinariness. It was profound in its understanding. My awareness of the presence that is always here has been slowly unfolding over the past few years, expediting over the past few months.

I described recently how I’ve started to see the beauty around me in the simply, ordinary things that I pass by each day. It’s in the flowering trees and equally in the buildings in my neighbourhood and even the trash on the pavement. It sounds crazy as I say it but it’s true. Once you start to see the presence is literally in everything, it’s hard to see anything as ugly.

In my day job this knowing is unfolding in interesting ways. In some ways I’m less engaged in the struggle because it’s harder for me to see problems in anything. But in other ways, as I come to know that presence is in anything and everything, I am okay with everything. I am not chasing rightness. Because I know that the presence is already here. In the beauty of this moment. And once you know that, then ordinary life becomes extraordinary. And there is no longer a need to chase anything.

For more on my work on global climate policy find me here and here.

Originally published on Medium here: