Learning to be Ordinary

Learning to be Ordinary — being ordinary is not boring. It’s using our selves fully, without comparison to others. It’s being present and content, without comparison.

In This Moment

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I got to thinking about what I call “Placeholder Theory,” as I listen to friends and clients alike trying to come up with the meaning of their lives. The problem starts with the assumption that our lives come pre-packaged with “a meaning,” and that our meaning takes precedence over what’s up for others.

The other day, a friend told me about a book she’s reading, and the book’s premise is that we design our lives, point by point, before we’re born. We even design in “choice points,” where the road forks depending on what we do.

“Can we send him back?”
“No, I think we’re stuck with him…”

Apparently, all of this starts when we choose our parents.

Which caused me to wonder, “Really? But what if my parents chose me, when they were designing their life?” Or, what if “I” got chosen by more than one set of parents? Did they fight it out? And if I chose my parents, did they get to say no, or were they stuck with me?

I suspect they were stuck with me, because the whole system depends on “me” being the “real, important person,” while everyone else has agreed to be a bit player in my drama.

And, of course, this means that my friend is also a bit player in my life. My friend has kids, so doesn’t that mean she was chosen to play a role in their lives, and therefore is a bit player there, too?

Another version of this is called Placeholder Theory

The Placeholder Theory comes from parking spaces, and is something I’ve heard a million variations of — sometimes in jest, but usually semi-seriously. I’ll give you a common illustration, and then we’ll spend a little time exploring the theory’s uses and abuses.

To restate the theory: some people serve as placeholders for others. In the above mentioned book, they agreed to this role prior to birth. There is the primary person, (I chose my parents!”) and the bit players, who provide experiences the primary person needs in order to learn.

Oddly,” the primary person is always the person telling the story. I’ve yet to hear someone say, “Yup. I was born to fulfill my sister’s destiny. I’m the best placeholder in the world!”


I’ll just stand here ’til you’re ready to take over…”

Here’s an example: Emma Entitlement is late for a meeting. So she puts out “a vibe,” (prayer, intention, whatever) and as she approaches her destination, someone (the placeholder) backs out of a parking space right in front of her destination.

I’ve heard this idea (and specifically the parking spot story) expressed by many folk. What I’ve never heard is someone “owning” the placeholder role: “Yeah, I was going to leave the parking lot, and then I got this vibe that I should wait a bit. When I did pull out of the parking space, I looked in the rear view mirror, and the guy who took the spot — boy was he looking pleased! I’m so glad I could be his placeholder, even if it meant I was late for work!!”

In other words, most folk resist the idea that they are in the placeholder role for others.

This is the arrogance of the quasi wise.

OK, just thought of what appears to be an exception: “I’ve sacrificed everything for my children (students, parents, job)!” But think about it. The person is actually saying, “I have chosen to martyr myself for my children! Aren’t I special!” Same thing, different twist.

We who profess to “get it” are often caught in our delusions.

And one of the biggest is the idea that “getting it” means we are special. That we are here to learn, and others are here to support our learning. That our role is to “make a difference” that others will notice and admire.

We really believe that we have been working hard to get here (wherever “here” is”¦) and we rebel at the notion that our role is placeholder for someone who “gets” more than we do.

Here’s the problem:

If I think that others are placeholders for me, and you think others are placeholders for you, then we all need to look in the rear view mirror the next time we exit a parking slot, just to catch a glimpse of who we are place-holding for!

Because you can’t have one without the other. It has to work both ways.

If I create an enlightenment scale and place myself on it, there are always going to be people “further along.” So long as I’m looking “down” on others, I can feel “special.” But as soon as I look “up”¦” Yikes!

The way out is ordinariness.


Ordinariness might be described as “just getting on with it.” Doing what I do because that is what I do. Learning what I learn because that’s the lesson I choose. It’s understanding that far from being an up / down system, life is ecological. Hundreds of people are required to get me my food, and those hundreds are supported by my actions.

We’re all in this together, and “special,” “secret learnings and paths,” placeholders — it’s all a game to futz with the reality that we are here to get over ourselves, and to get on with what we choose to focus on.

Ram Dass once described the process he was engaging in as, “nobody special training.” And then he described getting caught in his ego, and using his “guru status” to get all kinds of special favours. (“Want to come up to my room and see my holy pictures?”) He told these stories with a rueful smile, as getting caught in this game is a part of the human condition.

I talk about my games and evasions in my book, This Endless Moment, in the chapter on Deconstruction. Being “The Minister!” got me all kinds of perks, until I couldn’t sustain the game.

Ordinariness might be described as, “Having a sole focus on presence during the walk of life.”

I say to clients that the real reason therapy (any therapy) works (when it works) is that the therapist and the client are fully present with each other. It is much more so the presence as opposed to the technique. In presence, we can drop our stories and evasions, work on what hurts, and let go of specialness.

If I am present and focussed, then there are no ups and downs, no better or worse, no right or wrong, no clean and dirty. There are no placeholders, because there is no difference between me and not me. It is as if the stuff of the universe is everywhere, and appears in different, unique forms, but is always what it is at its essence.

Sounds pretty mystical, right?

Nonetheless, it is the nature of the universe, down to its core.

I never get any real satisfaction out of thinking I am better than “Joe” and worse than “Sally.” My ego desperately wants me to play that game, and much of life is wasted on comparisons, but to use a contemporary experience, “In a hurricane, everyone is equal.”

Nature is there to remind us that the cosmos really does not play favourites. We live in an essentially neutral universe. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, all are born and die alone.

We are on the walk until we aren’t. The quantity of the days of our lives is totally out of our hands. Ah, but the quality” — that’s another story, and totally about focus.

Yet, because each of us is fighting with our sense of specialness (entitlement, the ego voice screaming in our heads, whatever) we get caught in inertia — some variant of either helplessness, or stomping our feet and saying “It’s not fair,” or looking for rescue — are common.

Whenever I find myself in that place, I remind myself of a Zen story.

A man goes up the mountain, looking for the Master. After 6 months of looking he’s about to give up. He sees an old man coming down the hill, carrying a bundle of firewood on his back. He asks the old man if he is the Master.

The old man nods.

The seeker says, “What is Enlightenment?”

The old man drops the wood and says “Ahhh!”

The seeker is instantly enlightened.

Then he asks, “What comes after Enlightenment?”

The old Master bends, picks up the wood bundle, and continues down the hill.

What comes next? Living. Until we aren’t.

Learning. Growing. Understanding.


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So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “Learning to be Ordinary”

  1. Thank you, Wayne. I don’t know you. But I had an early morning dream and the dream person must have spent about a “dream hour” talking about being “ordinary”. I can’t remember all the details but the final part of the dream was the dream person, not only spelling out the word, “ordinary” but made all of the dream people parse and “practice” saying the word in syllables again and again “or-din-ar‑y.” I have a history of my dream companions having to be very explicit with me when I am being deeply stupid about some aspect of my life. Like when they slammed a pointer stick repeatedly on a whiteboard emphasizing the written words of, “STOP SMOKING!” I woke after that dream and said, “OK OK. You can be more symbolic next time.” After this morning’s dream of the word “ordinary” being emphasized, I knew the dream was begging me to “get it.” So when I woke, I threw a virtual Iching which recommended I find a “Mentor.” It said that “…a mentor is merely a more seasoned pupil, further along on the journey..” and then I searched the internet and found and read your blog post and cried at my desk. The tears were in response to the visceral experience of feeling anxiety actually drain from my body as I continued reading down the page. So thank you Wayne. And thank you dream. I am so back in my body and experiencing such quietness.


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