Our acceptance of the ordinary is part of our spiritual maturity and capacity to be of service. It also helps us to avoid the trap of inflation, which can easily catch us when we glimpse a world beyond the ego. It is only too easy to identify with an inner experience. But when we let go of wanting spiritual life to be about us, when we live in the various dimensions without mixing the levels or imposing expectations and desires, this freedom allows us to fully participate in spiritual work.
Present in both the inner and outer world, one learns to serve the world, serve life, serve others without effort. This is a very careful balance. If one takes upon oneself the onerous responsibility of service, then the ego easily gets caught in it; the psyche gets encumbered by it. But being engaged in an ordinary life allows us to be of service without the burden of thinking we can solve the world's or other people's problems, which brings with it self-importance and, worse, spiritual self-importance.
Naqshbandi Sufis have always lived this way, forsaking special robes and working in ordinary jobs, traditionally often as craftsmen – Baha ad-Din Naqshband was a potter, Attar a perfumer. And of course many of the great Zen and Taoist teachers emphasized the ordinary and the dangers of spiritual importance:
Emperor Wu: 'I have built many temples, copied innumerable Sutras and ordained many monks since becoming Emperor. Therefore, I ask you, what is my merit?'
Bodhidharma: 'None whatsoever!'
Emperor Wu: 'Why no merit?'
Bodhidharma: 'Doing things for merit has an impure motive and will only bear the puny fruit of rebirth.'
Emperor Wu, a little put out: 'What then is the most important principle of Buddhism?'
Bodhidharma: 'Vast emptiness. Nothing sacred.'
Emperor Wu, by now bewildered, and not a little indignant: 'Who is this that stands before me?'
Bodhidharma: 'I do not know.'
If we can allow ourselves to live an ordinary life while also staying awake to the great void at the center of all that is, then we can be this intermediary place between that intoxicating, mystical bliss of oblivion and the wonder of how the Divine creates and reveals Itself in all the forms of life. Our lives are the expression of this bridge – ordinary and extraordinary, all things in their place, everything free to be as it is, and our consciousness, our heart, free to be used as needed.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a Sufi teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya order.