Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Ordinary People

“Because of ordinariness, magic is possible.”
- Chogyam Trungpa

One thing I appreciate about the films of Mike Leigh is the ordinariness of his characters. Even when living through unusual circumstances, Leigh’s subjects in movies like Vera Drake, Career Girls, and Secrets and Lies are everyday people. That the director invariably casts actors who, to all appearances, share these individuals’ ordinariness is a gesture of both inspiration and generosity; out of this congruence we, the audience, are allowed to watch a certain magic arise on screen.

In Vera Drake, for instance, Imelda Staunton is completely convincing as a working class woman in post-war Britain. In manner and dress Staunton’s performance does nothing to suggest she would be out of place walking the difficult streets of London’s tougher neighborhoods circa 1950. The character is in harmony with these settings, aligned with the people and situations around her. By virtue of Staunton’s enactment - her surrender to this character - she is seems aligned with herself. 

As a result, what the portrayal lacks in glamour it more than makes up in power. Vera Drake attracts and holds attention as she moves about the screen, weaving her way through the demands and opportunities of her world. Her ordinariness, rather than dulling or obscuring, lends a spark to her presence - a vitality that draws and maintains interest and, through this, is able to communicate something about our shared human condition.      

This stands in contrast to the familiar Hollywood approach. Here ordinary lives are brought to the screen by actors who look anything but, by people who not so much relax into their characters as pop out of them.

I’m thinking now of the romantic comedy Marley and Me, though in truth any of an uncountable number of examples could be cited. Nobody expects rom-coms to offer much in the way of realism or depth. Even with this caveat firmly in mind, however, I just cannot accept Jennifer Aniston as the front page journalist the movie insists she is. Tanned and toned and coifed near perfection, I can’t accept Jennifer Aniston as anyone other than, well, Jennifer Aniston.

The effect of this is notable. With at least one-third of the film’s central cast too glamorous to be believable as the person she is purported to be, believable as an integral part of the world she moves through, some important element is lacking from Marley. With nothing holding me close, my attention continually wanders from the movie and finds occupation elsewhere. ‘How much did she get paid?’ I wonder. ‘How often does she get her hair done?’ Then, ‘Maybe I should wash the dishes.’ Which I do.

Lest anyone accuse me of Jennifer-bashing, let’s shift consideration to the actress’ 2002 film, The Good Girl. In this outing Aniston plays a 30 year-old woman in a dead-end job. Sure she is recognizable the moment she walks onscreen - we’re not talking Charlize Theron in Monster here - but in most respects Aniston aligns very well with the down-on-her-luck character she plays. She comes across as ordinary in Good Girl - as an inhabitant of both this world and this woman - and this fact has an impact.

Embodying a person who would be more at home among Leigh’s working masses than the spas and beaches of Malibu - playing someone I might see struggling her way through the streets and hallways of my own life - Aniston is extremely attractive in this role. Believable and real, she draws and holds attention much as Staunton does in Vera Drake. In the process, she is able to stir and move and affect in way that was wholly absent from Marley. She is able show us a little something about themes that resonate through many of our lives; themes such as hopes and dreams, happiness and fate.

Back when I was a swim coach, I used to go to a professional development conference each spring. In the ten or so years I attended this event, one of the more memorable presentations offered a brief summary of recent insights in learning theory.

‘How can we ensure kids learn?’ was the question around which this lecture revolved. The speaker’s answer? “Offer them someone they can relate with. Research shows the more students identify with their teachers, the more they learn. So don’t hold yourself as separate or special. Sure you are older and more experienced, and you do have a role to fill, but that doesn’t make you different. Let who you are shine through on the pool deck - this will teach them things you cannot imagine.”

Which reminds me of an article I once read about leading a meditation group. Such gatherings generally have one person sitting in front, facing the others during practice. This piece presented a series of pointers on how to assume such a position. Five or six tips were offered; I remember one. “Don’t put on airs,” the author advised. “Be yourself up there. If you need to move, move!” 
This has been an affecting teaching for me. In spite of anything else I might have been told over the years - in spite of the fact I generally say something quite different to others - I often subscribe to an approach toward meditation that is more Hollywood than Mike Leigh in orientation and aspiration. This is to say, I think I must be like Jennifer Aniston in Marley and Me when teaching, leading, being in these contexts. I believe this will be the outcome of my efforts: I will be beautiful; I will be perfect; I will be different.

In telling me, “When you need to move, move!” the author of this article is offering an important reminder: meditation is not a self-improvement project. This journey does not help us become someone other than who we are. It instead helps us become increasingly who we are. Through regular practice we become more aligned with ourselves - embodied, harmonized. In this sense, meditation helps us become more ordinary as we continue and in this there is something wonderful, powerful, communicative. Echoing Chogyam Trungpa, in this there is a kind of magic.

People sometimes ask me what makes Reggie Ray a good teacher. A quick glance at the man’s biography offers numerous possibilities. Holding a PhD in the History of Religions he is extremely well-studied, and has worked with a great many influential figures in this and related fields for over forty years. An early student of Chogyam Trungpa, Reggie has also devoted significant portions of his adult life to meditation and, as such, is extremely well-practiced. Finally, he has a unique ability to draw these two streams of experience together, offering them to the world in a way that is accessible, relevant, and inspiring for modern people.

So what makes Reggie a good teacher? In many ways, one could pick any of these and be on the mark. Introducing him at public events, I have made use of this list in composing my comments on a number of occasions.

This said, however, for me not one of these quite captures Reggie’s real strength as a mentor and guide. This instead is somehow expressed in the few very ordinary moments I have been able to share with him over the years. The way he answers a question about scheduling at the start of a long day. How he readies a pot of tea while the rest of us wait for a meeting to begin. The way he insists a situation can only be handled in this fashion at one o’clock in the afternoon and then, come dinner, is laughing over how caught up he’d been in his own little thing.

Nobody records these moments for posterity. There will likely be no books created by virtue of their existence, there will be no audio courses generated. If a compendium of Reggie’s teachings is ever assembled, it is unlikely ‘A Conversation Over Dinner’ will be considered for the final edit. 

Yet these ordinary instants grab my attention and, through this, something valuable is  transmitted. What is this ‘something’? I am not, to be honest, completely certain. That it is okay to be human, perhaps? That even the most mundane moments are worthy of attention? That it is while scheduling our days, while getting caught up in - and later freed from - our ‘things’ that something about this journey comes to life?

Again, I’m not sure. But I can tell you this: when I have laid my last eyes upon the corporeal form of Reggie Ray, what I will most miss will not be the afternoon he gave a wonderful talk on ‘Seven Kinds of Maitri’. What I will most miss will be running into him in a narrow hallway a few minutes after another lecture. Our eyes catch and, for an instant, hold. Smiles warm both our faces until they glow red. And then, for no apparent reason, we laugh and move on. This is what I’ll miss. This ordinariness, this intimacy, this momentary spark. Spark of what? Typing right now, I am very comfortable calling this a spark of magic.  

Many years ago, my wife and I attended a meditation program at Karme Choling, a retreat center in Vermont. During the month-long event, the teachers in attendance arranged to meet small groups of students over a series of evening teas. During our social, we somehow coaxed the more senior among us to tell stories about Rinpoche.

Chogyam Trungpa - the “Rinpoche” under consideration here - was a most unusual fellow. Though now considered one of the pioneering forces in bringing the meditative tradition to modern culture, he did not always behave in a manner that, to some eyes, was in keeping with this stature. He was in many ways outrageous and, when well told, stories about his exploits can be very entertaining.

The tales on this particular occasion did not, for the most part, disappoint. There was something about a closet, something about a rambunctious reading of ‘The Heart Sutra’, an important Buddhist teaching. When it came time for the program’s main instructor to share his story, however, our fun came to a halt. Rather than letting a rambling yarn unwind among us, he - the person in that room most familiar with Rinpoche - uttered a single sentence. Five words and that was it.

This seemed stingy to me. I felt he had rained on our happy parade, and was both angry and resentful. ‘Why was this all he offered?’ I wondered.

In the years since, I’ve asked this question many times. For a long while I thought the man just uncomfortable with story telling. Maybe he felt it disrespectful. Maybe it was too personal a task. Maybe he wasn’t much of a small group orator or simply disliked having our formal gathering descend into such frivolousness. Making my way through this piece, however, an other possibility has emerged. 

The retreat my wife and I were attending was a gateway program - a prerequisite to entering the Vajrayana, the ‘highest’ teachings this lineage has to offer. Sitting around the table that night I was pretty convinced I was teetering on some kind of greatness, ready to become the beautiful, perfect, different person I believed this journey promised. 

While I waited to become Jennifer Aniston in Marley and Me, however, that teacher, in his spare comments about Chogyam Trungpa, quietly reminded me that such perfection is not the point. The point instead is Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Reggie Ray in that hallway. The point, really, is this person right here - a little tired, anxious in the lower belly, wanting another cup of tea.

How did he convey this reminder? What did he say?

“He was an ordinary man.”