transpersonal living thinking and living beyond the self

The Ordinary

By Jessica Thomas

I recently discovered the book, True Perception: the Path of Dharma Art by Chögyam Trungpa, and was amazed to find how much his descriptions of every day living matched the phenomenological approach to consciousness that I have been studying. I became fascinated by the parallels with post-Enlightenment theories about the wholeness of nature experienced through the personal point of view.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, philosopher and scientist, for example, proposed an extraordinary yet practical approach to science. For Goethe, authentic interpretation is actively receptive and grounded in the intuitive nature of experience, recognizing both interdependence and the wholeness of nature (Bortorf, 1996). To say it another way, the perceiver is not separate from the perceived. According to Goethe, unity with a phenomenon takes place in the mind and is an intuitive experience in which the mind functions as an organ of perception, not merely an organ of computation.

Preserving the wholeness of nature in everyday experience requires a shift in being. In terms of everyday life, if one can learn to move into experience without imposing certain demands and judgments, the ordinary becomes quite fascinating. One can learn to operate intuitively and receptively, allowing events to unfold while emphasizing the sensory and perceptual rather than the rational. Thus, intuition allows a flow to occur and the mind simply absorbs the experience as it unfolds.

The shift of being occurs when one turns from awareness of an object to an encounter with the object, from grasping to receptivity. Goethe describes this shift in terms of “letting an absence be active.” He further asserts that the intuitive process is “no-thing” and not mere nothing. Though invisible to the scientific eye, the intuition does exist and is infinitely connected to experience (Bortorf, 1996).

Authentic interpretation becomes possible when we are attentive to seeing. One must see beyond visual impression into what is actually present. In the moment of seeing beyond, one can begin to perceive the unique qualities of an ordinary experience. Mundane moments culminate and can be expressed through symbols.

In describing symbolism as ordinary truth, Trungpa states, “symbolism doesn’t have to be poetic or spiritual or mystical; it is the ordinary truth that takes place in everyday life” (p. 36). Ordinary truth is always profound because it requires direct relationship, complete openness, and no barriers. Barriers emerge when we over-rationalize an experience, categorize it, and thereby create further distance from its essence.

Trungpa further distinguishes between two types of symbolisms, relative and absolute. He posits that relative symbolism is based on passion and manifests from a sense of restlessness and aggression; it demands a safe reference point and seeks comfort. Absolute symbolism, on the other hand, is free of reference point, is self-existing, and makes no demands; it is a blank stage and can feel like a suspension of space and time (Trungpa, 2008).

“Symbolism is a question of gaining new sight. It is being extremely inquisitive to see things in their own nature, not always wanting to change things.” (p.68)

Authentic interpretation arises when one can slow down and spend time looking at things directly, intentionally, and clearly. Things do not need to be broken down to mathematical equations or metaphysical jargon. We must simply slow down long enough to perceive the wholeness of nature just as it presents itself. Within the ordinary rests the essence of truth and all things extraordinary. One needs to look no further than everyday experience and intuition to know exquisite splendor and the nature of existence.


Bortorf, H. (1996). The wholeness of nature: Goethe’s way towards a science of conscious participation in nature: Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Trungpa, Chögyam. (2008). True Perception: the Path of Dharma Art, Shambhala Publications.


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