Finding the Profound in the Mundane

Harini Chari

Leadership Branding/ Transition Coaching/ Social Impact -Empowering leaders to be authentically seen, heard and sought


A lady asked Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, why he wastes his time in the garden- cleaning, planting, weeding. Couldn’t anybody do that rote job while he used his precious time to maybe write or speak more? Afterall, sharing his wisdom through more books or sermons could impact so many! Thich Nhat Hanh’s answer, is priceless. He says, the very reason he is able to write those books or share his thoughts is because of his time spent gardening. Everything he is known for, be it his wisdom, creativity, compassion, all stem from his quiet time, spent in the garden.

So, is gardening the Zen Master’s life purpose? No, clearly it is not. It is simply an activity he immensely enjoys but while indulging in this seemingly regular hobby he creates a fertile space and awareness that allows for those profound ideas. The simple gardening activity is as important, if not more than those wise thoughts that arise from it.

We have all at some time, asked or been at the end of that obnoxious question– ‘So, what do you want to do with your life’? It can be annoying when people talk of ‘purpose’ like it was something we could simply arrive at. We discuss it as if there was a structured path or method to get there. My coaching clients struggle with this, especially when there is no inkling of the big 'Why', no clear calling, no altruistic intentions or passion. How then do we find this elusive purpose?

Truth is, we do not have just one purpose. We have several. In a day, a lot of our energy is focused on banal or routine matters. The trick is to simply be aware while engaging in them. Your larger passion and purpose could be in problem solving, crisis communications or organizational management. But what’s going to light the bulb in that direction is probably when you find ingenuous ways to fix a fuse at home, influence and coax your kid to eat her veggies, calmly but systematically tackle a sink load of dishes or iron a pile of clothes in a certain methodical manner. Observe what you enjoy, analyze how you do it differently and stay with the feeling it leaves you with.

Purpose, I believe, is nothing but the realization and then the understanding of meaning in the seemingly mundane every day activities that help grow us in big and small ways. A few thoughts that help in that journey:

To Show Up: To be willing to allow for new experiences, new books, new people, new ideas. Pushing yourself to intentionally, even if occasionally, get out of that comfort zone. That is the first step. Somewhere hidden inside a conversation, an interaction or article, lies your purpose.

To Slow Down: Taking a pause is a such a wonderful thing. It helps us assimilate ‘what was’ and allows us to include them in the ‘what could be’. I love it that the Asian Institute of Management, Philippines, where I teach, has Wednesdays off for all students. No classes, no structured sessions of any kind. Just a deliberate pause for everyone on campus - to take some time off, to take in all that was taught/learned and to return to ourselves fully, before continuing with the remaining week.

To Dig Deep: Once you’ve taken the pause and begun to understand what it is you truly enjoy and what it is that you don’t, then it is time to move to the next step and dig deeper into the next layer of understanding. Why did you enjoy time with a certain person, what made you feel excited about that experience or activity? Use the laddering technique and keep asking yourself ‘Why was it important/special to me? until you can go no further.

There are no promises of aha moments or bell-ringing instances when you arrive at your purpose. Most times, it is going to be an organic process over time, when you gently stumble into it. And you may or may not even realize you have arrived at that point. There may be a few profound instances that get you there, but it is mostly going to be the ordinary activities and situations that lead the way.

It is in the outwardly common that lie the secrets to our big questions. The lofty 'purpose' or any other profundity we seek is right before our eyes, seeking us - through the seemingly simple, everyday mundane.


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