Ordinary madness

By all accounts, particularly his own, poet Charles Bukowski was a miserable wretch. I attended one of his readings in my youth, and from the mini-fridge next to his stool on stage, he extracted beer after beer; as the evening progressed he ended up falling-down drunk and unable to continue.

But Bukowski was a poet precisely because he knew he was wretched, a condition he dubbed Ordinary Madness. One cannot be a complete wretch while enjoying that level of self-awareness, and the gritty, unvarnished nature of his poetry reveals him as an extraordinary sensitive wretch. Bukowski revealed the nature of Ordinary Madness through his poetry of Ordinary Awareness.

This, of course, is the teaching of great sages; the Buddha, Jesus and others taught about the suffering of Ordinary Madness, a malady peculiarly affecting people. Ordinary Madness, simply put, is the suffering of ego, and the extent to which we consider ego to be real is proportionate to suffering.

Ego constantly engages in activities to justify its reality and to make itself appear as solid and permanent as possible. To all effects inseparable from our sense-of-self, we rush to its protection and defend it to the death. Accordingly, we also project individual ego onto others, communities and nations, creating a vast metaphysical structure of social conventions, rules and identity. Millions have died in defense of ego’s imagination, and sadly, they continue dying to this very day.

Ordinary awareness, however, is inherent and continuous. The busy mind of ego, having split the world into “us and them,” leaves little room for us to see the workings of Ordinary Awareness, which by its nature dissolves the solidity of ego. Ordinary Madness is a full-time job, highly compelling and requiring close attention to its own insatiable needs. Little wonder Ordinary Awareness gets so little “air time.”

Even so, the inherent wisdom of Ordinary Awareness is readily available. Like The Wizard of Oz, if ego’s chatter, actually a manifestation of Ordinary Awareness, is revealed and stilled Ordinary Awareness can be found operating behind the curtain. There is the Ordinary Awareness of body; muscle tension, hunger, thirst, pain and comfort. There is the Ordinary Awareness of feelings; love, anxiety, anger, fear and happiness. And there is the Ordinary Awareness of mind; memory, thought, intellect and intuition. All these types of Ordinary Awareness are continuous, unstoppable emanations radiating from the ineffable source contained within the fabric of existence itself. If that sounds mysterious, it’s because it is, and explains why Ordinary Madness and its upside-down logic seems so compelling by comparison.

Despite ego’s story line, Ordinary Awareness is what enables us to survive. If survival depended upon ego, a calculation about how best to accrue benefit to ourselves first and foremost, human society would never have come into being. Though Ordinary Madness creates a convincing mind of separation, we are unalterably and inextricably connected to the natural world and others. Without others, ego itself has no reason for existence. Our need for others is all-powerful; Tom Hank’s character marooned alone on an island in the film “Cast Away” ends up talking to a soccer ball.

Ordinary Madness is the denial of our true nature and like any act of denial generates waves of discontent, resentment, anger, blame and bad behavior. Its antidote is Ordinary Awareness, and that’s as simple as paying attention to your breath.