Placeholder Theory

The Fringe Dweller’s Guide to the Universe

Placeholder Theory


I got to thinking about what I call "Placeholder Theory," as I thought about the endless cycle of working toward selling our house and getting on with the Costa Rica project. Placeholder Theory is something I’ve heard a million variations of – sometimes in jest, but usually semi-seriously. I’ll give you a common illustration, and then we’ll spend a little time exploring the theory’s uses and abuses.

The normal usage is: some people are (serve as) placeholders for others. The others, in this case, are "special people who deserve special treatment or consideration." Oddly, this is always the person telling the story.

Here’s a typical example: Emma Entitlement is late for a meeting. So she puts out "a vibe," (prayer, intention, whatever) and as she approaches her destination, someone (the placeholder) backs out of a parking space right in front of her destination. I’ve heard this idea (and specifically the parking spot story) expressed by many folk. What I’ve never heard is someone "owning" the placeholder role: "Yeah, I was going to leave the parking lot, and then I got this vibe that I should wait a bit. When I did pull out of the parking space, I looked in the rear view mirror, and the guy who took the spot – boy was he looking pleased! I’m so glad I could be of service!"

In other words, most folk resist the idea that they are in the placeholder role for others. This is the arrogance of the quasi wise. We who profess to "get it" are often caught in our delusions. And one of the biggest is the idea that we are special and no one else is (or only our "special" friends are.) We really believe that we have been working hard to get here (wherever "here" is.) and don’t want to think that our role is placeholder for someone who "gets" more than we do.

Dar and I have been doing a variation of this regarding the sale of our house. We’ve been looking at what we might have been "putting out there" to slow down the offer (we have a conditional one) until December. I was laughing about it, as I was standing in the kitchen a couple of days ago, and suddenly the placeholder story popped into my head. I heard a little voice in my head say, "I guess the buyer wasn’t ready to buy when you wanted to sell, so you had to wait for them." Oh! My! God! Me??? A placeholder?

Because, of course, my ego wants to tell me that I’m "special," it’s a hard pill to swallow that others might be even more special, and manipulating me like a piece on a chess board.

If there are such things as placeholders for me and you think there are placeholders for you, then we all need to look in you rear view mirror the next time we exit a parking slot.

My point? You can’t have one without the other. You get to have it both ways. If I create an enlightenment scale and place myself on it, there are always going to be people "further along." So long as I’m looking "down" on others, I can feel "special." But as soon as I look "up." Yikes!

The way out is ordinariness. Dar often mentions the Osho Tarot Deck. We both play with it.

Here’s the card for Ordinariness. It shows a person simply going about the task at hand.


The message is also described in the Zen story, below. Ram Dass once described the process he was engaging in as, "nobody special training." On the other hand he also described getting caught in his ego and using his "guru status" to get all kinds of special favours. He told these stories with a rueful smile, as getting caught in this game is a part of the human condition. I talk about this in my book, This Endless Moment, in the chapter on Deconstruction.

Ordinariness might be described as, "Having a sole focus on presence during the walk of life." I say to clients that the real reason therapy (any therapy) works (when it works) is that the therapist and the client are fully present with each other. It is much more so the presence as opposed to the technique. If I am present and focussed, then there are no ups and downs, no better or worse, no right or wring, no clean and dirty. There are no placeholders, because there is no difference between me and not me. It is as if the stuff of the universe is everywhere, and appears in different, unique forms, but is always what it is at its essence.

Sounds pretty mystical, right?

Nonetheless, it is the nature of the universe, down to its core.

I never get any real satisfaction out of thinking I am better than "Joe" and worse than "Sally." My ego desperately wants me to play that game, and much of life is wasted on comparisons, but to use a contemporary experience, "In a tsunami, everyone is equal." Nature is there to remind us that the cosmos really does not play favourites. You see, we live in an essentially neutral universe. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, all are born and die alone.

We are on the walk until we aren’t. The quantity of the days is totally out of our hands. Ah, but the quality. that’s another story, and totally about focus.

Yet, because each of us is fighting with our sense of specialness (entitlement, the ego voice screaming in our heads, whatever) we get caught in inertia. Some variant of either helplessness (see the last Into the Centre article) or stomping our feet and saying "It’s not fair," or looking for rescue are common.

Whenever I find myself in that place, I remind myself of a Zen story. A man goes up the mountain, looking for the Master. After 6 months of looking he’s about to give up. He sees an old man coming down the hill, carrying a bundle of firewood on his back. He asks the old man if he is the Master.

The old man nods.

The seeker says, "What is Enlightenment?"

The old man drops the wood and says "Ahhh!"

The seeker is instantly enlightened.

Then he asks, "What comes after Enlightenment?"

The old Master bends, picks up the wood bundle, and continues down the hill.

What comes next? Living. Until we aren’t.

Learning. Growing. Understanding.


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