Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar – Book Summary

Marsha Sinetar, the author, began to write this book with the preconceived notion that ordinary run of the mill people, can and do become whole, and that they achieve this by integrating their inner and outer reality.

The book seeks to show how these people manage to combine their inner truths with everyday difficulties.

She aims to show how these people inspire others to grow and make better choices. These people do not look to the experts or others for guidance, because they are self-sufficient, and know what it means to live good and spirited lives.

Her research began because of her own preference to live a quiet, solitary, reflective way of life. She was led by a hunch that there were many more self-actualizing people around than we expect, and that this was in fact a natural expression of healthy human development.

All the way through the book the author gives real examples of how progressively healthy individuals are able to incorporate their own values, talent and needs with the requirements the community as a whole and the environment.

The book, “Ordinary people as monks and mystics”, is concerned with two primary values of self-actualization, which the author calls, “social transcendence” and “self-tran­scendence.”

Social transcendence is emotional independence, being detached from the influence of society, and even from other people when necessary.

The monk refers a person, male or female, who responds to an inner call, and has emotionally detached from all that is familiar and comfortable, in order to go on an unfamiliar inner journey.

Self-transcendence, the mystic, refers to the person who has experienced what Maslow described as a peak experience, a moment of ecstasy when one’s separateness disappears, and the individual mingles as one with nature, or the cosmos. The author explains that Dante, Blake, Whitman, Emerson, were Transcendentalists.

Although the author believes that there is no neat split between those who are monks, and those who are mystics, she divided the book into two parts looking at both types individually, but makes it clear that mystics can live in a monk like way and monks can have mystical experiences.

In order to find participants for her survey she placed an advert saying that she wished to interview individuals aged over thirty-five who despite the ups and downs of life, lived on their own because they wanted to, yet positively contributed to others.

People who had a strong sense of ethical, aesthetic and universal order who considered their daily life as service or a calling, and had deliberately made their lives as uncomplicated, and orderly as possible.

The book is organized in three parts:

  1. The Monk
  2. The Mystic
  3. How these help promote self-actualization

I have minimal possessions, no real ownership of any­thing much. No TV, for example. I read, and think, and when I want to, I talk to friends. I’m self-entertaining, for the most part. I’m living in a communal setting, where everyone shares chores and works with one an­other. I’ve dropped out of a professional career and now am working as a carpenter

Extract Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Wholeness according to the author is having the confidence to face difficult situations, and make choices so that you honor what is inside, and this allows you to be healed.

This sometimes means letting go of what you and your family and friends think should be, which can be painful.

When you are afraid this keeps you stuck and stunted, and the longer this continues the more you are unable to express what you want, and need.

This type of fear masks as anxiety, and a confused mind is not able to identify answers important to life.

In order to really know what you want you have to be brave enough to be, do, and have what you want, which means facing the enemy inside yourself, by facing the hurdles and negatives responses of the outer world.

It means moving towards what is really real, what our real self wants, which means going against the wishes of those we love and admire.

In order to find in yourself what really makes your life worth living can be precarious; because it means you have to seek it, and that without it, life will be worthless. When you answer the yearning of your inner self you have a vocation.

You do not have to be religious or gifted to be called.
Mindfully going along with your inner voice, changing your life and worldview, requires you first to step back, and this is what the author calls social transcendence.

This can happen spontaneously, or might happen as a decision made in your teens. It can mean moving away from home, changing jobs, or an emotional separation from the convention and expectation of society.

Social transcendence is always a response to an inner call and is never motivated by fear or a response to what is going on around you.

The author explains here that although the socially transcendent person may be non-conformist, he or she is growing in awareness of heartfelt values, and the behavior is in no way anti-social, as the individual is able to balance a selfish/selfless life with the rest of the world.

In these healthy people, we find duty and pleasure to be the same thing, as is also work and play, self-interest and altruism, individualism and selflessness…. Only to the self-disciplined and responsible person can we say, ‘Do as you will, and it will probably be all right.


Once you have answered the call to your vocation everything is given up to support the necessities of the call, such as:

  • Having no concern with the opinion of others in the community, security, and vanity, preferring instead to express truth, love and compassion.
  • Conscious expression, instead of living unconsciously
  • Giving up the tried and tested routes to success, in favor of those, which can be more difficult, demanding, illogical, unpopular or ethical.
  • Being reliable, committed and responsible to others, rather than avoiding risks.

This is a journey that takes many years.

I need so very little to live on. Having “things” just in­terests me less and less. I sleep when I’m tired, and not much more than four hours per night. I wear khaki trou­sers to all events, with or without a jacket. All of what I wear appears to fit into a chest of drawers. I eat very little. Conversation is more important than radio, TV, movies, etc. I am a solitary person and I read a great deal.

Extract Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Having established that there are numerous ways that an individual can answer the call for an inward journey; the author was keen to see if she could find a pattern in the way the participants in her survey, structured and organized their lives.

She found, like a monk in a monastery, the participants lived to concern themselves with life, rather than for a specific function, responding to the truth, love and life within, in each deed and choice.

The socially transcendent person differs from the monk in that he has no set routine, or like minded associates, needing to devise his own structure for reflecting, studying and communing with Self.

No matter what the individual’s outer form of life, she found each lived their lives in a way so that they could become more aware of the Self within.

Sometimes this was achieved by living totally alone, having a methodical way to separate themselves from friends and family, or by dividing there time between two homes.

Another common denominator was the cautious and frugal use of money and time.

The author found two types of reality, which her study participants were trying to incorporate:

  • The transpersonal/ super conscious/ true Self/ higher Self.
  • Interpersonal/self in relation to others, environment and social order

The detaching stage may last several years, as the transpersonal realism is refined and strengthened.

The author explains that a socially transcendent individual doesn’t take telling from an organization, church, community, friends or relations, but it is they themselves who wish something more. They learn to listen vigilantly to their inner power to know the truth.

Being alone is very helpful and ordering to me. My desk, for example, is a symbolic way for me to organize my life. I clear it as a way of structuring myself. I live simply, without electricity, flush toilet, hot water, or re­cent model car. I have not had offspring, or done the usual family thing. My main work is helping improve the world and serving people.

Extract Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

The author found that each person in the study had inimitable challenges in order to restructure their lives to comply with the inner authority, although common threads were obvious:

  • They used resources sensibly.
  • High self-esteem, and a strong foundation based on self-worth and self-trust.
  • Penny-wise, whether they had money or not
  • Having more time was far more important than money
  • Work as play attitude
  • They simplified their lives, so they have the time to do what they really want to do.
  • Thoughts generally on spiritual subjects now, not on gossip or community matters.

In fact many spoke of making outer life simpler so they could order their interior life, and so become more clear-minded. This was achieved by spending more time making pottery, gardening, writing or walking in the woods etc.

One man spoke of leaving a full time business venture because he wanted more time. He restructured his life to work three days a week to free up time.

He also chose to both, go to sleep and get up early, because he didn’t want to waste time watching television, and sleeping. He also chose to eat simply, and to discard most of his belongings that he considered unnecessary.

Nearly all socially transcendent participants in the study, whether married or single, and regardless of whether they had children or not, said they wanted to do that which is important to them, despite the fact that others may see them as selfish.

Most knew this would better equip them to serve others, and what some, could view as selfish, is at the core a selfless thing.

Many considered letting go of what others think the hardest part, and spoke with remaining sadness, of friends, ex-spouses or parents who they could no longer connect with, as they couldn’t accept their new lives.

They also spoke of the fear along the way, but despite this, they knew this was their chosen path, what they had to do.

The author says that this is the courage to be, and over and over again, the actualizing person surrenders temporary security for lasting integration, and honest expression of life.

Nearly everyone in the study said that although their journey had begun by drawing back into themselves, they had grown back towards others in a more helping, contributive and supporting way.

Society depends for its existence on the inviolable per­sonal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers, or of mechan­ical units, but of persons. To be a person implies re­sponsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society.

Thomas Merton

You do not have to live in isolation in order to be socially transcendent, and this study shows it can be experienced regardless of living arrangements, social circumstances or economics.

The detachment is triggered the moment the individual becomes aware of having a separate self with a reality distinct from the society in which they live.

With the realization of their own realities, individuals are aware they have a real self to give.

The author found that participants in her study confirmed a greater than before ability to take action to care, and contribute to the needs and well being of others. She called this the stewardship pattern.

Therefore the unique principle of stewardship had a threefold root:

  • There is a responsible servant in every individual
  • The servant is specifically assigned with all that belongs to God.
  • In the end we have to account to God for the way the earth and all its inhabitants are cared for.

The author relates that inside this conventional viewpoint, we not only glorify God, as we make use of our gifts, but also honor Gods hope for us, as we assist others, and treat them as our brothers and sisters.

True stewardship we are told is when we serve from a sense of love, rather than fear, or because we feel obligated.

This is seen in the growing number of social and environmental programs, which stress the future need of the planet, and which respect, protect and preserve not only wildlife, but also the wilderness, and the earth’s resources.

As an individual we can express stewardship, as a giving of self, serving higher needs, rather than our own safety, comfort and gratification.

Naturally we all give in varying degrees and in different way, but gifts of the self are always totally unselfish, and because of love and concern for the other.

As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.

Peter 4:10

Gifts of self include:

  • Giving time to others
  • Becoming involved in their problems
  • Being concerned for the welfare of future generation.
  • Sharing your natural talents and aptitude with others.
  • Learning to live harmoniously with others.

The individual may also choose to give gifts, or their own personality to inspire and sustain others, or even gifts of money, or time.

The author discovered three psychological patterns of stewardship:

  • The giver needs to identify deeply with his own gift, to discover his distinctive talents, and use them so he may have something worthy to offer others.
  • The giver experiences an affinity to others.
  • As the good steward develops he expresses love in all his thoughts, social and work life.

The author explains that social transcendent people are no longer concerned with survival, status and security, but are motivated to express what they experience as beautiful, real and true.

All participants showed some awareness of connectedness, and they all spoke from a world-view, which saw no one as a stranger, and felt no disconnection.

The paradox of wholeness, and the Socially transcendent individual, is that they have found what has truth and meaning for them, and they can appear to be selfish in their giving, as they reject many usual activities, and even some people from their lives.


What human beings through all centuries and through­out the world are really good at is defending them selves against the love of God.

Extract Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

This part of the book is devoted to the mystic, for whom daily life is connected closely with spiritual matters. Their mission and life course is unique, but paradoxically always the same. No matter what their culture or country of origin, they seek their way back to the Source.

The main difference between mystics and other individuals is that they have awakened and see through spiritual eyes. Unlike others who are seeking to become, they have come through the turmoil, and are in a state of being.

They develop dormant powers of rising above normal reality, as we see in our inventors, poets and artists, intuitional and creative thinkers, and saints. The mystic’s life journey is combined with his personal psychology.

The author relates how the experience of the mystic gave birth to the branch of transpersonal psychology, which differs from other types because it not only looks at nightmares, fears and passion, as other branches do, but also helps people awaken.

Most individuals in this study did not deem themselves true mystics.

The Mystic Way:

  • It is a transformative approach to life.
  • Involves spiritual pursuit, which governs the mystic’s path, so that he and his path are one.
  • The mystic may be more meditative, appearing to be participating less in the world, as he dedicates himself to God.

This process normally starts with a conversion process, and goes on to the individual’s whole personality being taken over by an awareness of the Transcendent. The mystic yearns to know the Ultimate Reality, to connect with the Universe, and this is what drives him forward.

Stages along the way:

  • Inner prompting, intuition, knowing there is more to life, as in peak experiences.
  • Emotional detachment from the world, being socially transcendent, as seen previously with the monk, leading to growth
  • Understanding and incorporating new values, emotions and insights into his life, letting go of cultural beliefs

Whereas the monk may seek his answers in communal solutions, the mystic finds his answers in the Transcendent, by listening to the still small voice within.

The mystic’s life changing path always involves a major move away from his former self, and a reformation of that self to become God fearing. This can happen gradually or all of a sudden.

The mystic begins to communicate differently with others, and is disinterested in the social and material world. The mystic believes these sacrifices are necessary in order to comply with a higher Truth of life.

This is not an easy journey because this is a private transition that is almost impossible to explain to others. The author relates that it is the mystic who leaves his mother and father, or chooses to sell all and follow God.

This path involves a purifying process that involves many “mini deaths” where the small self is transcended. The mystic intuitively knows that this is necessary in order to reach his goal.

This is a period when the individual can feel cut of from God, and unable to seek comfort from others, as they no longer speak the same language.

Spiritual rebirth is an ongoing process, which can last months, or even many years. During this time the individual will experience diverse states of consciousness.

The author found that although many of the mystics in her study had experience of the transcendent, few could describe this to her.

However they spoke to her of love being an emotion that is painful and joyful at the same time. The mystic does not seem to have a special advantage, or know more than others, merely to be in God.

The person in the peak experience usually feels himself to be at the peak of his powers. He feels more in­telligent, more perceptive, wittier, stronger, or more graceful than at other times. He is at concert pitch, at the top of his form. This is not only felt subjectively but can be seen by the observer.’

Abraham Maslow

The author describes the peak experience as an essential part in the mystic’s journey. These are the times when he gains insight into what he is at his best, his real Self. These are times when an individual is just being, as opposed to becoming.

Times when for just an instant, the individual becomes one with “All that is”.

Peak experience

The insights of peak experiences give the individual an extended view of not only himself, but also the world, as he is lifted beyond the world and personal limitations.

Many experience these moments when totally absorbed, such as watching a beautiful sunset, or reacting to solve a crisis, in just the right way. These are times when we connect with something immeasurable and have no doubts regarding our worth.

Every thing appears clearer, more lustrous, abundant, richer and brighter. In these moments the individual loses his feelings of despair and despondency, as they are replaced with a harmonious and deep healing inner peace. Mystics can belong to any religion, or no structured religion.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake

Case Study

In this case study, the author relates the story of a bibliographer and researcher who lived as a hermit in the woods. This she says reveals the heart hunger, constant yearning, and fascination for the Absolute, what she considers typical of a true mystic.

This participant is fifty and his late wife and sons helped him find a wilderness site where he could live. He lives in a small cabin with no utilities or running water, and he runs a mail order business on a battery run computer.

He ventures out three times a week to enjoy the solitude. His business he sees as a service to others who are looking for a hard to find book.

He explained to the author that he spent years instinctively seeking the approval of others, needing them to tell him that he was all right. This doesn’t matter to him anymore, as he now see he misunderstood others as much as himself.

He now knows he wasn’t right, and that no one saying he was, would make it so.

The larger Self of this man is now able to be open about his previous self and his fears. He no longer needs to defend himself, as his inadequacy dissolves.

He speaks of how our upbringing tells us how to behave in a correct manner, according to our culture, and explains how difficult it is to question what we have been taught, and to establish our own interpretations on life.

He believes he has a responsibility to care for what he has been given, and to limit his gains to no more than he needs. As far as he is concerned, we delude ourselves if we believe that any refuge can be found on Earth, as the only refuge is trust in God.

He sees much that is chaos comes from attempts to control, and confused priorities. He says that he is slowly learning that there are others, essential like him.

He talks of his peak experiences, the first when he was a teenager, when he became transfixed and lost all sense of time when he saw Van Gogh’s painting, Crows Over a Cornfield, at an exhibition.

He also relates how he does a spiritual exercise, in which he imagines placing himself at the foot of the cross; saying this makes him feel really humble, when he realizes that God is present. He finds these exercises bring healing to him, and transport him back to the original experience.


Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in activity it­self.

Ram Dass

Study participants spoke of growing in awareness and gaining a strong identity, as they became guided by their inner truths. Social and self-transcendence is growing toward authenticity, as false attitudes, expectations and culturally imposed beliefs are dropped.

The author relates that the goal of social and self-transcendence is, “to be in the world, but not of it” and that in order to be your own person, you have to detach from the worlds idea of what is proper or good.

This she explains does not mean alienating yourself by being self pitying, eating or dressing differently from everyone else, or other futile psychotic, or even criminal ways to protest against society.

Detachment means being yourself, as you effectively live within society, but at the same time grounded in wholeness, knowing what is good for yourself and society.


The men and women interviewed for the authors study lived a variety of lifestyles. Some arranged private time into their recreational, occupational or married lives, others lived alone.

Gender, culture and age varied, yet all attained social and self-transcendence, showing that with anyone who intends and expresses what is good and true, can be whole.

The group of study participants showed three distinctive skills, which the author believes are qualities of being healthy, and the ability to grow.
Some people are naturally endowed with these qualities and skills, but they can be developed or learned, in order for an individual to become more whole.

These qualities and skills include:

  • Authenticity and autonomy
  • Adaptability
  • Intuitive-capable of listening to inner voice

The author found that it made no difference whether an individual was single, married, retired, working, poor or wealthy. These things were totally immaterial to the individual’s quest for wholeness.

The actualizing person managed to obey his inner directive, in spite of criticism or outrage from family, friends, co-workers or society.

You do not reach wholeness through shame, self-loathing or bullying yourself into self-improvement projects.

You can only become whole by accepting yourselves, as you are, here and now, when you intuitively let yourself be. In order to experience actualization it is necessary to let go of the need for perfection.

The good news is that there is a way to develop self-acceptance, patience and a more charitable heart.

Techniques for inner strength

These can empower, increase patience and the ability to tolerate your flaws. The author explains here that these techniques take time and need practicing daily, and recaps that all participants in the study showed a willingness to take their time.

Silence has always been considered a means for individuals to improve and expand themselves. It is in silence that your reflective ability and your need to reflect is born.

Here you can perceive that which cannot be spoken or made concrete. This is where you meet yourself. Silence heals and allows you to renew and rediscover yourself at the heart.

Where silence is, man is observed by silence. Silence looks at man more than man looks at silence. Man does not put silence to the test.

Max Picard – Swiss philos­opher

The author explains that although many of us will find it practically impossible to rearrange our lives to mirror the study participants, we can all find a time and place to sit and be silent each day.

She adds if you say you are too busy for this, you are resisting your own growth.

She suggests that meditation, or just sitting in silence can give the answers to allow us to live more intelligently. When there is time to reflect, read, pray and walk about in the simplicity and beauty of nature, then life has a natural flow akin to meditation.

However in order to become whole you have to establish a bond with the invisible, the unknown part of yourself. This also means you have to be willing to face your own shadow.

This is why many are reluctant to start this work, but meditation restores and rebuilds the personality.

Meditation gives you the opportunity to become conscious of, tolerate and in due course, integrate unwanted emotions, so they merge into the background and make sense, in the context of your life. Meditation creates a simple silent inner witness.

Another procedure recommended by the author is keeping a spiritual diary, or journal to keep track of your inner growth, ideas and dreams.

Benefits of keeping a journal:

  • This is a way to establish a regular dialogue with your self.
  • Keep track of daily life
  • A way to confess your failings, so remaining honest with yourself
  • Recognize the inner power, which can guide, heal and inspire

If you encounter problems with an aspect of your work it is sometimes necessary to seek a counselor.

The author explains that occasionally strong resentments can arise when one family member want to keep a journal, or to meditate, when the other wants life to carry on as it always has, counseling can be helpful with such matters.

The author finishes by saying that “what we seek, seeks us” and that anyone who is willing to get in touch with his or her self can experience social and self-transcendence.

Taking this inner journey, whatever the costs is the only way to become wholly balanced, wholesome and generous, his or her highest Self.


With a passion for spirituality, self discovery, and understanding this life, Neod spends his time musing about what is, what could be and what might come about. After writing for 20 years he's still growing, learning, exploring and sharing with love, joy and compassion.

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