Nice, but sometimes an impediment
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
The first few days of my first-ever silent mindfulness meditation retreat were absolute torture. My body ached, my thoughts were out of control, and on top of it all, my mind’s commentary was non-stop complaining. The complaining often turned into self-flagellation. How could I be so lame that I couldn’t manage to do something so simple as to pay attention?
I kept trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to harness my mind and pay attention to my breath and to the sensations in my body. After one particularly frustrating evening, I returned to my room to prepare for bed. As I reached for the doorknob to the bathroom, I sank into mindfulness of the entire process—the sensations of my arm reaching out, the smooth, cool surface of the doorknob, the process of turning my forearm. After thousands of times reaching for and turning doorknobs, it felt like the first time I’d ever performed this simple act. The experience was exquisite.
In the world of popular yoga, the practice of poses—especially fancy, gymnastic-type ones—has eclipsed the larger system of practice. Fancy poses—the crazy-looking asanas that only a small fraction of the population will ever be able to distort their bodies into—seem to be the point. They are considered to be something to aspire to, if only we’re willing to work hard.
In meditation practice, peak experiences, much like fancy poses, are often considered to be the bellwether of “good” meditation practice. It’s true that peak experiences—joy, happiness, equanimity and feelings of vastness —in meditation are, indeed, pleasurable. They make the practice easier in those moments when they are present.
It is also true that it’s very easy to become attached to peak experiences. When peak experiences are not present, we often feel that our meditation has hit a plateau, that somehow we’re not doing it right.
Much of the third pada (chapter) of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes special powers that yogis develop from certain types of concentration practice, powers such as making oneself invisible, developing the strength of an elephant or shrinking oneself to the size of an atom. After more than 20 of these verses comes the buzz kill sutra, 3.37: “They seem to be enhanced faculties and abilities to an outwardly directed mind, but they are obstacles to the achievement of an inner, enlightened state.” (Translated by Kofi Busia in The Gift, The Prayer, The Offering.)
In other words, peak experiences can actually be a trap. Instead of being mindful of what is present in this moment, here and now, we get caught up in desire for something more, that state we enjoyed in the past or some imagined future opening. If we are not mindful of these states and our responses to them as they arise, we can become attached and identified with them. It is the ability to let them arise and pass, as they always will, that leads to freedom.
Embracing the ordinary
By its nature, mindfulness is not a practice of reaching for peak experiences. Mindfulness is a practice of being present with those aspects of our daily reality that are most pedestrian—breathing, sitting, standing, walking, lying down, mental states, emotions and our responses to all these sensations.
In fact, in a meditation retreat I attended in 2018, Joseph Goldstein reiterated more than once that it really doesn’t matter what’s going on in our experience. What matters, above all, is our relationship to it.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com