Today's Daily Tip
The Search for EnlightenmentJohn Friend
Opening to Bliss
John friend founded his own school of yoga, Anusara ("Flowing with Grace"), on the principle that the body and mind are "sacred vessels" through which "divine radiance" shines in each of us uniquely. He is currently at work on a book detailing the Tantric philosophy and alignment principles that serve as the foundation for Anusara Yoga.
We tie ourselves up when we think of enlightenment as a final destination, fixed awareness, or permanent abode, explains Friend. We can have an enlightenment experience in any moment—while we are immersed in a hobby or sport, walking in the wilderness, playing with a 2-year-old, or moving through poses on the mat. "The way I define enlightenment, as the experience of being in my heart," says Friend, "it is my intention in every class, in every moment, to be enlightened." Being in his heart, says Friend, puts him in touch with what he calls "Supreme Consciousness" and its attributes—divine bliss and love. Many times, says Friend, our experience of enlightenment is momentary. "Enlightenment is everyone's natural state, but it gets covered up. We forget, and there are these layers of mental and physical energies from this lifetime and maybe even others that disconnect us from our hearts." And while these energies can make the spiritual path intensely painful for some—they may have to go slowly, practice longer—"touching the heart is for everybody."
Some contend that a culture as addicted to appearances and averse to contemplation as ours makes enlightenment an endangered pursuit, while others claim that enlightenment is beyond the ken of even the most dedicated seekers. But Friend subscribes to the Tantric view shared by many of his peers that you don't have to live in a cave or reject the world as you know it to be a genuine spiritual aspirant. "Yes, there are certain difficulties with living in our complex world. We can easily be drawn away from experiencing the wonder and simplicity in the present moment," says Friend, "but it all depends on how you view things." While computer technology, for example, might be seen as a distraction and blamed for the revved up speed we live at, Friend points out that it is also an amazing tool, capable of putting us in touch with people all over the world who suffer the same fears and sorrows and savor the same joys.
And while people might be coming to yoga "because they hate the saddlebags on their butts," explains Friend, the seeds of transformation can sprout at that level. "They start doing poses and feel the pleasure of being in the body. Those pleasures are part of the celebration of being on this path. You can get addicted to this physical practice and miss the larger context, but the physical pleasure of the practice can also be an expression of spirit in the body. In classical yoga, where the body is seen as naturally inferior to spirit, you are trying to get out of this body. But in Hindu Tantra, you can open to bliss in this body, right now." And that's the path Friend himself wants to walk. "If you ask me if I'm going for enlightenment," he says, "I have to ask, 'Well, what sort of enlightenment?' I'm here to enjoy, to look for the beauty, and to open to grace."
Sylvia Boorstein is an author and cofounding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her new book, Pay Attention, for Goodness' Sake: (Ballantine, 2002) guides Westerners through the Buddha s ten Paramitas, the "Perfections of the Heart."
When Sylvia Boorstein began her mindfulness practice in the 70s, meditation and yoga were interesting to her for their mind-altering potential. "I don't know whether or not I thought about enlightenment, but I had the notion that I'd get good enough at altering my mind-states that I would not be so affected by suffering in the world, that the pain in my life would disappear."
These days, many new yogis and meditators enter their practice with a similar expectation—that they will find abundant and perpetual peace, a sort of plastic bubble of tranquility that suffering cannot penetrate. What they find if they stay with the practice, says Boorstein, is that it's not about abolishing pain and suffering, but rather, honing the heart's response to it. "Regardless of what I thought previously about a sustained state of enlightenment, I know now that my capacity to be openhearted, expansive, kind, and forgiving—the state in which I think we are meant to live—doesn't remain implacably in place. The point of spiritual practice for me is to get back to that state."
Boorstein says that if someone had told her when she started that her practice would make her more kind, she would have said, "Listen, that's not my main problem—I'm reasonably kind—I'm tense though!" She now says that kindness is her main intention. In Pay Attention, for Goodness' Sake, she tells the story of an early dharma talk she heard wherein the teacher explained the path as a journey from attention and mindfulness to insight and wisdom and an enlightened understanding of suffering, leading finally to complete compassion. "I wrote this down in the form of an equation with arrows. But in chemistry there are equations where the arrows go both ways," says Boorstein, "so I thought to myself, We could just start on the other side: Practicing compassion can also lead to enlightened understanding, and that in turn can lead to a greater capacity to pay attention."
Boorstein keeps a composite of the Five Precepts taped to her computer and takes them every day before turning it on: "Do no harm to anyone; Take nothing that is not freely given; Speak truthfully and helpfully; Use sexual energy wisely; and Keep your mind clear." She teaches that the goal of practice is not to escape our humanness but to be more genuinely engaged in our lives. "I don't want to be more than a human being," says Boorstein. "I want to be able to forgive myself." Perhaps because she was raised in a family where "voting was a religious act," Boorstein has felt the influence of her practice broaden over time: "I don't think people have as an entering motive the well-being of all beings. But it has become more and more obvious to me that my own ability to live with a certain amount of freedom and clarity is directly a condition of my own ability to not create more suffering in the world." When asked to define enlightenment, Boorstein comments that her years of practice have left her with "less of a need to know. There is a kind of humility I have now that I'm both surprised and happy about. I don't feel like I know nearly as much as I used to think I knew." She speaks, in Pay Attention and in person, of "enlightened moments, instances in which I see clearly and choose wisely," more often than she speaks of "total understanding forever." After all, "Each moment is new, and you respond to it anew. It is the first time that moment's ever happened."
Colleen Morton Busch is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.