My friend Sandra, who just went through a year of inner work and intense personal change, emailed me recently to say that for the last month or so she's been feeling, well, fabulous. In fact, she said, she's having such a great time that she's starting to worry. "Do you think it's okay to just enjoy this?" she asked me. "Do you think it means my practice is shallow?"
After I'd reassured her, I found myself contemplating the issues behind her question. It's a strange fact that many of us actually do believe that our practice is more "real" when we're having a hard time. It's not just our Western Judeo-Christian heritage, with its tradition of asceticism that makes us believe that hard work and emotional turmoil are somehow more "spiritual" than pleasure. Nor is it simply the hangover that some of us still carry from emotionally deprived childhoods. Truth is, most of the classical Eastern yogic traditions also seem to hold a not-so-subtle bias against pleasure—a belief that pleasure and enjoyment are distracting, and that the spiritual process is humming along most strongly when we're feeling most uncomfortable.
Connoisseurs of Wonder
Not so the tantric traditions. One reason I love the yogis of Kashmir Shaivism is that they considered beauty, delight, and pleasure to be doorways into higher states of consciousness. It isn't that these yogis were hedonists; in fact, they tended to be extraordinarily disciplined and discriminating. Rather, they were connoisseurs of the state of wonder. The tantric yogis lived in the felt realization that God's absolute awareness and joy is the source of all our experience. Even more important, they believed that the human senses are actually the means through which God enjoys the world. So when we can fully savor a pleasurable moment—a sunset or a painting, a great movie or concert, a delicious bite of food—we are holding open a door for God to enjoy himself through us.
Some of us are born knowing this. For others, it's an awareness that takes practice.
The key to practicing the yoga of enjoyment? Learn how to turn your awareness inside—from the object to the source of enjoyment. Instead of losing yourself in the food or the film, instead of believing that your joy comes from the cashmere sweater that you managed to score for only $40, turn your attention toward the sensation of satisfaction itself. The secret of turning pleasure into yoga is to focus on the feeling of pleasure and its inner source, rather than on the object that's triggered your enjoyment.
This is a wonderful awareness to hold when you're walking in nature. But I also love to do it while I'm shopping, or at a party. Peering into shop windows, trying on clothes, looking over the array of titles in a bookstore, I'll notice how my senses move around hungrily, trying to take in the sights and sounds that draw my attention, to touch them, own them in some way. Then, if I'm attentive, I can often turn my attention away from the object for a moment, and experience the pleasure or excitement just as it is, recognizing that the object is the trigger for the inner feeling.
You might try this at a party or some other social gathering—giving yourself moments when you just savor the taste of party food in your mouth, turn to the inner feeling of enjoyment in your body as you dance, the vibratory resonance and emotional power of music, letting your mind dwell as fully as possible on the sensation of taste or touch or sound, without letting yourself reach blindly toward the next taste or sound or touch. This pure focus on the experience of pleasure is a powerful form of open-eyed meditation, especially if we can keep recognizing that the source of the feeling is inside, and not in the object of satisfaction.
Admittedly, this is challenging. We're conditioned to focus our senses on the object of pleasure, and then consume more and more tastes or sights or touches. But, of course, this is how we get exhausted, over-stimulated, and hung over. The yogic approach to pleasure will actually give us energy instead of tiring us out, because when we focus on tasting the delight of, say, one exquisite chocolate, one beautiful song, one gorgeous face, our mind stops for a moment, and we can actually take rest in ourselves.
The power of beauty and pleasure—whether the beauty of a human face, the pleasure of a good meal, or a work of art or an ocean—is that it arrests us. The distraction and restlessness that often cuts us off from full engagement with the moment temporarily dissolves, and we are fully present, our consciousness literally aroused by the experience of something beautiful or delicious. That moment of inner arrest or arousal, the 'Aha!' we feel, is a realization of the state that yogic sages call the bliss of wonder. It's the meeting point of sensory and spiritual experience. It's both the fruit of and the avenue into a fully awakened life.