Embrace the Ordinary: Why Reaching for Peak Experiences Isn’t Helpful
“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 Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
The first few days of my first-ever silent mindfulness meditation retreat in 1988 were absolute torture. My body ached, my thoughts were out of control, and on top of it all, my mind complained incessantly. 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 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; the process of pulling the door toward me.
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. Reaching for and turning a doorknob is not exactly the most exciting event of my daily. Yet, done with mindfulness, it was transformative.
Peak Experiences, Attachment, and Identification
Our days are filled with these pedestrian acts. But most of the time, we sleepwalk through our daily routines, thinking about something else while we wash dishes, get dressed, brush our teeth, take out the garbage, eat our meals, etc. We look forward to the more exciting experiences we hope will come, all the while missing the small miracles inherent in every moment of our ordinary lives.
It is common to carry this habit into meditation practice. In meditation practice, peak experiences are often believed to be the bellwether of “good” meditation practice. At the same time, when our meditation is colored with boredom, sleepiness, restlessness, doubt or some other uncomfortable state, it means that we must be on the wrong track.
It’s true that peak experiences in meditation—joy, happiness, equanimity and settling into a sky-like vastness—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.
Because these experiences open us to transformative new states of being, we often yearn for them at the times when our meditation practice feels much more ordinary. 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 can develop from directed concentration practices—powers such as making oneself invisible, developing the strength of an elephant or shrinking oneself to the size of an atom. After more than a dozen of these fantastical verses comes the buzz-kill sutra, describing the pitfalls of these special powers. Sutra 3.37 says: “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 the desire for something more, that blissful state we enjoyed in the past or some imagined future transformative experience.
If we are not mindful of these states and our responses to them as they arise, we can become attached and identified with them. Identifying with these states is an ego trap that can lead us to believe that we are “superior” meditators, further separating us from our interconnectedness, as well as from our true selves.
It is the ability to let these states arise and pass—as they always will—that leads to freedom. Clutching them tightly does not make them stay. It only makes it more painful when they pass.
Mindfulness is a practice of being present with those aspects of our daily reality that are most ordinary—breathing, sitting, standing, walking, lying down, mental states, emotions—and our responses to all these processes. Reaching for something better or more exciting takes us out of the present, rendering us unable to experience and appreciate what is here and now.
Sometimes, what is present in our practice is, in fact, profound happiness and peace. When these experiences are present, we can be mindful of them. We can allow them to arise and pass naturally, just as we allow the less expansive, more ordinary sights, sounds, tastes, smells, sensations and thoughts to come and go naturally.
At a meditation retreat I attended in 2018, Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein reiterated more than once that it doesn’t matter what’s happening in our experience. What matters, above all, is our relationship to what is happening. What transforms us is our ability to meet whatever’s arising with kind attention, and to allow our experiences to come and go naturally, without either grasping after them or pushing them away.
This means that in addition to simply being in the moment, we must also be aware of our reactions to what is happening in each moment. It is in our responses—recognizing, allowing, accepting, investigating and letting go—that we can taste small moments of freedom that do not depend upon our experiences.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The miracle is to walk on earth.” When we are mindful, miracles await in just this breath, just this step, and just this turning of a doorknob.
Yoga for Healthy Aging – Study with YogaUOnline and Lillah Schwartz – Yoga for a Healthy Spine: The # 1 Key to Enhance Strength, Improve Posture, and Prevent Osteoporosis.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.