The other morning I met a coworker for coffee after my morning yoga class and on our way to the office. It was a gorgeous day—eerily so, especially for late-February in New York City—and she asked me how class was by saying, “So, did you find inner peace today?” I laughed it off as the kind of yoga joke that is both harmless but painfully telling of what Western culture has done to the ancient practice of yoga: making it about a goal, something you can say you’ve done and and can check off a list, rather than a process and a present experience.
Anyway, over the course of our conversation and the rest of the day, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was bothered by my nonchalant reply to that very deep and, right now for me, piercing question. Inner peace is perhaps as elusive a concept as you can get at any point in time, and it’s far from anything I’ve experienced over the past year (and I bet there’s a handful of you out there who would agree, especially since November 9th). The chaos and tumult around us make it hard to take for granted any sense of big-picture stability: that entities and institutions from the government to the universe itself are whole and sound feels like the most literal alternative fact there is. As a result, the foundations of our individual selves feel shaky and laced with so many tiny fissures that collapse is inevitable. It’s hard to go about one’s day to day and appreciate any sense of normalcy; I recently was in the grocery store and even as I stared at my shopping list felt completely overwhelmed by the process of getting what I needed to cook for the week. How could I possible get what I need in this store? I thought. I don’t even know what I need, but I’m pretty sure I can’t find it here in the bulk goods aisle.
On the surface, then, the easiest answer to my friend’s question was a big fat NO. Inner peace felt like the most indulgent thing to try to find when so many people in our neighborhoods, our country, and around the world—and even the planet itself—confront warring parties each and every day. What we need is outer peace, I thought, even as I walked home that night in the balmy 60-degree weather, at once happy for the break from the blisteringly cold winds we’d had days earlier and horrified by the warmth itself.
One of the strategies I’ve employed recently to combat such enormous external stressors is daily meditation, with help from the app Insight Timer. Since I’m still fairly new to meditation, I rely on the guided meditations in the 5-15 minute range, finding it easier to calm my mind and settle my body for that amount of time when a soothing (sometimes British!) voice tells me it’s okay to relax. On the day after my coffee date, I was laying in bed during my morning meditation and was jilted out of quiet reflection by the words, uttered slowly and deliberately, “You deserve happiness and peace.” Another alt-fact, this seemed to be in the moment, and one that made my emotional frequency shift toward anger and frustration rather than happiness or peace. Was it possible to say that I deserved either of those things when, again, there is so much suffering in the world? And even if I did deserve them, even if we all did, why did it seem like those two things were so very far from reach such that even a sunny, unseasonably warm day felt like a sign of the impending doomsday rather than a blessing?
Determined to finish my meditation even as these incessant vrittis filled my mental space, I tuned my focus more closely to the guiding voice. He told me to breathe and to remember a happy time in my life—how it felt inside and out to be smiling and grateful for being alive in that moment. “This is what you deserve all the time,” he said, “and you can share this feeling with others if you wish.” That was the last thing he said, and the key to the entire practice it seemed: indeed the answer to my friend’s question.
That feeling of happiness was right there inside, just waiting to be accessed once my mind turned off the outside noise that blocked it out. As mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Wherever You Go, There You Are, practicing the so-called Lake Meditation allows us to “identify not only with the content of your thoughts and feelings but also the vast unwavering reservoir of awareness itself residing below the surface of the mind[.] In the lake meditation, we sit with the intention to hold in awareness and acceptance all the qualities of the mind and body, just as the lake sits still, cradled, contained by the earth, reflecting sun, moons, stars, trees, rocks, clouds, sky, birds, light, caressed by the air and wind, which bring out and highlight its sparkle, its vitality, its essence.” The lake can be itself, can be happy and still, even though there are waves and winds and turbulence that disrupt the surface. It’s essence is always there, never changing, deep beneath the glassy surface.
So looking below that surface, I found another answer to my friend’s question. Had I found inner peace? No, I hadn’t found it in that yoga class, or during the course of that particular day even. Inner peace was never really lost, but already there inside me, inside all of us. And when we take that peace and share it with those around us, fear and anxiety and frustration feel less crushingly ubiquitous. Instead, our collective inner peace seeps together to form one giant lake, a reservoir of good whose waters will eventually expand so far out and deep there’s no choice but to dive in.
Photos: Wix.com; Jennifer Kurdyla