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Zen’s understanding of pure practice is to not add anything extra to the experience. If we bring mindfulness to our feelings, we can experience pure pleasure, untainted by clinging or grasping. But in order to be able to experience pure pleasure, we must be willing to experience pure pain or pure discomfort, free of aversion and resistance.
The most pain-avoidant people have the least joy in their lives. In trying to armor ourselves against pain, we numb ourselves to all experience. In opening ourselves to felt experience, we allow ourselves to live life fully, not caught in habitual patterns of reactivity. Rather than conditionally reacting to experience, we can choose to respond creatively. The doorway to this freedom is in bringing mindfulness to our feelings before they condition our reactivity.
While practicing asana, mindfulness of the mental formations provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and recognize our mental patterns and how they condition our habitual tendencies. The body is not completely symmetrical. You may find one side in a posture easier than the other side. Noticing how quickly the mind categorizes experience into good and bad can free us from believing these potentially limiting notions. As an old Zen saying puts it, “with one thought, heaven and hell are created.”
Pain or discomfort often arises during asana practice. Much of our discomfort is really just a reaction to novelty, and much of our pain is the pain of change. Such pain can provide an opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Truly injurious or excessive pain should never be ignored, but the truth is, most of the pain that one experiences in asana practice is merely discomfort and not injurious. With discomfort, it is fruitful to drop out of your aversive reactivity and bring a gently embracing quality of mindfulness to the discomfort. When we do this, we see for ourselves that there really is a difference between pain and suffering—the misery and mental anguish that we add to the experience because of our aversion. This is an important insight with real benefit to life off the mat.
We practice with the discomfort and pain that arises in asana practice so that we can remain free from suffering throughout our life. If we feel discomfort in our shoulders while doing warrior two, all we need do to relieve the pain is to lower our arms. But if we always do this, what will we do with the pain that we cannot avoid through such a simple strategy? What if you are injured in an accident? Or you lose your lover? How will you face your own sickness, old age, and death? Whether emotional or physical, embodiment means pain is inevitable. Working with mindfulness of the mind means that when the inevitable losses of life occur, you can just feel the pain, and not add suffering as well.
The Buddha encouraged us to notice the mind when liberation, or letting go, is present. But first we need to have clarity about what a grasping mind feels like. Yoga is not an ideology, philosophy, or moral code about the goodness of letting go and the badness of attachment. Letting go is what happens when the suffering of holding on is felt and recognized.
The most obvious attachment is to material objects and sensory pleasures, including possessions, and sensual or sexual sensations. Attachment to particular “feel good” experiences, like the potentially seductive enjoyment of stretching and moving the body, or the excitement of accomplishment, are some examples, as is the “yoga buzz” many practitioners seek in their practice. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying physical pleasure, but if we are dominated by our attachment to pleasure, we will suffer when it dissipates.
Another type of attachment is to opinions, beliefs, views, and theories. While practicing asana, we may find ourselves attached to ideas about what we should be able to do, what we should be feeling, and the correct form of the asana. We may find ourselves caught in a belief about what we cannot do or will never be able to do. Again, ideas and opinions are not the issue; it’s the degree of our attachment to them that creates suffering. If we are attached to strong ideas about what we need to be happy and free, the attachment to those very ideas becomes an obstacle to happiness and freedom.