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And there can be attachment to practice itself. The Buddha strongly warned against getting attached to ritual and traditional practices—secular or religious. It is possible to become so attached to a particular form of practice that you remain in your comfort zone, never testing your edges. The form becomes a trap rather than a tool for liberation. To appreciate and be firm in one’s commitment to a particular practice is one thing, but if we become overly attached and obsessive with the form, we can all too easily lose the liberating spirit of the practice.
The most challenging attachment includes everything that we can identify as “I,” “me,” or “mine.” Even becoming attached to our identity as a yogi can become a source of dukkha if we develop a holier-than-thou attitude that causes us to see ourselves as separate and superior to others.
Mindfulness shows how one creates a sense of self through reactivity, belief patterns, and dramatizing story lines. It happens in the instant a student uses her mat to mark out her spot in the practice room. The more attached we are to our stories of self, the more tension and suffering we create, but it’s not until we really see this for ourselves that any opening can occur.
Mindfulness of the dharmas provides the context of bringing mindfulness to specific mental qualities, and analyzing experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s dharma, or teaching. These classifications are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but are frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation to whatever experiences arise while practicing.
The dharmas listed in the Satipatthana Sutta, or Four Foundations of Mindfulness, are the five hindrances, five aggregates, six sense-spheres, seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. One can contemplate these dharmas while practicing asanas, but I find that for most practitioners it’s too easy to fall into abstraction or intellectualization, unless they already have a mature mindfulness practice.
In the Anapanasati Sutta, or Mindfulness of Breathing, contemplation of the dharmas takes the form of bringing mindfulness to the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Contemplation of impermanence is a dharma gate opening to the understanding of the interdependent, conditioned, and selfless nature of all that exists.
Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence. From day to day, the body feels and moves differently each time we come to practice. We know things change, yet we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so. This is avidya, “not-seeing” as a kind of willful denial. But ignoring or denying the truth of impermanence perpetuates suffering and misery, and opening to the reality of change liberates that energy.
We look into the impermanent nature of all the earlier objects of meditation, starting with the breath. No two breaths are the same. Even within one inhalation, there is constant movement and change. There is no thing that is actually the breath that can be grasped and held on to. Every sensation we experience—whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—is impermanent, as is every emotion, thought, or perception. Changeless life is a sterile concept, yet without mindfulness, so many of us live as if such a life were possible.
If “self” is understood as an entity that is autonomous, independent, and persistent over time, then insight into impermanence leads inevitably to the clear view that all things lack such an unchanging self. Even the consciousness of self that we take great pains to protect and bolster is not an autonomous, independent, persistent thing or entity; it is a process that is in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is in constant change. Insight into anatta, or “no-self,” leads to an understanding of shunyata, or emptiness—that we, and all phenomena, are empty of a separately existing, enduring self.
By penetrating the reality of impermanence, our grasping after ephemeral phenomena weakens. A taste of this can happen in the time it takes to work with one asana. Maintaining warrior two, unpleasant sensations may arise in our shoulders. These sensations lead to aversion, and grasping after relief. We identify with the unpleasant sensations and think, “My shoulders are killing me.” Thoughts arise about the teacher having us hold the posture too long, never seeing that too long is a relative concept. Clinging to that belief creates a sense of self; the more we cling, the more the self suffers. Shifting our attention to the impermanent nature of experience, there is just sensation, and the sensation is ever-changing.