By Tasha Friedman
Do you perceive yourself as just one limited thing, a body and mind, floating around in a sea of other limited things?
This attitude may be the normal condition of your daily life—until every so often there comes a flash of something different. You may be in meditation or watching a breathtaking sunset when suddenly everything drops, and you are left with the bare simplicity of the Present Moment.
It is a simplicity where things are exactly as they are, and somehow the same as they always have been, only you didn’t recognize it before.
The goal of the path of yoga is to restore this simplicity, a primordial unity. The word “yoga” itself means nothing else but “union.”
When your whole viewpoint is occupied by separate objects in relation to each other, you become just another object. But by shifting focus to the undivided space that contains them, you become the very life that animates all objects and experiences equally.
Reclaiming the Wholeness of Every Moment
The fullness of the Present Moment is more often perceived in childhood and is perhaps what gives childhood its special magic.
I remember so vividly being immersed in nature as a child, so acutely present to my surroundings that there was nothing within me but green leaves, rich summer earth, and the hot pulse of sunlight. Galloping on a horse and nothing there but speed. Hopefully, you have memories like this, too.
As an adult, these flashes of unified perception, when you become the entire experience instead of just a piece of it, become less common. When they do occur, the rational mind tends to quickly break into them and push away their significance.
The legend of the Garden of Eden can be read as a parable of this shift in perception, if you free the story from its common moralistic interpretations.
Before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve lived with no sense of separation from nature. Only once they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil did they start to make distinctions—this is good, this is bad, I am this, I am not that—distinctions that are the basic function of the ordinary mind.
From here came all the pain and suffering of human experience. Once you start to divide outside, inevitably you are divided on the inside too. “I am this” and “I am not that” means you do not rest simply as “I am.”
So, is there a road back to Eden?
In one sense, the spiritual path is a return to this childlike state of wholeness, even while keeping the discriminating mind as the useful tool that it is.
One way to regain this unified perspective is by “zooming out:” withdrawing your attention from the separate elements of your perception and opening to the experience in its entirety.
Searching within yourself, you can find this wholeness in the space of the “I am,” the background upon which all other perceptions appear. Searching outside, you can find it by looking at the world with soft eyes, to absorb everything at once, or by fixing your sight on something unlimited, like the open sky.
This contemplation of vastness reminds me of the words of Mark Rothko, the twentieth-century abstract artist:
“The reason for my painting large canvases is that I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”
As the mind expands to take the form of something vast and undifferentiated, there is a recognition of the relativity of everything in the domain of the ego, which otherwise might seem like the only reality. And, there is a change in the relationship between the perceiver and the object of perception, no longer two separate entities bumping into each other but a single flow of awareness in self-expression.
And from here, a natural state of surrender.
Art as a Gateway
Aesthetic immersion is one of the easiest gateways into this intimate relationship with the world. Can you remember a time when you were completely swept away by a painting, a song, or the grace of a dancer in motion?
It is a completely different experience than if you approach a work of art solely with the eye of a critic or analyst, which is to say with the mind.
The mind can know everything about a work of art. Where it came from, who was the artist, what movement it is part of, whether or not the technique is good, what it’s supposed to mean… But knowing about something is worlds away from that inner knowing, the communion of being that comes through the Heart.
Beauty is a gateway. Obvious beauty—in art, flowers, sunsets, or your lover’s eyes—makes it easier to dissolve, but beauty is a quality of this very existence. It is like the mark of the Divine stamped on all of creation and can be found wherever you put your awareness.
With the undivided gaze of simple presence, everything you see becomes a portal to the inner reality.
Another mystery is that the same effect of zooming out that I mentioned earlier can sometimes also be achieved by zooming in. Think of the single-pointed concentration of yogis or the way a tiny pebble or the wing of a fly, when examined with freshness and silence, seems to contain the whole Universe.
Reality is only one: discover it in the vast open sky or a blade of grass, it’s the same.
Nirvana and Samsara
The interesting thing about the Garden of Eden is that, at least according to the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, there was only one tree at its center.
The Tree of Life (non-duality) and the Tree of Knowledge (duality) are the same, like seeing a single object from a different perspective—or as the Kashmir Shaivites would say, the same Divine Consciousness has both the power to conceal and to reveal itself.
Nirvana and samsara exist together. If they were separate, you could never find the ineffable flavor of the infinite within the material world.
By their togetherness, the changing flow of the phenomenal world will always lead you back to the silent space within all forms, and this touch of nirvana enables a radical shift in your relationship to your own less transcendent aspects.
Embracing the Personality from the Open Space
In many spiritual settings today, you will hear about the need to embrace your emotions and your personality. But does this mean if fear or anger arise, you have to just give in to them?
A true embrace of emotions comes from detachment, and from having this larger vision.
Whenever you are lost inside an emotion, you are trapped in either aversion or attachment, in the need to fix or control your circumstances. There is no space to embrace anything.
Only by stepping outside, can you start to see how the emotions come and go in their own flow, a rhythm that is self-generating and mysteriously perfect within itself, like the way plants grow or waves make patterns on the shore without anyone telling them how to do it.
Perhaps counterintuitively, allowing even your negative emotions to exist is the key to acting freely no matter what emotion arises. When fear can exist within you, just as an energy and not a problem demanding a solution, you no longer act from fear. When anger can exist, you no longer act from anger.
You act from that all-embracing space.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.