On a raised meadow overlooking the Gulf of Gonave outside of Grand Goave, Haiti, a singular moment washed over me; a thunderous wave of euphoria. I have never experienced a slice of time fueled with such intensity. It filled me with well-being, purpose and elation; it left me light headed, breathless and completely satisfied. Through the rest of that day similar sparks of awareness flashed through me, aftershocks of bliss. As a proponent of the tenet that an unexamined life is not worth living, I wanted to know why this occurred. As a creature who solicits positive sensation, I wanted to know how I could make this happen again.
We have all heard the phrase, ‘being in the moment’. Therapists, talk show hosts, and twelve step groups tout the benefits of a centered presence as a strategy for greater self-understanding and contentment. For most of my life the concept eluded me. I considered being in the moment a static state of passive meditation, while I am a person of action. I have to do things. When guests come to dinner I get up after the meal is over and wash the dishes; too antsy to simply sit and talk. My actions are always purposeful, future oriented. I am not adroit at being in the present.
About ten years ago a friend recommended The Experience of Buddhism. The book contains a beautiful passage of an elderly woman weaving high on a Tibetan mountain. She is absorbed by her task yet not burdened by it. Her movements fulfill the requirements of weaving yet her spirit is detached from the specifics. The passage has stayed with me – a correlation of action and mindfulness that made me consider if perhaps being active and being in the moment are not mutually exclusive.
Bikram yoga calls itself a moving meditation, though the meditative aspects are not evident for the first hundred classes or so, when the struggle against the heat is the sole occupation of your mind. In the beginning what keeps you coming back is not what transpires during class, but how wonderful you feel afterwards. At some point you make peace with the heat, at least momentarily, and you open up to the potential for a meditative complement to the strenuous poses. Bikram is a ritual; the same postures in the same sequence with the same instructor format every class. Over time you internalize the ritual, your body performs from motor memory, or even better, motor memory triggers the body to new depths, while the mind explores its own yoga journey.
Towards the end of every Bikram class is camel pose, the deepest back bend from kneeling position. My back makes a 360 degree bend; my eyes look at the floor beneath me. The only measure of my effort in camel is how dizzy I am when I come back straight. Dizziness defines effort. One day, about eight months into my practice, I came of out camel with bees buzzing around my head, I slid round to sabasana and the moment I hit the floor I was eight years old on a summer night, pinching the juice of the snap dragon flowers that lined the side walk of our house. The scent of the flowers, the touch of their hairy stems, the trace of wind cooling my cheek after a hot day, the child heart beating up in anticipation of the fluid squirt. I was transformed to a place and time I had not recalled in almost fifty years.
Although I have tried to recapture the snap dragons on subsequent camel poses, that specific experience has never returned. However, other modes of mindfulness take place during yoga in regular, if unpredictable, ways. Sometimes I have moments when the physical nature of the pose we are doing fills my brain until there is no differentiation between the body and the mind. Other times an entire posture takes place without registering with me. I complete the moves but my mind is independent of the action. Not because I am worrying about a problem at work or the heat, but because my mind is blank, suspended in the studio, held apart from the physical acts of my body. At this point I do not have control the fusions and dissociations of my body and my mind, deep the yoga penetrates my being.
Back to Haiti. In my three trips there I often feel ‘in the moment’ and strive to understand why. The obvious reason is that I am in a heightened state of awareness when I am in Haiti. The place is so different from anywhere I have ever been, it makes sense that a ‘moment’ in Haiti is more compelling than a ‘moment’ in the US, where I have lived through billions of moments. Also when I go to Haiti I am on vacation, and we all tend to elevate our vacation moments as superior to everyday moments at home. True, Haiti lacks many of the traditional trappings of vacation, like luxury surroundings or great food, or even cold drinks and hot water. Still, some vacation components remain and may actually be stronger there. When I am in Haiti I give up all control. I cannot speak the language, I travel with a group leader who makes key decisions, I have no agenda. If I am able to do useful work, great, but if not, I shrug my shoulders and acknowledge I’m in Haiti. I have never experienced less stress than I do in Haiti. And when a mind is not flooded with stress, the opportunity for mindfulness increases.
These contributing factors are relevant but by themselves cannot account for the sheer number of ‘in the moment’ experiences I have in Haiti. Those I attribute to the magic of the place. Haitians don’t have much of anything, and that includes stress. Once you give up the expectations of a Westerner hell bent on ‘doing something’ and give up your covert annoyance at people we term lazy, you understand that the parameters by which Haitians live their lives are completely different than ours. “Lazy’ is not a relevant term in Haiti. Haitians live in the moment pretty much all the time. They have so little experience in controlling their destiny, the idea of shaping their future, so dear to us, is not part of their world view. When bad things come their way, like earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera, they suffer and they cope. When good things come their way, like white guys with food and houses, they accept. When work presents itself, they do it, but they don’t seek it out, they don’t have preconceived ideas of ‘how things ought to be’. It is not a winning attitude for advancement in a global economy, but it certainly doesn’t generate stress.
So on that beautiful, hot day, walking the site of the Be Like Brit orphanage with an entourage of Haitians showing us the extents of the property, I experienced an intense sense of the moment. I could not have welcomed it without my introductory experiences through Buddhism and yoga, nor could I have found it in our ‘go and do’ culture. But the synergy of the exotic place, the release from stress, and the wonderful prospects of what this orphanage could be as seen through my architect’s eye combusted. I was swept by an unparalleled flash of excitement balanced by an equally calm awareness that everything was ‘right’.