Dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga, is a state of keen awareness without judgment or attachment, and is akin to the “flow state” experienced by artists and performers. The practice of yoga offers a return to this state through the art of mindfulness.
All through school, I was an accomplished pianist, performing and earning awards. I heard often about the talent others saw in my work, but I knew that the flow I achieved on stage had more to do with the hours I had put in when no one was looking.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the key factors which contributes to a state of flow is achieving a balance between two aspects of performance: degree of challenge and level of skill.
Just as a high-performance athlete does strength training, or a swimmer builds their core, a pianist must strengthen their fingers, arms and back through disciplined posture and hours of drills. Having this foundation in place, my fingers knew what to do when it came time for recital.
When I inevitably stumbled across the keys at certain times, it was the shadow passages, those I hadn’t spent as much time on, which struck fear into me. Those were the sequences which required demanding stretches and key transitions–the ones I had avoided during practice.
Later, I came to learn that it was the fear of being afraid on stage which caused me to stumble. I was afraid of stagefright. Take that interference of the brain away, however, and miracles happen. The pianist’s fingers know what to do. All that is required is pure, focused attention.
In a chaotic and noisy world, quieting the monkey mind can seem impossible.
How do we acquire the skill of mindfulness, which can support us when we need it most? As with any skill that can become a work of art, we start small and do the work. Our knowledge is mostly procedural to begin with: reminders to be present, exercises and breathing techniques, useful mantras that are meaningful. No matter when or for how long, every moment of mindful attention or minute of meditation is well and truly banked for later.
As fingers remember musical scales, your mind remembers conscious attention. New neural pathways begin to form.
Mindfulness on its own can be a solitary endeavor, and a yoga practice is the most manageable and enjoyable way to begin a powerful mindfulness practice while being with others of like intention. A good teacher is a prerequisite to committing to a practice long term. We need a teacher whose wisdom and experience can guide us back into the room when our minds wander, help us attend to discomfort in our bodies, encourage us to stretch a little beyond where we think our limits are, and provide a space to be present with ourselves before we once again return to the work of coping with a modern world.
Mindfulness as a flow state happens when challenge meets skill, when the work you’ve done becomes something you can stand on when your world tilts.
There is nothing more powerful than watching something unfold in front of you which–months before–would have made you fearful or angry and, in that powerful present moment, knowing exactly and completely what is required. This is what it means to move, slowly and deliberately, from being reactive to being responsive.
The fruit of our conscious, compassionate and present attention is forgiveness, allowance and tolerance. More than that, as these moments start to occur more often, an understanding begins to dawn that this ‘self’ which we walk around in is more capable than we imagined.
If peace is what I wish for the world, then that is what I must become.
About the Author:
Bel Austin is a business analyst, writer, mindfulness mentor and mother who is devoted to guiding others from trauma and conflict to peace and inspired action both in the workplace and in the home.