Indeed, I do think that any epiphanous experience is some form of enlightenment; insofar that not all of us are blessed with the Buddhic willpower to sit under a Bodhi tree for an extended period of time and just get it over with in one fell swoop, so we do it in tiny increments instead.
It’s just much more manageable that way. There were several occasions upon which I felt I had reached some type of nirvana in my practice, and who’s to say that they weren’t little bits and pieces of it? Like collecting seashells in hopes of one day being able to fill up a big, glass bowl for a sunny reminder on a cloudy day, that’s what my small experiences were like.
This happened more often than not in the beginning of my consistent weekly practice. Every class brought to me a new realization of quite some magnitude. But that’s the beauty of a beginner’s mind—and my favorite kind of mind—because it’s the point during which every experience is so enormously profound and moving, that we can’t help but quench our newfound thirst for life with more openness and enthusiasm than ever before. It really was a pivotal time in my life, but my exhausting college-girl schedule and relocation to an apartment far away from my regular studio, found me drifting away from that bliss I had found, and my practice slowly dwindled down-almost disappearing entirely.
Months later, with my poor body twisted into knots of stress and fatigue, my mind plagued with anxiety, worry, fear, and self-loathing, I tried so hard to force myself back into the yogic game. Where did that fearlessness go, I wondered? I had been so unattached to my ego, feeling like a freakin’ sage, and then suddenly I couldn’t even get up the guts to go practice regularly somewhere else. Had my spiritual awakening actually gone away for good? At that time, yeah, it had. I was totally lost—bound by fear of pretty much everything, and I was certainly not doing yoga.
Then, I got a job at Lululemon Athletica, and was immersed back into my long lost world of savasanas, downward-dogs, eagle poses, and various other animal-inspired postures, but still no enlightenment. My prodigal return was fairly unsuccessful in my eyes. Yea, I was going, but it was mainly for egotistical reasons. My spiritual awakening had not yet come again, and the layers emotional turmoil and physical blockages had seemingly dried and caked themselves firmly on top of my soul. I would go through the motions robotically and in a frantic manner, just trying to “keep up” with the others. However, I had forgotten that the practice of yoga is as individual as it is collective. Classes consist of other beings in the room, but my neighbor’s presence on the mat next-door does not depend upon my physical ability to get in and out of standing bow gracefully for them to do it too.
As things got a bit easier for me, I began to go frequently, and even brought along friends, thinking that I was comfortable enough in my capabilities to practice with people I knew.
Enlightenment is a funny thing. The denotation of the word is that one is free from suffering. It does not specify that you will or will not suffer on your way to becoming free from said suffering, in fact, you may suffer immensely. At least, that’s what happened to me, when in that class with my friends, I rolled up and out of a forward bend to experience an excruciating pain in my right hip that was the polite indication that my joint had just popped right out of its socket.
I was humiliated by the situation, forward bend?! Are you kidding me? I went through one of the hardest few weeks of my life post-injury and post-graduation, trapped on my couch, stuck face-to-face with everything I hadn’t been able to release. About a month later, I cautiously returned to class, with a different perspective; it was not exactly free from suffering, but free of excessive worry, free of competition, and free of anger towards things I could not change.
I practiced with my friend Travis that morning, who had been there during the accident, and I was so acutely aware of every single movement—what it did, what it didn’t do, how it felt, how I breathed, what I thought—that I was launched into a state of almost pure ecstasy...for about five minutes, but then became human again. A-ha! It had returned.
The small moments of enlightenment I had lost came back after some serious months of torture. When I first experienced my mini glimpses of nirvana, I thought that was it. I was done. I’m enlightened now. Then, I lost it. Worked hard to try to recreate it, and only got some Frankenstein-like version, while things slowly played themselves out to reveal that I have no way of ever being finished as long as I’m alive. It’s not because I can’t achieve it, or because it’s unattainable, after all, the story goes that Buddha was human and not a god, but because we’re not really supposed to give it such finality. The trajectory of my path to enlightenment exists eternally in my beginner’s mind, where it feeds off of non-judgement, curiosity, and passion. It wants always to be an expert mind, but lovingly embraces its newness.
The beginner’s mind is the enlightened mind, but can never really call itself that, at the risk of being finished, and having nowhere else to go. We cannot put those kind of limits on ourselves because those limits are also blinders. Why we punish and berate ourselves during the interims is something that doesn’t quite make sense because there is still courage and bravery bottled up inside every action we take—even if it’s just a small sip of air in head to knee pose.
It is the middle that carries us from one moment to the next, we should be excited by it, not discourage. In life, and in yoga, I believe that every tiny nirvanic experience is our own little slice of enlightenment because it makes you hungry for more, and I have found now, that I am absolutely starving, and always will be.
About the Author
Katherine Oakes is an avid yogi and soon-to-be Vinyasa instructor. Born and raised in New Jersey outside of New York City, she draws inspiration from travel, art, music, yoga, people, and the ocean. A recent college graduate with a degree in English Literature and Film Studies from Montclair State University, she is hoping to pursue a Master's degree in Film from USC, and maybe...just maybe, get a job traveling the world, writing, creating, and practicing yoga. She also loves tacos and Michael Buble.