Using the Senses as a Portal to Meditation

Teaching at Kripalu, I get to meet a wide range of practitioners from around the globe, and there seems to be a common misunderstanding in the yoga world regarding meditation. Many people think that meditation needs to be synonymous with calmness, quietness, and an empty, peaceful mind. Lots of people are taught or believe that the “right” way to meditate is to systematically withdrawal the senses, until the qualities listed above emerge. All this is well and good for some, but it’s not the only path to the mountaintop.

Another way to think of meditation is to flow with the infinitely diverse power of life. One way to do this is to use the senses as a portal. In this approach, whatever qualities of life you are naturally drawn to become a magnet for intimate relationship. Then meditation can be less of a chore and more thrilling, refreshing, and enlivening. To experience pleasure or excitement in meditation may seem taboo, but it is a healthy practice for people wanting to engage with the world, rather than escape it.

The next time you meditate, experiment with keeping your eyes open. In the same way you sense the inner experience of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, embrace the outer world. As people practicing yoga in modern times, our challenge is not to disappear from the complexities of life, but to skillfully dance between the details and transcendence. Let your eyes connect with what is most absorbing, and let it change. Allow color, texture, shape, movement, light, and shadow to touch the eyes. Avoid any artificial effort to focus or concentrate on just one thing. Recognize outer qualities that reflect your inner experience. Absorb the beauty, chaos, steadiness, flexibility, growth, decay, circulation, and space surrounding you. Be sensitive to the part of yourself that is in symbiotic relationship with the outer world.

One of my favorite meditations in the wintertime is to bundle up, go outside, and softly gaze at the sun. Since winter leans toward darkness and cold, there is a part of me that intensely craves the light and warmth. I’ll often let my eyes oscillate between being open and closed. Some moments, it feels so good to take in the light and color. Some moments, it feels right to close my eyes and simply feel the radiance on my skin. The trick is to trust the qualities and movements that are enticing, and to give in. So when I flow with the power of the sun, it feels like the most natural and refreshing thing in the world. Once I get going, it is harder to stop than to continue. That’s how I know it’s the perfect meditation for that moment.

When you meditate with the senses as a doorway, rather than an obstacle, you get good at appreciating the infinitely diverse power of life. The discipline is to link up with what makes you feel most alive. Listen to your favorite music, taste your favorite food, get a really great massage, look out at a gorgeous landscape, take a walk in the falling snow, or spend quality time with an intimate friend. Being alive and sensitive to the world can be totally wonderful and mysterious. To quote Lorin Roche, “experiencing even one moment of existence is a miracle.” Go for it. Open the senses and enjoy.

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Steven Leonard is a faculty member for the Radiance Sutras School of Meditation, the Kripalu School of Yoga and has been leading teacher trainings for more than a decade.

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