The opportunity to step away from the familiar patterns of our lives, from the to-do lists and the appointments, the cleaning and errands and schedules, can provide a much needed shift. This was true for me recently when I spent 10 days in San Miguel de Allende visiting friends. I lived out of a suitcase putting together outfits from far fewer choices than I have at home. I carried little in my backpack other than a wallet, my phone for taking pictures, and a water bottle. I ate when I was hungry and walked for hours each day. And there was ample time for yoga and reading, even a little meditation on the patio outside our room.
My days were simple, but they weren’t quiet. The house where I was staying was located on a fairly busy thoroughfare, so even though I had a bit of privacy in the form of a high wall, I could hear roosters crowing, dogs barking, motorcycles and cars tearing down the street, even an occasional musician strolling. Workers laboring on adjacent rooftops and the voices of visitors staying at the hostel behind us provided a steady backdrop of sound. There were smells too—both pleasant (tamales cooking) and unpleasant (sewage and diesel fuel). Rather than trying to block this all out, I allowed it to be part of my experience of practicing yoga and sitting still. One morning I heard a buzz and opened my eyes to discover a hummingbird hovering just in front of me on the flame-colored bougainvillea.
I brought with me Meditations on Intention and Being, by Rolf Gates, which is divided into short passages for each day of the year and offers a deep and personal exploration of the eight-limb path of yoga. An aspect of this path are the Yamas or five moral restraints, one of which is Asteya or nonstealing. As Gates jokes, most people practicing yoga are not out robbing banks. But the deeper definition concerns, as he puts it, “the ability to be unconflictedly present for what is happening right now: no multitasking, no phone calls, no selfies, nothing. Just being right here for what is happening right now.”
As someone who has long struggled with an active mind that would prefer to be preoccupied planning, worrying, and anticipating, particularly during meditation, I found this definition incredibly helpful. Whatever comes up, wherever the mind goes, as many times as it wanders, I can return again and again to the present moment. I can breathe my way through discomfort or boredom without habitually pulling out my phone. I can summon patience for the airline attendant attempting to rebook each passenger when our flight is unexpectedly cancelled. I can show up and listen, as deeply as possible, to whir and confusion and symphony of this beautiful and heartbreaking world.