People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul—
Amidst the chaos and uncertain times we are living in during this global pandemic, I wanted to reflect on some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius that can help us reframe events and shift perspectives.
In this quote Marcus reflects on the notion that despite our external circumstances we can always find solace within.
Many of us seek to escape our day-to-day realities through retreat or travel. Travel can provide us with an opportunity to explore new landscapes, ideas, histories and cultures. Moreover, it offers us a temporary distraction from the ‘rat race’ and daily routines, in which we often operate in auto-pilot mode for.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is directed to reside inside, refrain from travel and remaining in isolation to stop the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, I think we can use this time as an opportunity to cultivate solitude, and become more acquainted with our inner selves.
Rather than finding peace or tranquility though retreat, Marcus urges us to find it within ourselves. This can be done through living in the present moment, self reflection and contemplation. We can become aware of beauty and intricacies of life that we often ignore because we are too busy to do so. In the horrors of the Holocaust, Anne Frank was able to relish in the simple pleasures that life had to offer at that time. A glance at nature to recharge, find stillness and take a glimpse at the sublime. In her diary she writes,
Once we learn to find contentment within ourselves, in the mundane, we can find it anywhere.
Being in a state of flow is when many of us feel most alive. In these awe-inspiring moments, we flirt with the sublime, and can momentarily feel transcendent. We become filled with meaning, connecting to something greater than ourselves.
Flow is a subjective experience. Just as the tourist may see a boulder as just a piece of rock, the climber views it as something to be conquered. They immerse themselves in the challenge, and evaluate the countless possibilities of getting to the top of the cliff.
Yoga is an activity that is almost synonymous with being in a state of flow. It is a moving meditation requiring one’s focus on the breath and the continuous movement of the routine. As noted in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,
I’ve known James from high school, and we reconnected recently due to our mutual interest in yoga, spirituality and philosophy. His responses to the questions were insightful and illuminating. I was particularly drawn to how he eloquently articulates the connection of being in a state of flow with the disappearance of the ‘ego’, and how the practice of yoga enables him to fully be present.
His full responses were provided below.
1. How did you first get into yoga and how long have you been practicing?
The very first time I practiced yoga was 10 years ago. I followed some friends from university to a hot yoga class. I almost passed out during the session but remember walking out onto the street with a great ‘high’ that I had not experienced before.
I practiced on and off since then, but it was 4 years ago that I became dedicated. In 2015 I sustained a bad whiplash injury from bungee jumping. When I started my full time desk job, symptoms bubbled up in the form of back and neck pain to a point where I could not concentrate on anything for more than 20 minutes. Yoga presented a way to take charge of my own healing that other traditional medical routes could not provide. And it healed me.
2. What do you find most enjoyable about yoga?
What I find the most enjoyable about yoga is the way my body and mind feels during and after the practice. Stretching and moving the body is such a great way to undo tension and stress we sustain throughout the day. I see it as sort of a ‘shower’ routine for my body & mind. There is a real cleansing aspect to it.
3. You’ve said before that yoga is like a meditation for you. How does it feel to be in a meditative state? Does this experience share similarities with the ‘flow state’?
For me, a meditative state and a flow state share a main similarity which is the disappearance of self. In both states, “I” cease to exist along with any thoughts of who/what/where/how/when I am.
At the end of every yoga session, you practice a pose called ‘savasana’ which is Sanskrit for ‘corpse pose’. You lay down on your back, close your eyes, and let yourself go into a half-sleep state. The idea is that having exhausted your mind & body with the previous poses, you are able to let everything go and allow rest. And in this process of letting go, you sometimes experience a complete disappearance of your self. And when the ‘self’ disappears, you start to simply be. This state of just ‘being’ is the ultimate meditative state for me. It is a feeling of simply being and nothing else.
So both meditative and flow states share this quality of disappearance of self. But one difference that I see between them is that flow states have an active quality to it. My sense of self disappears in a flow state as similar to a meditative state, but in flow, I am also actively participating in something. I am in constant motion and creation. For example, in the ‘flowing’ part of my yoga practice, the sense of my ‘self’ has disappeared, but I am also still moving and flowing. And it’s not “I” that is controlling or directing this movement. My body just intuitively knows where to go next. Before ‘I’ know it, I am doing it. And there is no hesitation or pause. I flow through my movements without thought and it unfolds as the ‘perfect’ sequence of motions that I can take.
4. Do you associate the state of flow with happiness, how is it similar or how does it differ?
I wouldn’t associate the state of flow with happiness per se, but more so bliss. Or perhaps contentment is more accurate. I typically associate happiness with gaining something. You get something that you wanted and you become happy. On the other hand, I see the state of flow as more of contentment with what already is; the lack of desire or need. Flow is being OK with the lack, whereas happiness is feeling good through some gain.