Listening to David Baron's contagious enthusiasm about observing a total solar eclipse for the first time reminds me of something I've experienced many times as a result of rigorous contemplative practice.
"I'd seen blue skies and grey skies and starry skies and angry skies and pink skies at sunrise. But here was a sky I had never seen," he says. "And for the first time in my life, I just felt viscerally connected to the universe in all of its immensity. Time stopped, or it just kind of felt nonexistent, and what I beheld with my eyes — I didn't just see it, it felt like a vision. And I stood there in this nirvana for all of 174 seconds — less than three minutes — when all of a sudden, it was over. The sun burst out, the blue sky returned, the stars and the planets and the corona were gone. The world returned to normal. But I had changed."
He's describing a natural phenomenon that occurs when key attentional capacities have reached a critical mass.
This is what Shinzen Young calls having a complete experience. In the context of his Unified Mindfulness approach to mindfulness, a complete experience means having simultaneously high levels of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. This can happen spontaneously as with being caught up in an uncommon natural event. But it's possible to increases the likelihood of complete experiences by cultivating the prerequisite skills of attention.
Developing concentration makes it possible to refine your sensory palate which is like upgrading to higher-definition versions of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Through consistent attention exercise over time, you also develop the ability to allow whatever you're observing to play out with less internal interference.
When David Baron experienced the euphoria of his first solar eclipse, he was completely absorbed by the sensory phenomena, he was immersed in a rich sensory complexity, and he was able to effortlessly ride the wave of his experience.
"Whenever you have a complete experience of something," Shinzen explains, "the entire universe is present in that experience. Your individual identity is merged with, on one hand, the entire universe, and on the other hand, with the source of the universe...Inside a complete experience, time, space, self, and world — all of creation and the source of creation — are all contained."
What's so cool about this is that instead of needing to wait around for significant astronomical events, "any ordinary experience like washing the dishes, when it is experienced completely, becomes absolutely extraordinary."
The first time I experienced this was during a silent meditation retreat. I was peeling a hard-boiled egg one morning when it suddenly seemed overwhelmingly beautiful. I was blown away by its shape, color, and texture. It seemed at once completely natural and entirely unlikely that such a thing existed at all.
It felt like I was holding a miracle in my hands and that my own life was entirely miraculous in exactly the same way. From the outside, I must have looked like a guy removing the shell from an egg, but from the inside, I felt completely saturated by awe.
I had been focusing intently on ordinary sensations for days. Something about the momentum of my attentional skills set the stage for experiencing an explosion of awe in response to the egg's simple yet impossible beauty.
Paying close attention to sensations in real time allowed the apparent impossibility of the universe to hit me. It brought me to tears. I went outside to avoid the social pressure to suppress my emotional reactions to the wonder. Everything around me seemed impossibly beautiful. The grass. The trees. The sky. Other people.
It wasn't conceptual. I hadn't acquired some special knowledge or solved a cosmic riddle. It felt more like the erosion of something that had been interfering with my perceptions. It was like suddenly being able to see through an optical illusion.
The egg itself didn't suddenly become extraordinary. My perspective shifted.
In an effort to make sense of the world throughout my life, my senses became dull. I had grown to see everything in and around me as ordinary.
We fall asleep so easily. No wonder we need artists, poets, musicians, sacred stories, and scientists to wake us up again and again.
Waking up to the extraordinary hiding within the ordinary is trainable. This goes beyond following the path of totality or chasing peak spiritual experiences.
The real magic happens when we become intimately familiar with the moment-by-moment experience of being alive. Instead of trying to force complete experiences to happen, focus on setting the stage for them to happen by exercising your attention.
When remembering to notice that we're alive becomes a habit, we begin to erode the internal friction that obscures our view of the richness we're swimming in every single day.
Our base level for feeling connected to wonder, nature, and each other inches up. We get better at recognizing and savoring vitality. Our capacity for empathy and compassion blossom because knowing ourselves more fully means understanding each other at an entirely different scale.
As Mr. Baron points out towards the end of his TED Talk:
"This is a lesson I've learned, and it's one that applies to life in general: duration of experience does not equal impact. One weekend, one conversation — hell, one glance — can change everything. Cherish those moments of deep connection with other people, with the natural world, and make them a priority. Yes, I chase eclipses. You might chase something else. But it's not about the 174 seconds. It's about how they change the years that come after."