An Interview with Charlotte Bell

A longtime Yoga teacher and Buddhist meditation practitioner, Charlotte Bell has applied the teachings of the Yoga Sutras and the Buddha’s heed for mindfulness to her sadhana practice. In this interview, she discusses how the journey is often rough and filled with ebbs and flows—just as in any relationship and in life. She shares her insights and experiences gleaned along the path of developing and sustaining a rich and deep daily practice.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What’s a main obstacle you’ve seen arise?

Charlotte Bell (CB): It’s the obstacle of impatience. We often forget to view our practice as a long-term relationship, with its ups and downs and ebbs and flows. We start out in a honeymoon stage and if we stick with it long enough, we reach a plateau. We can start to get bored with the practice. What you do then is to redouble your mindfulness. Boredom is a symptom of not paying attention, not being mindful. We’re a culture that loves instant gratification. Awakening is such a gradual process. Every time we have an insight or awakening, we need to integrate what our bodies, minds and spirits have understood. It’s during that time that people can lose interest because they think nothing is happening.

In the early honeymoon stage, we fall in love with the practice and are inspired to keep going. There’s a lot of change early in the practice, real noticeable change, which, later on, gets subtler. If we continue with it, we hit what feels like a plateau. That plateau is really more of a time of integration.

IYM: What can be done when one hits a plateau?

CB: I don’t think it works to force yourself to practice, but sometimes practicing more can be a solution. I’ve played the oboe since the age of 9, and I’ve hit many plateaus over the years. I’ve felt as if there were techniques I just couldn’t master, that nothing was really evolving. In the process of learning to play the instrument, what has always worked for me, is practicing more. Yet, there were times to take breaks too. When I came back to it after a break, I came back with fresh ears. Sometimes that’s an answer, too, of what to do at a plateau; it can be quite instructive. So, I think it’s okay to take a week when you step away and then come back to your practice, hopefully with some insight as to why you needed to do so.

Just last year, when I was playing with an orchestra, I had to learn the double-tonguing technique. I felt my brain couldn’t wrap itself around what felt like a very different technique. But, I just practiced and practiced and, finally, I got it! After so many years of playing the oboe, it was exciting that I could get this technique, but it was a matter of focusing. It’s like what Rod Stryker talked about: There was a sankalpa there; I had to make one. I had to really get it. I had to learn this technique I’d thought was impossible in order to be in congruence with all the other wind players.

It’s the same with Yoga and meditation. Every time I’ve elevated my practice, it’s because I recommitted to it. Using the concept of tapas—of sticking with my practice whether I was bored, impatient, challenged or whatever the obstacle—the interest started to grow and I would become more aware of subtle things. Then, because I’d become more mindful, that inspired me to practice more. There’s this circular thing that happens.

IYM: How do you sustain that?

CB: A lot of times I have to create that energy by just saying: “I’m going to practice.” It has worked enough times that I know it works. After 30 years of practice, I’ve been through these ebbs and flows. As Patricia Walden has said, you need to have faith in it. You begin to trust that this is how sadhana works. You commit to practice, you appreciate it and it inspires you to commit even more. The energy of that just builds. A lot of times, maybe you do need to step away for a little while and come back. I haven’t had to do that recently because I’ve come to trust the practice of tapas. To me it’s really about setting an intention to inquire more deeply and to be more mindful. Mindfulness is the cornerstone of my journey. I began with asana, but mindfulness has been the foundation of all of it. When we commit to practice, to looking deeper, or more closely at what we’re doing, then we begin to move into these more subtle levels of observation and it opens up new worlds. . .

Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.