Yogi Assignment: Applying Ahimsa Post-Election
You might not know this about me, but I have a strong interest in politics. Before I was passionate about yoga, I was passionate about politics. I used to get into heated arguments with people about government policy. I was on the high school debate team (and even won awards for public speaking). Graduating fifth in my high school class, I was offered full scholarships to a few universities in exchange for participating on the debate team. My plan was to major in political science and go to law school. I wanted to be a lawyer and fight what I thought was the good fight in politics. But, obviously, my life took a dramatically different course. Surprisingly, the shift happened long before yoga. It was during the summer off between high school and college that I woke up one morning and realized that I was so much happier than I had been in a long time. After a few moments of introspective probing I realized it was because I was not debating people all the time. It suddenly hit me that scheduling a debate is like scheduling time to argue. It was evident to me that I would not be happy if I devoted my life to arguing with people as my profession. I knew what direction I didn’t want to be heading, but I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go. That is, until I found yoga.
For years after my choice to turn away from high school debate and the pre-law path I was lost and searching for meaning and purpose. I turned away from politics and news in general and went on a kind of media fast. It was in this period that I discovered yoga. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the yogi’s role in civic discourse and public service. Now, don’t stop reading. I’m not running for President or anything even remotely like that. I’m also not here to endorse a particular agenda. I do, of course, have my opinions on what I believe good government is. But, I’m not writing this blog to try and convince you of my beliefs. Instead, I’m writing this blog to help you, as a fellow yogi, navigate the often murky territory of post-election polarization. Two sides engage in rounds of debates, run onslaughts of advertisements, amplify their positions in echo chambers and charge forward. One side emerges as the winner, the other side as the loser. Meanwhile, our shared sense of community fractures and we grow further apart. Or, at least, that is how the last few election cycles seemed to play out to me. So, what does the yogic path have to offer civic discourse in our current state of affairs? As it turns out, a lot.
Let’s start off with the foundational yogic principe of Ahimsa. Often translated as non-violence, I’ve always liked a positive definition of this principle. Ahimsa to me is more than just the absence of violence. Ahimsa is the active state of love, forgiveness and acceptance. There is nothing like a polarizing election cycle to bring out the hatred, judgement and vitriol. This is the state of himsa, hatred, violence or negativity, and goes against yogic values. In order to balance your mind, I recommend to practice ahimsa in this very real and challenging way—learn to love your enemies. This isn’t a new concept. The master Christian yogi Jesus espoused this view thousands of years ago. Now, in our present day quagmire of political voices we need this high teaching more than ever.
Think about how many times you have unfollowed someone whom you once found inspiring or unfriended someone you know from high school just because they proclaim different political beliefs than you do. I recently shared some of my personal opinions about the governor race in my home state of Florida on my Instagram stories and got both positive and negative response. There were people who called on me to “stick to yoga” and announced that they would now be forced to unfollow. To others I was more of a hero. It’s almost like we categories people who don’t share our political beliefs as our “enemies” and those who do as “heroes”. In doing so, we also normalize harsh and sometimes cruel words and actions towards those people whom we deem as enemies.
I’ll be honest, I’ve had those same type of judgmental thoughts about others. We all have friends or family members whose political beliefs are not our own. I’ve been shocked to see what someone that I know on a personal level thinks about government policies or leaders. I’ve been tempted to leave a point comment. But, as long as their beliefs and actions are not causing me personal and direct harm, I believe it is my work as a yogi to learn to stay present with them and learn to love them anyway. This is ahimsa in action. And, it is so freeing. Hate and judgement can be heavy. Love and forgiveness often feel light. I’m not saying that hate is bad or wrong or that you shouldn’t feel hate. In fact, if you feel hopeless, sometimes being angry is a positive step. What I’m suggesting is that you do your work to process your emotions about the election cycle until you find a place of love and positive action before you take action. The reason is all about your own energy. This is not a “love and light” blog asking you to think away the often harsh realities of injustice. This is a request for you to stand firm in your belief for the type of world you want to create. Action rooted in what you love and what you want to create is simply more effective than action what rooted in what you hate.
While it can be useful and necessary to bring issues that are problematic to the surface, it can also be easy to get swept away in the passion of hate. I know because I’ve done it myself. While protesting actions that I deemed unjust I let hate get the better fo me. Before I knew it, I was no longer standing for something I believed in. Instead, I was fighting against something I did not believe in. And truly, what you resist persists. What you hate grows stronger. What you love you make strong and the act of love makes you stronger. If I call you my enemy and throw words of hate in your direction, but you love me, then your love has the potential to disarm my hate. And at the very least, your love for me acts as a shield that protects you. In an argument, whomever loves simply has the upper hand and is the true winner. But, if you hate me and I hate you back, then we are both in hell. If we both love each other, then we are equals. Every action rooted in hate perpetuates the very thing it seeks to eradicate. Every action rooted in love has the potential to heal.
The reality of this message is that it is people of privilege in positions of power who need to hear it. It is not marginalized communities that need to hear more tone policing of their voices speaking out for justice. I hope that people of privilege read this, particularly yogis, and take up the cause to truly create a world of justice. It is so easy to use the language of spirituality to bypass key issues that can be difficult and confronting to hear. But true spiritual practitioners must harness the strength of their practice to face their fragility with courage and take action to make the world a more just place.
A common prayer that ends yoga and meditations classes is for all beings to be free from anger, be peaceful and be filled with love. Well, the only way that the world would truly be a place where no one was angry, everyone was peaceful and all were filled with love is if the world was a truly just place for all beings. That means that no group in the ideal world is marginalized, abused, or taken advantage of. We have a long way to go before we reach that state, but as yogis it is our responsibility to apply ahimsa in real life, navigating the challenging waters of our social fabric to create the world we stand for. If yoga is a path of peace, then it is a path of peace for all beings.
I don’t know which side will emerge from the mid-terms victorious. But I do know underneath all the heated political arguments coming from “strangers on the internet” are real people whose pain and suffering is present. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you identify with, there is a real live human being on the other end of every word written on the internet (just like I am really here behind this blog). The challenge of ahimsa in a bitter atmosphere is not just to do no harm. Ahimsa is bigger than that. Ahimsa means to make every act an act of love and to define love as more than saccharine phrases. Ahimsa in action makes the case for a broad notion of love as social justice, mutual respect and positive action.
I’m not suggesting for yogis not to protest. I believe in civil discourse and open forums. But, as a yogi, I believe that before we take any action we must put in the world to process our own stuff. Then, we will be more effective at creating the world we want. Instead of reacting, you will be free to act. At the heat of the spiritual practice is the desire for all beings to come out of their misery. If you are not grounded in this action in the midst of planning a protest, wiring a comment or engaging in a debate, especially in the wake of a polarizing election, my suggestion is for you to put in the work of spiritual practice until you reconnect with a heart full of love. Otherwise, it will be so easy for you to get drawn into hate. And once your heart is given over to hate, then, the battle is already lost.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Ahimsa in Action. Let these four points help you act in love this week, especially if you find yourself lapsing into harsh bouts of negativity or being triggered by the election results.
Love your enemies—
Called Tonglen in Buddhism, the practice of sending love to your enemies can truly set you free. Start off with a few minutes to calm your mind. Then send loving thoughts to yourself. See yourself happy and filled with love. Let the feeling of love wash over you. Next, send love to someone you truly admire. Simmer in the love. Finally, send love to your enemies. I recommend doing this practice before you go to a protest post-election. Be sure to send love to the other side, the ones you consider your enemies. It will be hard, but remember love is your greatest weapon. Notice any resistance and see if you freely give love. Then, sit back and tune into your heart as all the love you send out returns to you tenfold.
2. Ahimsa Listening—
Learn to listen without judgement. Learn to listen with love. The next time you find yourself about to attack or judge someone and respond with harsh words, try something else. First pause, breathe, and take a step back. Put in your own work to return to a center of calm within yourself. I recommend at least five full minutes of meditation. Then, return and ask a genuine question in an effort to listen without making any conclusions about the character of the person. This type of innocent perception can help release your judgements and humanize the opposing side. Plus, understanding where your adversary is coming from will better equip you for the path ahead.
3. Get Real about Your Judgement and Your Hate and Turn the Thought Around—
There is no sense in pretending that you are beyond judgement and hate just because you are a yogi. At least I can say that I’m not. Give yourself permission to allow your judgments to float up to the surface where you can see them. Then, instead of pushing them away or feeling shame about them, just observe. When you notice yourself thinking judgmental, hateful thoughts, pause and just feel them in the body. Let them run their course and in the meanwhile, don’t take any action. Usually I find that sitting with a thought or feeling in the free space of mindfulness allows you the time to process. There have been times that I thought I wasn’t passing judgement. The only thing that happened is that my judgements all came out as passive aggression. Be brutally honest with yourself.
Next, see if you can turn that judgmental thought around. This is inspired from the Work of Byron Katie. Ask yourself if there is an opposite thought that is equally true. For example, if your judgement was, “My friend is so close-minded and hard to speak to” see if it might be equally true to say, “I am so close-minded and hard to speak to”.
4. Act in Love, Stand for a Positive Future—
Unless your action is rooted in love and you have a positive vision for the world you want to create, simply refrain from acting. If you feel compelled to share something political, check yourself regarding love and hate. If you notice that you want to share because you hate the person who won, then consider not sharing. For example, if your candidate doesn’t win, you may want to post all sorts of negative articles about the candidate who won. But if you share in hate you will be centering your attention around the very thing that you do not want to get stronger. Instead, try to root what you share in your view of what your want the world to be and what your contribution is to creating that world.
If you notice that you want to share because you truly come from love for all beings, then share. Centering your action around love for all beings does not to be placid and calm. In fact, it could be fierce and powerful. You may find that you call a friend or family member out on a racist point of view because you love them and want to educate them. The key is what’s in your heart. If you share from a place of hate, then you will tying yourself into a powerful cycle that may drag you down. But if you share even the most confronting opinion, when you are rooted in love you will be more successful at maintaining your own peaceful heart.