The Jivamukti Focus of the Month is a lovely meditation on the ultimate goal, or experience, of yoga, which is Union with all things. In particular, we are reminded of the importance of practicing the yamas as a way to help draw this union closer, to help us stop “othering” and to become One with those beings we once saw as separate from us.
I love this simple but beautiful reminder of what we’re working towards on this path. Not the perfect headstand, not deep knowledge of the intricacies of the Sanskrit language, not the ability to meditate for hours on end. Rather, these are tools that are meant to help us along on our way to Yoga, the experience of oneness. And those of us who have been practicing for some time know that these practices really work. For me, the Jivamukti method has been a powerful tool for helping me to dissolve otherness and negative energy (generated by me) in my own life. Of course, there is more that we must do. As Sharon-ji reminds us, Patanjali suggests that we simply practice the yamas if we want to truly dissolve otherness. And many of the yogis I know really do try, as best they can, to embody these ethical directives—not to harm, lie, steal, sexually manipulate, or take more than we need.
When I ask my yoga students if they consider themselves to be deeply established in the practice of ahimsa, non-harming, of course, they say yes. They might cite their commitment to veganism, to some abstract ideal of “social justice” or “world peace,” or they might tell me how many years they have been practicing the asanas or studying the ancient texts. That is all fine and good, and we certainly ought not lose sight of the importance of such commitments and discipline. But the subtlest way in which we are likely to cause harm to others and to ourselves has not to do with abhorrent, harmful actions. How many yogis do you know who engage in acts of violence or regularly say mean things? The deepest harm often has nothing to do with actions at all, actually. It has to do with thoughts that we think about others we, frankly, do not like. People who rub us the wrong way, who maybe live in a way that we do not entirely approve of (fellow-vegans, you know this feeling), or whose energy we find unsettling. Now most yogis I know do not outwardly act on negative feelings that they have. We have mastered at least the ability to temper our desire to haul off and hit someone when they do something we find to be distasteful or unethical. But what a lot of us have not fully mastered (and I count myself among these) is the ability stop negative thinking, to soften our hearts, and to genuinely feel kindness for those we first meet as radically separate from us.
I can give you an example. My husband and I are presently spending the month in Telluride, Colorado, while he trains for and runs the Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run in the beautiful San Juan Mountains. It just so happens that while we are here, Telluride’s Bluegrass Festival is in town. Of course, this draws hippies, yogis, and generally free-lovin’ people from all over the world. It’s perfect for me, if not for my more serious and reserved other half. Yesterday, on the way back to our house after a perfect day, we noticed a young gentleman with two dogs—one older and one a little puppy—leave the sweet dogs outside of a very busy grocery store, untethered and without a companion to watch over them. This caused us some concern, of course, and when the little puppy wandered out into the car-filled parking lot, my husband became angry, and I confess that I did, too. I was troubled by this young man’s irresponsibility and willingness to put these two creatures, whose lives he had presumably taken some responsibility for—in such clear danger. The narratives began running through my mind about OTHERS who are “so irresponsible, selfish, and unthoughtful,” as to do something so incredibly foolish and harmful. “How could someone be so stupid?” Well, now. That is not the sort of thing I really wanted to say or to think about another person. Although I recognize this fact about myself, I do stand by my initial assessment that the gentleman’s action is not desirable and that, unless this was some sort of an unusual circumstance or emergency (it did not appear to be), he needed to be, let us say, enlightened, as to what counts as loving companionship with animals.
But my job, as someone working to dissolve otherness and resolve past karmas, is not to worry with this stranger’s harmful actions, at least not in the first instance, but instead to worry with my own, including the ugly thoughts I had about him. Now this is actually way easier said than done. This is, in fact, the hard kind of case, when we perceive another person’s actions to be harmful to other people or animals.
So how can I move from a place of love for this young man, rather than resentment or anger? How can we all resist the tendency to think negative thoughts about other people? And it’s an important question because the negative thoughts we have generate a lot of harmful internal energy, which has outward consequences for us and for those around us. And it only establishes separation instead of connection and Union.
Let’s start with this. If we truly believe that others are merely a reflection of ourselves, and that we really all are One, then we should start by recognizing that our negative reactions to others are usually a response to some part of ourselves that we do not like. This may not be immediately obvious and it may not even be entirely true, but it is a helpful tool for moving from a place of compassion. I might remember, for example, that I, myself, have acted thoughtlessly or carelessly with others’ safety and well-being, particularly in my youth, when the idea of having dogs as pets was perhaps more appealing than the actual work of caring for and establishing a real friendship with them. I might remember that I have done things, even with my 3-month old child, that others might pass judgment on and be moved to tell me all of the things I am doing wrong (i.e. allowing him to sleep in the cool, locked car, rather than disturbing him while I run into a store get a necessity for our household–yes, I have done this and any parent who says they have never is probably not telling the truth!). I might consider the things I disliked about this young man as parts of myself that I sometimes dislike or with which I sometimes struggle. Tich Nhat Hanh has written about the practice of treating our negative emotions—anger, fear, jealously—like little children, who need to be care for, nurtured, and shown compassion. I have found this to be a powerful tool for working through my own negative thinking. I have tried to meet those ugly, perhaps, but no less real, parts of myself, as a small child. To say, “It’s okay that you are afraid, I know, and I am here for you. I love you.” This is also an important lesson in being there for yourself, rather than waiting for others to be there for you in just the way you wish them to be. You are your own best resource, your own well to return to when you need to be nourished.
Another way that we might catch ourselves when engaging in othering thoughts is to simply say, “Wait a minute. Are these thoughts helpful? Do they make a less-than-ideal situation better? No? Okay, what will?” And then, do that instead. Sometimes that means doing nothing at all. And sometimes that will mean simply getting out of your car and hanging out with a puppy until his friend returns. Then, smiling and walking away.
To be a human living in this messy, complicated world is to, of course, encounter challenging situations and people who challenge us in some intense ways. It’s easy to love the ones you like. But it is less easy to love the ones you don’t. But yoga asks us to do just that, and to even love those parts of ourselves that we don’t always like, too. It is my hope that these small suggestions about how to move through those challenging times and with those challenging people will be helpful to you on your own journey towards Union.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.
 Being Peace, Parallax Press, 1987.