Reflections on Kindness and the Discipline of Yoga

samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah, te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah

Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.

Bhagavad Gita XII.4

This month my holy teachers have chosen the relationship between inner-peace and outward kindness as the Jivamukti Focus of the Month. Sharon-ji has written eloquently and creatively about how we might resist patterns of negative thinking concerning the state of the world today, as well as how we can and must expand our practices of kindness to include non-human animals. I’d like to turn our attention toward the nature of kindness and its place in yoga philosophy.

To begin, let us turn to the Yoga Sutra of Master Patanjali, which was compiled somewhere around the 2nd century BCE. Here is where we get the clearest account of the centrality of something like kindness, as well as compassion, to yoga. Although there are several key passages on kindness (1.33 and III.24), the most fruitful place to look is in the second chapter, which is aptly titled the Sadhana Pada, that is, the portion on the discipline of yoga. First, take note: yoga is a whole discipline, of which kindness is a piece. As a discipline, and at a minimum, yoga will require regular and steady practice, thoughtful reflection, good teachers, self-directedness, a fair amount of effort (tapas), and a disposition reflective of both curiosity about the world and a deep belief that there is a moral order to the Universe to which we must attach ourselves. The yogi must be both skeptic and believer at once. To be disciplined one must have faith that the method works; but if the discipline is to remain relevant, we must, as the ancient yogis did, question the world in which we live.

In the Sadhana Pada, Patanjali offers ashtanga yoga (the 8-limbed path) as one method to achieve enlightenment, which I think of as the realization of the oneness of being, and this is a method that scholars and serious students of yoga take quite seriously. It is where we get the yamas and niyamas, those ethical observances having to do with our relationship to others (the yamas) and to ourselves (the niyamas). The yamas in particular are very much about kindness, instructing us to lead non-violent lives where all creatures are concerned (ahimsa), don’t lie to others (satya), don’t steal from others (asteya), don’t sexually abuse and exploit others (bramacharya), and don’t hoard things you don’t need or will never use (aparigraha). Although the practice of each of these will be difficult at times, indeed, that is why their observance requires practice, the definitions are quite clear. Each one is a form of kindness to others, of not doing something that we may wish to do for various reasons usually having to do with selfish desire, precisely because taking such action would bring about some harm to another living creature. The yamas are not about inner-truths or self-affirmations. They are not about the self at all, at least in the first instance, and to interpret them that way is to deprive the student of lucidity. Satya, for example, is not about one’s inner-truth. It is actually much simpler than that: don’t lie to people. Of course, one could argue that we need to ‘know ourselves’ before we can be truly honest with others and that is, no doubt, true to some extent. But, generally speaking, we all know what we mean by the instructive to not lie or gossip, and we can leave it at that. (I always encourage students who want to think more deeply about the importance of an inner-truth to look to the niyama svadhyaya, which means study of the Self.)

The niyamas are the substructures of the yamas, as my teacher Lady Ruth Lauer-Manenti once described them in a lecture on Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga. They are the actions that support us in our efforts to be kind to others, and they generally have to do with our relationship to ourselves and to God. What we learn from the sutras on ashtanga yoga is this: kindness is not merely an outgrowth of peace of mind and the experience of yoga. Rather, it is an integral part of the practice that leads to peace of mind and the experience of yoga.

The yamas are also the framework within which we can begin to understand what a practice of kindness actually looks like. I have recently joined the throngs of individuals worldwide who are on Facebook. (Yes, yes, I am rather late to the party and it’s all Instagram and Twitter these days anyway.) Perhaps it is because I am steeped, blessedly, in a community of yogis, but I cannot help but notice the daily postings by so many people of affirmations and and platitudes about things like peace and, yes, kindness. Like many, I often feel inspired by the words of others as I go about my ordinary life, trying to be and do good, but so often failing. So I am grateful that others take even the few moments required to share with the rest of us what so-and-so says about mindful living or acting in the world. And yet. We must be careful—I must, anyway—to not be lulled into believing that the consumption of others’ affirmations, which are so often, it must be said, about the small self, are sufficient for kindness as a practice and as part of the larger discipline of yoga. Here are some general thoughts about the shape kindness should take, thoughts that have coalesced from much time spent reading and writing about two important yoga philosophy texts, the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. They are not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, Lord knows. I wish only to begin to point us in a different direction for thinking about and for being kind.

Kindness requires that we be keen observers of the world around us and that we constantly sharpen our capacities for fine discernment. This will take the form of an active practice, not the mere consumption of pleasant passages about how to be a better person. We must come to truly know what a particular action—say, the unnecessary taking of another life for our own nourishment—actually amounts to, what it really means (one wants to qualify, morally) when we do something that contributes to or amounts to the suffering of others. Kindness requires that we notice both the deep vulnerability of other people, as well as our shared capacity for doing harm.
Kindness is not the same as being nice. It requires conviction in a way that being nice simply does not. It requires truthfulness (satya), and the courage to call others out for hurtful actions or speech, to buck trends and stand on the side of justice and decency, and not just when doing so is easy or comes with its own reward.
Kindness draws on an imaginative capacity that is reflective of a rich inner-life. To love others truly and wholly, one must fully understand the difference between authentic love and its many false forms (infatuation, self-love, idolatry, etc.). (I am grateful to the philosopher Raimond Gaita for helping me to understand how important this is to our moral life.) To be in possession of such an imaginative capacity is to know that the value of certain virtues has nothing whatsoever to do with human nature in a biologistic sense. It has to do with the sort of people we can and should become based on deeply held and shared beliefs about goodness.
To be kind is to cut a path somewhere between being at home in the world and being willing to affect change wherever needed and whenever possible. In other words, kindness doesn’t amount to an “it’s all good” attitude. It goes without saying that it isn’t “all good,” and to adopt such an attitude is to engage in the worst kind of self-delusion and mindless consumerism. The yogi must learn when it makes sense to let things go in a moment and when it makes sense to seize a moment and say, enough is enough.
Kindness isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often very hard. So if it feels really easy to you, consider the possibility that you’re not quite doing it right. I do not say this in a mocking tone at all, but rather to remind you and me that kindness as a practice of yoga asks us to make tough choices precisely because it requires us to be the sort of people who not only understand that the world is a complicated place but who are willing to wade into the murky waters and actually stand on principle. In order to move beyond simplistic and banal affirmations about “being kind,” one must engage in quiet reflection (often reading longer tracts on things like ethics and morality, even!), be able to articulate principles and to defend them when necessary, and, above all else, have the courage to live out those principles, even when doing so is hard and the choices we make entail some loss. As Sharon-ji has said, shedding the limits of kindness will often mean expanding our ideas of who is deserving of compassion (hint: all living creatures). But sometimes this will take a different form, namely being honest with others and ourselves when we have been merely nice to keep things comfortable and in so doing have managed to avoid the harder, but much more rewarding, work of being truly kind.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.


Hollie Sue