Warrior Spirit: the Yoga of Fighting Injustice
This is a blog post I've been wanting to write for a while, but it's taken me a few weeks to find my voice for it. While I was in Bali this summer on a teacher training, my beautiful hometown - Charlottesville, Virginia - was making national and international news because of the violent white supremacist demonstration that took place there. Hundreds of people were bused into downtown Charlottesville from all over the country to parade around with weapons, chant divisive and ugly slogans, and try to assert an intimidating presence. They were aggressive and hateful, and a woman named Heather Heyer was killed by a car purposefully driven into a crowd of counter protesters.
I watched my friends and family and the community of my childhood grapple with how to respond to the intrusion, and I felt helpless. As I have felt so often in the last year in particular, when confronted with the persistent tendency of humans to lean towards ignorance and divisive-ness, I felt an undercurrent of frustration - the sickening sensation that I was powerless to do anything meaningful to change hearts and minds and bring about peace.
Teacher trainees to the rescue.
The thing I love most about the teacher trainings is having the opportunity to dive deeply into the philosophy and experience of living yoga with like-minded souls. I love taking the journey together for three weeks. And I really do mean together - I always learn so much at the YTTs and I am forever grateful to the students who show up and inspire me to grow.
As Ram Dass said, "We're all just walking each other home."
In this case, the insight that helped me change my perspective was in a discussion that we had about suffering…
We were speaking about how yoga teaches that each one of us has the opportunity to experience freedom and bliss in any moment, no matter what is going on around us (or happening "to" us), because those feelings are within and they're not reliant on outer circumstance.
This realization brings great relief, because it gives you back the power to determine how you feel.
So often people think, “I’ll be happy when…” or “I’m upset because he / she / they did something I didn’t like” or “I’m angry that X happened.” When your inner state is determined by the world around you, peace is ever-elusive, because the world around you is unpredictable and rarely works out exactly how you want. But you can choose to allow the world to be as it is and still cultivate a positive inner experience. Then your peace is ever-present.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Of course it’s easier said than done, but I do fully believe in this. I know it’s possible. I have practiced this attitude many times in my life to great effect - in breakups, in arguments, in difficult jobs…and yet, somehow I wasn’t able to let go of what happened in Charlottesville. Even after I had used all my tools, the anger was still there, simmering below the surface.
Until one student raised her hand.
“What about people whose suffering is inflicted upon them by others? Surely you wouldn’t tell someone who was wrongfully imprisoned or sold into slavery to just let it all go and create peace in their mind.”
And as the words came out of my mouth, it felt like I was speaking to my own heart.
Actually yes, even to those people, I would say that it is possible to experience freedom, peace, and joy, no matter what their external circumstances. BUT (and here is the piece I had missing for myself) there is a definite distinction in yogic thought between suffering and injustice. What you’re describing is not only suffering, but injustice, and yogic texts are clear that we are not meant to stay passive in the face of injustice. Look at the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved yogic texts, where the protagonist Arjuna is commanded by the god Krishna to fight against the Kauravas who have been cruel and greedy and power-hungry. Arjuna does not want to fight and doubts that violence can be the correct course of action. But his Divine advisor Krishna counsels him that he must stand up for what is right and fulfill his duty as a warrior. We may not be called to fight in an actual battle, but just like Arjuna, we are absolutely called to stand up for what is right and just, in whatever way we can. We must be the warriors of our own conscience.
That night, for the first time in days, I felt a sense of peace. The insight I had received, and the discussion that followed about ways to take productive action against injustice, had been the ray of hope I was craving.
I felt like a warrior as I sat down to my computer to write to political leaders, editors, and police chiefs about the Charlottesville events; as I got out my wallet to make donations to organizations that I see are creating the kind of world in which I want to live; as I allowed the conviction that I would never be silent in the face of hatred and abuse to take its rightful place alongside the peace in my heart.
In the same way the yogic deities sometimes take a wrathful countenance - Shiva, Durga, Kali, in fact almost all the deities have a ferocious form - I remembered the power of using my feelings of anger and frustration towards productive ends. I can't guarantee the outcome, just like Krishna counseled Arjuna to act but not to judge the results of his actions. But no matter the result, I can alleviate my feelings of powerlessness. I can act and know that no effort is ever wasted.
I'm so grateful for all of you who are showing up in your lives with sincere determination to rise into your highest state of being. I'm so grateful for all of you who are committed to skillful, compassionate action. I'm so grateful that we can reflect our power, our beauty, and our Oneness to each other in the moments we forget. I'm so grateful to be on the path with so many other determined warriors.
Let's keep walking each other home.