Sigh. Dammit. I don’t know. I just… Where to even start?
We live in strange times. The national conversation feels like two deeply opposed sides yelling at each other from across the great divide, if they listen to each other at all. It seems as though there are two realities in this country, and two sets of values. On one side are those who value human rights and the dignity of all people. On the other are those who value jobs, providing for families, and feeling safe. Each side puts the other in a box, makes assumptions, and tries to win the argument.
Although I’m strongly opinionated in my political beliefs, I try not to shut out or shut down opposing viewpoints. I’ve been trying to make sense of the national dialogue (or lack thereof) from a yogic perspective. I’ve tried to return to the basics of my worldview to understand how to respond in these difficult and divided times. Because the word yoga means “union,” it seems as though there might be answers on how to come together buried somewhere in the practice.
Let’s deep dive into some yogic philosophy, shall we?
Ancient yoga writers gave us a path to liberation, called the Eight-Limbed Path. It’s basically a recipe book for how to live a good life. It starts with an ethical system of do’s and don’ts, called the yamas and niyamas.
The first ethical restraint given is ahimsa. Ahimsa translates roughly to “non-harming.” Because it appears first in the entire Eight-Limbed Path, it can be thought of as equivalent to “First, do no harm.” Start there: don’t intentionally do hurtful things.
It seems simple, but a deeper look reveals complexity and nuance. Most often ahimsa is applied to food choices, specifically in regards to eating animals. Some practitioners feel that the only way to practice ahimsa with food is to eat a fully vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. This is wonderful in theory, but tricky in practice. Some people, like me, for example, need animal protein in their diet to regulate blood sugar and maintain muscle mass. If I go too long without a little fish or some eggs, my blood sugar level crashes and can become dangerously low, affecting my ability to function. Chronically low blood sugar can damage organs and require hospitalization. As much as I like the idea of eating no animal products, it clearly harms me to do so.
Which do I choose, not harming animals or not harming my own body?
And so this is the precarious examination we must conduct. If I am harmless in one area, am I harming in another? Which do I prioritize, harm to others or harm to self?
Ahimsa has been on my mind in the last week after our current president announced travel restrictions for people from certain Muslim-majority countries in the name of national security. I was startled and upset by images of legal residents and people with work visas detained in airports. I saw the suffering on their faces as they sat with uncertain futures. This, I thought, this is harm. This is not ahimsa.
And for what purpose?, I wondered. The reason given was to keep us safe from terrorists who want to attack our country. At first glance, this makes little sense to me. There hasn’t been a foreign attack on American soil in over 15 years, and US intelligence agencies have successfully shut down attempted attacks. What we’re doing has been working. Foreign-actor terrorist attacks in the US aren’t a daily threat here.
And yet to some people they are, it would seem. Some people seem to believe that foreign-based terrorist attacks are the greatest current threat to our country. To some people, treatment I view as baseless and inhumane is justified. While that isn’t my reality, on some level, I understand that they live in fear of outside forces threatening what they hold dear.
This is deeply frustrating. I see the world from my vantage point, prioritizing the well-being of marginalized groups and acting in ways that don’t cause further oppression. And yet, my many years of yoga and Buddhist compassion practices allow me to take the perspective of folks on the other side of the canyon: a world in which terrors lie just outside our door and the most important thing is to make sure we allow no harm to ourselves and those we love.
Although I don’t agree, I do understand. But how do I communicate my understanding in a world where disagreement is invariably heard as dissent, and opposing views a seen as grounds for shutting down the conversation entirely?
As I marched at my local airport over the weekend to protest the immigration ban, I watched a man departing a plane stop and give us two middle fingers and mouth the words “f*ck you” at those of us holding signs. I felt the heat rise in my body. It made me angry that he couldn’t see how much we care about the people affected by the immigration ban. I wish I could say that I was immediately able to flip the switch to compassion for him, but that wasn’t the case. It took me a while. Even the next day, I was still angry that someone threw so much negativity at what I perceived to be the good work we were doing.
But eventually, I was able to stop and realize that he clearly didn’t see it that way. Maybe he disagreed with us, or maybe he didn’t care about our message at all and just wanted a reaction. Either way, I was finally able to see him as a human being with a perspective, like me, and wish him well.
Sending him negative energy is harmful, both to him and to me. It’s not ahimsa. It’s the same in any conversation we have in this current, divided political climate: If we focus only on the division, we will create more harm. We will push each other further away, only to hurt each other more.
The truth is, it will likely be a long time before the two sides can speak to one another in peace, and it will take lot of work. As I feel anger watch over me again at the thought of prioritizing dubious “national security” claims over the lives of marginalized people, I realize I’m not there yet. I still have more work to do to ensure I can hold my beliefs without creating unintentional harm and division.
I may not know yet how to dialogue with people on the other side of the aisle, but at the very least I can strive to not create even more division, in hopes that we might unite together one day, find common purpose, and, perhaps, work to create an even greater Good.