More than usual, the events of the past month have forced me to interrogate my emotional responses and prejudices, in the context of my yoga practice, as well as my life in general.
I voted to remain in the EU
I voted to remain in the EU. Many of my friends voted to remain in the EU. Bristol, the city where I grew up, voted to remain in the EU. Aberystwyth, the town where I studied and committed to an Ashtanga practice, voted to remain in the EU. Oxford, the city in which I now live and work, voted to remain in the EU. So I must point out first of all, despite the various motives behind our vote, it is primarily to this audience I speak (you can call this my first prejudice*).
Reeling from the shock of finding ourselves in the minority, this referendum and the pain it's caused has not only polarised opinion in our so-called 'united' country, it has drawn apart those we believed were on the same side.
Friends have forgotten the source of their friendship, liberals have found the limits of their liberalism and the rhetoric of superiority and hate has reached the far-left as well as the far-right.
Ironically enough, the side espousing the benefits of inclusivity and connection, was the side so surprised to find itself defeated - our borders, it would seem, are as impenetrable as those we assume so desired by our counterparts. I can't offhand remember which European playwright I studied on my fully state-funded (first) degree said: darkness everywhere can only resemble itself. (Yes, I'm being facetious on purpose.)
Referendum week to do list:
Sunday: Attend a vigil for Jo Cox (because 'We have far more in common than that which divides us')
Thursday: Vote remain (because we are 'Better Together')
Friday: Wish all leave voters drowned at birth "and you can fuck off too while you're at it" (because we are shocked and, more than shocked, we are absolutely livid)
If this referendum has served a purpose, it's to remind us that (whether in, or out of our 'field') we are people, not experts. Having been forced into an expressly dualistic mindset - in v. out, them v. us - we have been met with a resounding sense of disappointment: I have failed, they have failed, we have failed. Maybe this is flattery, but we are all much more complicated than that. Vote Leave is not synonymous with fascism and vote Remain is no more commendable than not knowing which way to vote at all.
In his blog post Is this the new normal: practising yoga in a changing world written shortly after the Brexit result was revealed, Scott Johnson, co-founder of Stillpoint Yoga quotes the Dalai Lama's response to the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2016:
We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.
In light of Baghdad, Nice and and now Turkey (and all of those events not on our doorstep, or ignored by our media), this has only become more relevant and concerns far greater than membership of the European Union and acts of terrorism, mass violence and strategic military force. It concerns how we each choose to be in a world that belongs to all of us; the way we act in our own homes and the way we relate to each other outside of our comfort zones. We are accountable.
Whereas ancient Indian philosophy and contemporary Global politics rarely collide, yoga can provide us with a lens through which we can assess our emotional reactivity and the practice of yoga can provide us with a framework for steadying our sense of self in turbulent times.
To whatever degree, comparable or incomparable, one thing we all have in common is our ability to suffer. Suffering is considered one of the obstacles to yoga, precisely because pain and affliction cause our minds to fluctuate. The Yoga Sutras trace human suffering to five sources, which are referred to as the 'kleśḥas'.
The kleśḥas are intellectual, emotional and instinctive. They influence our behaviour and make 'defensive' our default position, which ultimately works towards sabotaging our common interests. They are:
- Ignorance, or a lack of true knowledge (avidyā)
- Ego, pride and arrogance (asmitā)
- Attraction, or an attachment to pleasure (rāga)
- Repulsion, or an aversion to pain (dveṣa)
- Fear of death (abhiniveśāḥ)
Although the Sanskrit names for these aspects of human suffering might make them sound mystical (perhaps easy to latch on to, or easy to dismiss), they are nothing of the sort. "Kleśḥa" is just a word to describe something like any other - they are not an excuse for being the way we are. If you identify with being under the influence of asmitā, rather than having become a momentary egomaniac for example (we've all been there!), it doesn't make you any less accountable for being a dick. 'Don't blame me man, it's the kleśḥas' are not the words of someone practising the yoga of action. But more of that later...
Avidyā is considered the 'breeding ground' or, 'source' of all suffering. Ignorance springs from misinformation; from incorrectly taking our subjective world view for granted as reality (or, to use a yoga teacher's favourite example: think Neo before he knows about 'The Matrix').
'Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self.' (Sutra II.5)
Using Brexit as an example, we will each recognise exaggerated aspects of avidyā at play. We 'won' and have secured a winning future, or we 'lost' and our future is doomed. We are self-righteous, our views have been validated, or we are self-righteous, our views are still better than yours. We are wallowing in our collective glory, or we are wallowing in our collective pain (it is worth noting that the definition of wallow is to indulge in an unrestrained way and indulgence is associated with that which we find desirable, regardless of whether we identify our experience as being pleasurable, or painful, at the time). Under the sway of ignorance, we mistake our inflated egos for who we (and others) really are. This leads us squarely onto the next kleśḥa.
Asmitā is our ego, which causes us to protect our own interests and act selfishly. To illustrate a point, I generally like to use an extended metaphor, and I also happen to like cake (who doesn't?!), so here goes:
I want to eat the whole cake, not half of the cake. I bought the ingredients. I bloody made it. I have more right to that cake than you do. Don't you know who am I? I am the Cake Maker. The Cake Maker cares not that you like cake too. That you are hungry. That you are too poor and can't buy a cake of your own. That you have no arms and no legs and would actually find making a cake without help very difficult. The Cake Maker eats cake in the face of all who are cake-less [the sound of an evil laugh that lasts a bit too long]. What's that? You don't want my cake? Why not? It looks disgusting?! But my cake is the best-looking cake that ever was baked. Surely everyone wants a piece of my cake!
I (my ego) would happily go on, but I think you got the gist around thirteen sentences ago and if you haven't, you're an idiot. Just kidding. (Plus, you can email me, or leave a comment below if you have any questions, or would like to start a conversation).
Rāga and Dveṣa
As rāga (attraction) and dveṣa (repulsion) are 'two sides of the same coin', these kleśḥas naturally belong together. Our emotional and instinctive attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain is what binds us to people, places and things, and, whereas this can keep us safe and make us feel loved, the opposite is of course also true.
Together, rāga and dveṣa form the wellspring of prejudice and the false economy of neuroticism; the part of us that stubbornly clings to an idea rather than face challenging our perceptions, or entertaining the possibility that we might not have all the answers. It is feeling 'I am right and and everyone else is wrong' (another duality), or conversely 'my life is a mess and everyone else has it perfect'. Our ego (asmitā) would rather we firmly dug our heels into the ground than risk being moved into an area of uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, this causes us to lose balance, lash out and reject difference. We fail to see the truth of a situation (vidyā) because our egos have edited out the disagreeable 'other side' of the story. (There is an excellent article called The 'other side' is not dumb by Sean Blanda on how false-consensus bias - where we think everyone holds the same set of beliefs that we do - plays out on social media. Sound familiar?)
This video of a former CIA agent on 'listening to your enemy' is an interesting example that challenges thinking in simplistic terms of 'good' and 'bad':
The final and most difficult kleśḥa to overcome is our fear of death, or attachment to life - our natural survival instinct.
'Clinging to life makes one suspicious in dealings with others, and causes one to become selfish and self-centred.' (Iyengar's commentary on Sutra II.3)
Linked to asmitā, rāga and dveṣa - abhiniveśāḥ is concerned with self-preservation. Our innate fear of death, which for many of us remains unacknowledged on a daily basis, prevents us from fulfilling our potential. We don't want to accept change because everything feels 'fine' just as it is ('better the devil we know'), or we are stuck in survival mode and adopting the best coping strategies we can to get by. We grasp at life because we are programmed to protect ourselves at all costs, and, although it would seem counter-intuitive, thrill-seeking can be understood in terms of abhiniveśāḥ also - we seek risks to prove our 'self' and propagate the illusion that we can avoid the inevitable: "if I make it this time, I'm invincible."
Abhiniveśāḥ demands that we play conservatively in order to maintain the status quo, or that we play 'all in' - not necessarily because we have nothing to lose - but because, disconnected, dis-empowered and numbed to the world around us, we want to remember what it's like to feel alive and be in control.
The Yoga of Action
Although we don't often discuss yoga philosophy explicitly in class, the āsana (physical postures) we practice are an element of Ashtanga, or Kriya yoga - the yoga of action.
In the Sutras, āsana is considered one of the practical ways we can reduce suffering by developing resilience to oppositional, or polarised ways of relating to ourselves and to the world around us. Theses dualities (or, dvandvas) contribute to a sense of disparity and isolation, disconnecting our bodies from our intellects and emotions, and ultimately separating us from each other.
Through a dedicated practice (which, it's important to say, doesn't have to be yoga), we can train our actions to become mindful, not thoughtless, and improve the way we treat ourselves and how we respond to the people around us. Neuroscience tells us that our brains have the ability to create new connections, to learn, to heal, to change, to re-join, and post-Brexit (post all of the other conflicts that go on in our world, every single day), so do we.
So, rather than try to force a conclusion and end by telling you that yoga, or I, have all the answers, I'd like to share three things with you that I have found challenging, helpful and unashamedly comforting over the past few weeks (in that order).
The first is the 'After the Vote' series of BBC Radio 4's, A Point of View. I found the philosopher John Gray's perspective, 'Britain, Europe and the World' particularly interesting:
'The EU is not the world, or the most dynamic part of it; the EU isn't even Europe, only a particular set of arrangements constructed over the past few decades by some European countries. Leaving this self-absorbed and claustrophobic institution isn't opting-out of the world, it's more like re-joining the world.'
The second is an interview with psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, who talks about our profound capacity to endure and overcome trauma on a personal and communal level. (If you're interested, I also highly recommend his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.)
Third (and last) is a clip of the dancing baby Groot from the final scene of Guardians of the Galaxy - because, in the words of the tree-superhero him/her-self, "We are all Groot" - and, despite finding putting this concept into practice very hard (most of the time), it doesn't stop me believing it wholeheartedly, or making the commitment to try.
*I won't draw your attention to them all but if you look closely enough, you'll find them peppered throughout. Of course, my biggest (and implicit) prejudice is that I'm a yoga teacher, who thinks they have something important to say.
B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, Thorsons: London, 1993.