Saturday, June 15, 2013

Buddhas and Social Action

“In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”

- Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by TKV Desikachar

This passage zeros in on the relational quality of yoga. And just as is the case with Buddhist teachings on our relationships with others, there is a strong emphasis on equanimity here - the kind most of us struggle to locate in our everyday lives.

Given my own predisposition to serving in the world, and to doing what I can to help right injustices, what I find so wonderful about a teaching like this is that it's a reminder that the most powerful place one can come from is built on a foundation of joy and equanimity.

In Buddhism, a similar teaching is found in the four divine abodes, where lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the foundations from which all that is good in life springs forth.

For me, the biggest challenge is to remain "undisturbed" by the errors of others, especially when those errors are greatly destructive, oppressive, and highly productive of misery. This is a frequent difficulty when doing social activist. Sometimes I begin from a place of not being disturbed, but then am overwhelmed by the disturbed experiences of others around me. The initial outrage towards injustice frequently turns into collective forms of being disturbed. In fact, it's almost expected that folks demonize those committing serious crimes and offenses, and to use that energy to fuel their actions. Something I think is dangerous, and often destructive, even when "we" are in the right.

Being in service to others can bring with it similar challenges. You not only often have to deal with the immediate suffering of those you are serving, but frequently this escalates into recognizing forms of collective injustice and oppression. When I was teaching ESL, I had students dealing with slumlords, cruel immigration officials, confounding state and federal bureaucracies, and so much more. It wasn't just the struggles of my particular students that I faced, but also a recognition of how many others were in a similar position because of various poorly constructed and/or deliberately oppressive systems.

It's important to note that "undisturbed" doesn't mean untouched, or unfeeling. It's really a quality of not being flipped over by, troubled by, or excessively excited by something, all of which make it very difficult to have clear perceptions and to do intelligent, beneficial action.

Shutting down and becoming numb in the face of suffering isn't hitting the mark, nor is being disturbed in the ways I spoke of.

That's where cultivating the qualities mentioned in Yoga Sutra 1.33 or the Buddhist Divine Abodes comes in. We aren't doing spiritual practices like meditation or sutra study for ourselves. It's really about how we are in the world, interacting with others and the planet. Even when we are sitting still and not interacting in the normal sense of the word, there's still something going on. Something that sends ripples far beyond ourselves.

It's seems to me that bringing that quality, the stillness and movement within stillness, to what we are doing in the world can shift us towards beneficial action. Social activism and service work are often governed by beliefs about what's right and what's wrong. But it's important to hold that somewhat lightly, and to remain open to the new and unexpected of a given moment, collective movement, or exchange between people.

In this way, the truth that liberates can be liberated to do it's work on us.

*Photo is from May Day March 2012.

1 comment:

David Ashton said...

I'm glad you made the distinction between undisturbed and untouched. It's like the difference between compassion on the one hand that allows us to feel sadness at the suffering of sentient beings, motivating us to act, and despair on the other, which tends to make us run away and hide.