Sit Down Next To

I recently received an email from a self-proclaimed “fan” of my two books.  She told me she loved the yamas and niyamas and was enjoying the kleshas, that is until I mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She was not a fan and was not appreciative that I had brought Ruth into my writing.  What is it in her that turned her appreciation into a reactive disappointment?  What is it in me that reacted to her reaction?  Why do we seem to defend our beliefs rather than examine them?

Yesterday I downloaded Rev. William J. Barber’s new book called White Poverty.  I have only read the preface, but I like the way he talked about myths (or what I refer to as beliefs, narratives, and stories in my klesha book).  He said we need these myths to explain how things are.  The problem comes when this becomes the ONLY way we see things.

Our Tendency

This tendency to only see what we know how to see most often produces a defensive stance when our beliefs are challenged.  We find ourselves in a knee-jerk reaction…appalled, judgmental, critical, self-righteous, unkind, even violent.  Our emotions have been stirred, and we feel personally attacked.  It all happens so fast, and all we can think to do is blame the other person.  When we truly see how deeply this pattern sits in us, it becomes understandable how our country has become polarized to the extent of extreme incivility.  Our beliefs feel that personal to us. 

What are we to do?  Helping us unravel ourselves from such deep personal entanglements is the job of spiritual traditions.  These wisdom teachings offer us ways to see through ourselves. One such teaching is suggested in Yoga Sutra 1.33.  Here, Patanjali tells us to train our minds to cultivate thoughts of friendliness, compassion, happiness, and non-judgement.  

What Are We To Do?

The Sanskrit word for non-judgement is upeksa which implies “sitting down next to” in order to learn.  (Think of the Upanishads, the wisdom teachings whose title implies the wisdom learned from sitting at the foot of the master.). The idea here is to “sit down next to” politics, world events, our own minds, and to see what is happening.  To do this, we must leave behind the way we think things should be or want them to be.  All judgements get left at the door.  We are sitting close to life, watching and learning. 

This is not the end of the journey, but a necessary beginning.  It is here that we learn to separate reality from our own beliefs and perspectives, discomforts and judgements, needs and idealism, and our reactions and defensiveness.  When we get ourselves out of the way and sit close enough to life to see it as it truly is, we gain the wisdom necessary for compassionate change.  

In a world of extremes, where to react to one extreme is to find oneself in the other extreme, “sitting down next to” with calmness, untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet, seems like a powerful place to begin.

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