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Yoga and World Peace
By Megan McDonough
© 2003
Megan McDonough

Last week my husband and I went to war with each other. It was nothing as dramatic as a divorce or separation; just a commonplace marital spat with intense emotion behind it. It all started with what should have been a joyous occasion: a trip to the maternity ward to visit a nephew and his wife who had just given birth to their new son.

After holding the baby and congratulating the parents, my husband went on to rib my nephew who had gained some weight. Women know that it is absolutely taboo to tell another woman how much weight she appears to have put on, and even worse, to proceed, as my husband did, to give instructions about how to get rid of the unwanted paunch. I tried to divert the conversation to safer grounds. I failed.

After we left the maternity ward, we had a monumental argument over the issue. I thought the weight discussion was inappropriate. He thought I was making a big deal over nothing.

Marital peace seems as unlikely as world peace at times. Whether we're struggling with the fear of a terrorist attack or the need to re-establish family harmony, the ancient wisdom of Yoga can shed light on the roots of warfare.

ACTION

Work can be like a battleground at times. One woman related a story to me about a tense situation at work where she had to constantly practice patience. During a private Yoga session, she had a revelation. Eyes closed, combining movement with breath, she exclaimed, "I think I'm confusing patience with passivity."

When it comes to working for peace it's easy to mistake passivity for patience. The typical yogic caricature is of a serene, enlightened being that is impervious to disturbances. That, however, is not the picture Krishna paints for Arjuna on the epic battlefield in the Bhagavad-Gita. While Arjuna wants to throw down his weapons, preferring to acquiesce rather than to kill friends and family, Krishna urges a call to action. There is a time for peaceful patience and a time for passionate convictions.

Examining the difference between patience and passivity requires self-reflection. They can look the same externally, but internally they can have subtle yet important differences. Someone waiting under a porch roof for a driving rain to stop can be practicing patience or passivity; the only one who knows is the doer. Yoga cultivates an inner awareness designed to ferret out the truth of passivity masquerading as patience.

Passivity can come with a feeling of resignation, helplessness and hopelessness. Patience, on the other hand, comes with a feeling of simply waiting, knowing that the circumstances will change and the time for action will reveal itself in due course.

Taking action is as basic as life itself. The Bhagavad-Gita says, "No one, not even for an instant, can exist without acting." The very process of breathing, the primordial process of simply existing, demands action. Even if we wanted to stop all action, the Gita proclaims, "It is hard to renounce all action without engaging in action."

Action begets creation, and it is through this process that we create our reality. As Krishna informed Arjuna on the battlefield, peace is not in conflict with strong action. However, most of us run into trouble when we remain unconscious of the automatic, habitual assumptions that drive our actions.

With my husband, the action I took immediately upon leaving the maternity ward was to point out the error of his ways. Well, of course, who wants to hear that? I was taking action based on a limited perspective: mine. Rather than point out his error, I would have been well-advised to take action upon my own mental model before attacking his.

This war -- as with any other war since the beginning of time -- had begun in the mind first.

ATTENTION

Attention comes before action, whether we are conscious of it or not. When my husband was giving my nephew tips for a thinner body, I was placing my attention on my judgments. My thoughts ran a course like Miss Manners reciting culturally acceptable norms. "He shouldn't be giving advice about weight. That's inappropriate. He should just be focused on the joy of a new baby. A woman would never say this to another woman."

According to Patanjali, the result of my thought pattern was predictable. War ensued. In the Yoga-Sutra, Patanjali describes three components of the mind. These components construct the framework through which we interpret the world, mentally creating war or peace. The first component records the experience (Manas); another classifies the experience (Buddhi); and the last component (Ahamkar) relates that experience to your person.

Here's how the components played out in my mind. I heard my husband giving advice on how to lose weight, as reported by Manas. Buddhi classified the information, drawing the conclusion that it was inappropriate behavior. Ahamkar related this information to me, making the case that his behavior was embarrassing me, personally. Based on this framing, I made a decision to call him on it after we left the maternity ward.

Put another way, my thoughts caused my suffering, not my husband's behavior.

Using our attention in a conscious and aware manner can circumvent the destructive thoughts before they get a strong hold. As Georg Feuerstein writes in The Shambhala Guide to Yoga, "The yogins are very careful about where they place their attention, for the mind creates patterns of energy, causing habits of thought and behavior that can be detrimental to the pursuit of genuine happiness."

The impact of attention can be demonstrated while performing asanas as well. Take, for example, Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III). The tendency many people have is to focus the majority of their attention on the foot that is on the floor, thinking that balance is found by concentrating hard on that one point of connection. In fact, the opposite is true. If you allow your awareness to spread to your outstretched hands and extend fully through the raised leg, the balance naturally occurs. Shifting the focus from one small point and spreading attention to the edges of the pose itself, creates, paradoxically, less stress and more ease.

When it came to the war with my husband, my attention was focused on my own framework, which I considered "right," without questioning the validity of that assumption. How many wars have been fought because they are right and just?

ACCEPTANCE

The other day my son was playing with an exercise ball that was as big as he was. He had great fun running to the ball and then rolling right over the top. Most of the time he just rolled onto the bedroom floor. One time, however, he misjudged and hit his head on the bed. He kicked the ball and cried, calling it "stupid" in an outraged four-year-old voice.

It is the nature of the ball to be round, and it cannot be anything else but round in this moment. The ball just is as it is. This roundness may change in the future if it deflates, but right now, as my son is playing with it, it's round. As such, there is an inherent risk of rolling off the ball if you choose to play with it. It's fruitless to kick the ball and call it "stupid" when the ball is just being a ball.

As I watched his tirade, I realized how often, as an adult, I have rebelled against the reality of something or someone. For example, I can fume about my husband's perceived lack of sensitivity around the weight discussion, but that doesn't change the reality of the discussion itself.

War breaks out when we fight what is, thinking it should be something else. A round ball should not roll me on my head. My husband should follow my interpretation of socially acceptable rules. The stories we tell ourselves conflict with reality, and suffering arises. Then we perpetuate the story by elaborately constructing scenarios of how to right a wrong. It's not to say we can't take action, since it's impossible not to take action, as described previously. It's just helpful to see clearly how much of our angst comes from reality and how much comes from the story in our head about what "should" be.

Accepting what is doesn't mean you agree or endorse the act. It just means you stop the impossible task of fighting reality. How do you know the wind is blowing? Because it is.

A verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states, "That is perfect, this is perfect. What comes from such perfection truly is perfect. What remains after perfection from perfection is yet perfect. May there be peace." That's a whole lot of perfection for an apparently imperfect world.

What if we were to accept the premise that perfection is everywhere? How would that change our view of events and our part in them? It takes trust to believe in perfection when we can't accept what reality dishes out. When times are tough, where do you place your trust? Do you trust your own mental models without question? Do you trust the support of loved ones? Do you trust some unseen, greater force?

Whether it's the pain of war that forces us to see the need for peace, or the pain of death that shows us the value of life, trust can be something to hold onto until the calmer waters of peace are reached. Trust, in its broadest sense, implies acceptance of the present moment.

IT'S MINE

When you say that something or someone is mine, what effect does it have on your behavior? If someone hit my car in the parking lot, you might not get too upset. If someone hit your car, though, that might be a different story. If the budget at work is about to be cut, it's not such a bad thing if it's a different department. If it's your department, however, and layoffs are imminent, anxiety rises.

What encompasses me and mine sets the boundaries, judgments and attitudes towards a given situation.

Whether the situation is simply a heated budgetary debate at work, or the threat of war, it is helpful to look at where the lines of yours and mine are being drawn and decide for yourself if these boundaries help or hinder the situation.

Here is an exercise to consider. Grab a handful of sand in your fist and squeeze it tightly. How much sand can you hold on to? Next, open your fist, cup your fingers slightly and scoop sand into the bowl of your palm. How much sand is now yours? As you move through your day, just notice when you are labeling something as yours. Explore how that affects your relationship to it, and see if you can play the situation in such a way that it allows for an open palm approach rather than a tight fist.

What is mine versus what is yours sets the stage for war. My thoughts about how my husband should behave were different than his. Since I held onto the thought that my view took preference over his, the battle lines were drawn.

Ultimately, the idea of "mine and yours" is just a concept. As Krishna said to Arjuna in the first chapter of the Brahma-Gt, "The thought "I am connected with such-and-such" or "I have lost such-and-such" merely torments you, subjecting you to joy and sorrow all round."

Exploring how we define the concept of mine and yours for ourselves promises freedom. As the Brahma-Gt states, "He who is defiled by the impure idea of "mineness" toward the body, Consciousness does not shine forth. He who is patient, devoid of the idea of "I" and "mine," the same in joy and sorrow, he, though performing obligatory and nonobligatory actions, is not stained by his deeds."

Because of the concept of me and mine, world peace is inseparable from family peace, which is inseparable from individual peace.

THE PAIN OF PEACE

After teaching yoga this week, a new student came up and asked me if she should be feeling pain during class. My immediate answer was no. Then another student joined the conversation. She had been practicing with me for quite a while, so I was surprised when she said, "I always feel pain when I practice."

The medical establishment has long grappled with how to assess pain. It's so subjective. A measurement like your pulse rate is straightforward: a black and white number that can be benchmarked against a given norm. This is not the case with measuring pain. Some howl in agony while another with the same injury only has a slight grimace.

According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, thoughts can be divided into two groups: painful and not painful. Painful thoughts are those that may feel great when they arise, but are detrimental to you over the long haul. Thoughts that are classified as not painful may feel downright miserable at first blush, but work towards your best interest over time.

Going through a major life transition-like a divorce, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one-can have the devastating impact of a war. Beliefs are shattered, and rubble reigns. Pain can be a constant companion during such times. Over the years, though, you can see how the pain of one event can foster growth and possibly even pleasure over the course of time. The same holds true for those things that seem so pleasurable in one moment only to haunt you in the next-like chocolate cake. Rich dessert can feel great in one moment, but soon afterwards the pain of overeating overshadows the momentary pleasure.

Pain and pleasure are not that separate, are they? Could it be that war and peace are also connected?

The war with my husband was the impetus I needed to explore my own detrimental and painful thought patterns. This war, it seems, was a factor for peace.

WORLD PEACE

The other morning my son looked out the window and exclaimed, "The whole world is snow!" There was a storm the night before and the landscape had completely changed into a winter wonderland. To his young mind, since all he could see and know was snow, then the world was snow.

In today's troubled times, many of us are experiencing a blizzard. Layoffs, increasing workloads, and fear of terrorism can lead to increased anxiety, uncertainty and sleepless nights. When you pick up a paper, hear the television news, and talk with others, it can seem like the whole world is covered with bad news. Peace, it seems, is a scarce commodity.

When it feels like the whole world is covered with snow, and bad news is everywhere, make like Picabo Street and ski. As she flies down the mountain, she follows a blue line painted on the slope weaving snake-like through the course. The lines help Picabo and the other skiers see the course in shady areas. It keeps them on track.

Yoga is like a line that keeps us on track for personal peace when a blizzard obstructs our view. Yoga philosophy can be complicated. Yoga practice, though, can be simple. Just as Picabo followed the blue line down the hill, Yoga is just following the line of life as it's presented in each moment.

World peace can be complicated. Practicing world peace, though, can be simple. One mind at a time, one thought at a time, peace or war is cultivated.

From my own little corner of the world, my husband and I have laid the marital spat to rest and are at peace for the time being. With each encounter, if I'm willing to be the yogic observer, I discover more about myself. With such perspective, I can see the possibilities of my own creations, making my own choice for war or peace one moment at a time.

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Author of "Infinity in a Box, Using Yoga to Live With Ease", Megan McDonough takes yoga philosophy outside of the traditional hatha yoga class, speaking internationally at diverse conferences from banking to healthcare. As a business yogini, she teaches business techniques to yogis and yoga techniques to business people. Combining the quiet art of yoga with the pragmatic demands of everyday work, Megan provides people with practical and simple tools to make life easier. Her website is www.urinfinityinabox.com.

Megan is editor of "A Minute for Me" and moderator of "Mindful Marketing". This article on Yoga and World Peace won the 2003 Yoga Research and Education Center essay contest.

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Sources: Feuerstein, Georg. The Shambhala Guide to Yoga. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1996. Prabhavanda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. The Vedanta Society of Southern California: Vedanta Press, 1981. Stephen Mitchell. Bhagavad Gita, a New Translation. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000. Georg Feuerstein. Brahma-Gt, http://www.yrec.org/brahmagita.html. June 16, 2002.

 

 

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