The sentiment, the feeling, that we could be deeply concerned with the well-being of people we don’t even know, but then be cold, or cruel, or unforgiving to the people closest to us, always vexed me. In fact, it is likely one of the factors that most disillusioned me from the Catholic Church in which I was raised. From a young teenagers perspective, while my family always talked about helping others, about sacrificing for others – and in fact, it was more than talk, it was truly a value we played out through various contributions and actions – it seemed there was some disconnect in the day to day functioning of our own family dynamic. While every Wednesday during lent we would each eat just half a bowl of white rice in solidarity with the world’s poor, that didn’t stop us from treating each other poorly, often even violently. Our deep compassion often seemed to end at the bottom of that shallow rice bowl.
I think the song resonated with me because even at that young age, I recognized that paradox. It has continued to stay with me over the years, and has been even more in my mind in the most recent past, and especially in the yoga world – a world, not unlike that of my own Catholic Church or any religious organization – in which we talk a lot about love, about justice, about compassion and peace, where we do, in fact, act on behalf of the “bleeding crowd,” but still so easily dismiss “needing friends.” It feels to me that in the current climate, with social (in)justice on everyone’s mind, this pattern of care and kindness for the other, sometimes at the expense of those closest to us, continues to grow.
This is a time of such intense division and confusion. From the highest levels of our government, the ugly underbelly of racism and “otherism” in all its forms is being revealed, laid bare, and being emboldened. Many of us are finally waking up to our own complicity in the structures of oppression and suffering, examining our own undeserved axes of privilege, and finding in ourselves a new fire, keen to address these deep and persistent wounds. I absolutely believe in the deep goodness of our collective heart and I trust in our true shared desire to create radical social change. Indeed, I recognize in this disturbing and divisive climate a strange gift – an imperative to wake up and act.
At the same time, sometimes that call to action reveals other limitations in our discernment, and in our ingrained conditioning, including tribalism and individualism. In our desire to be on the “good side” we end up with hyper partisanship, and oppressive hierarchies of “wokeness,” as we double down on our own moral high ground.
What we don’t always realize is that we all lose – and largely miss the deeper point of not only our own spiritual practice, but the point of a profound, restorative justice that is based in love and a true desire for peace – when we pick and choose who is deserving of our care and kindness. We miss the opportunity to actually fundamentally change the way we ARE- down to our very core, all the time – not just who we want others to see us to be, or not just who we want to be as we pursue our own awakening, when we care only about the “bleeding crowd” but don’t choose to extend that care to a needing friend, someone closer in our orbit, in our family or in our community.
In the recent opening address at the Yoga Service Conference, and in my last blog post, I called for a community in which we prioritize a real, conscious focus on building and sustaining fellowship, “on creating both opportunities for close, meaningful interactions, as well as agreed upon structures for dealing with friction and discord.” I offered the image of concentric circles of community and care, where we start with the folks closest to us, and build our circle of compassion from the inside out. Without these structures- put skillfully into everyday action – we will always be in danger caring about “evil and social injustice” in the abstract, of becoming “hard,” “cold” and “proud” – saying “yes” to the strangers we believe are in need, while saying “no” to the people closest to us. Good ideas remain good ideas, but we miss the daily opportunities to practice, to build and strengthen our capacity for discernment and connection, both primary values of our yoga practice.
I argued that there must be time and space for the people within the community to be together, to learn about one another and to share resources, burdens and support, to work together and commit to seeing each other as necessary and valuable parts of the whole, even with our differences. I invited everyone, myself included, to really practice with each other the same love and kindness we practice with the communities we serve and shared my belief that we can build a strong, resilient and deeply loving community, indeed a model itself – starting with our shared passion for yoga, mindfulness and service, and stretching out to the world at large, a world deeply in need of these very connections.
I don’t tend to think about community building and global healing in the abstract. In fact, from my own limitations and mistakes, as well as what I see and experience as a person deeply involved in spiritual practice, individual transformation and social change, I am all too often reminded of the opportunities missed in building community, in building these outward extending concentric circles of care.
In this spirit, I would like to offer some concrete examples of these missed opportunities, as well as some concrete ideas for expressions of care for those closest to us.
Here are four practical things we could do in our every day personal and professional lives that I truly believe would awaken in us a more profound and consistent commitment to community building, kindness and inclusion, to caring both about the bleeding crowd, but also about the needing friend.
- Supporting local teachers/local wisdom. This has been something I have been aware of for as long as I have been involved in the yoga world, although clearly it extends well beyond that culture. We will travel, pay huge sums of money, press ourselves into super crowded classes, just to study with the teacher with the biggest name, the biggest following. We tend to value the appearance of importance or legitimacy over equally experienced and often even more profound teachings of the dedicated teachers and change makers right in our own community. If they are local, or don’t have a big name, we don’t invest even the time to find out about the depth and integrity of their teaching, instead opting for the 30 second vetting we trust through looking at their instagram or Facebook account. Sometimes we even know the knowledge or experience the lesser known teacher may have, but because they are not a big name, we don’t value their time, or their need to make a living.We ask and expect of these people to give away their knowledge for free, while we would gladly pay handsomely for the insight of someone whose name alone somehow lends us legitimacy. Why is it that we value the person with the biggest following over the person closest to us with the same knowledge? For us to become aware of these teachers, and to help them grow – both in their own teaching as well as their financial well being – we have to invest more than thirty seconds. We have to invest our money and our time in lifting these teachers up, allowing them to continue to grow in the work they do, and benefitting ourselves by having them close in our community. This issue has been personal to me in many ways as both a student and a teacher, as a community member and a community leader. One simple example is the number of people over the years who write to me asking about building a non-profit yoga center, or creating a therapy or outreach program, or generally wanting to know how Samarya worked. I always tell them the same thing – that I can give them a half hour of my time for free, or I can give them an hour of my time at my regular hourly consulting rate. More often than not, in fact most of the time, once I even mention being paid, it is the last I hear from them. They value my knowledge and experience enough to ask for it, but not enough to pay for it. Would they do the same a teacher or leader they perceived as being more worthy of payment?
Go to workshops given by local teachers. Go on retreat with teachers whose work you admire even if they don’t have a big name. A friend recently posted this meme on social media – this is exactly what I’m talking about. Move away from corporate structure and sleep, and awaken to the value of the people all around you doing the work.
2. Make your experience and professional expertise as accessible as you can. In the example above, my suggested compensation allows for even those with no funds to benefit from my expertise. I also keep my rates low and flexible. This allows me to have a starting point with people, assess how serious they are, how much they seem to value my time and my knowledge and then to make decisions about future work with them based on several factors, not just their ability to pay.
I sometimes look at the rates people charge for group classes, pubic classes and even therapy sessions and wonder who it is that can actually pay those fees. Something I hear often is the idea that if we charge less we are devaluing ourselves or our work. I have never really understood this, to my mind, we are the only ones who can devalue ourselves, and in fact, I believe we devalue ourselves by being stingy, by being unyielding or unwilling to work with a a person who is not able to pay what we are asking, even when they are sincere and when their sincerity will allow them to multiply the work and knowledge. If we think we deserve more and are selling ourselves out at a lower pay grade, then we feel devalued. If instead we believe that there is a complex equation for what we “deserve”or what we “need” or even the various non-monetary ways we are being compensated, then we can rethink what it really is to value ourselves, and what is it to value sharing our knowledge, our skills, our expertise. I know yoga people sometimes get really upset when we use yoga words, but what about aparigraha – non-hoarding, and asteya, non-stealing? Aren’t we stealing from the greater good when we refuse to share our knowledge with people who would be able to use that wisdom to contribute to the world’s needs? Aren’t we hoarding and holding when we believe that we deserve a particular, often inaccessible, monetary compensation for even a half hour of our time, when that half hour could multiply in the heart of another, allowing them to do more good?
Living in a poor rural town over the last four years has really opened my eyes and heart to this whole monetary value thing even more. When a person can work a ten hour day of back breaking work for 200 pesos, but I won’t give an hour of my own time for less than 1500 – because I deserve it, something is wrong with my accounting. I understand of course that it is all an economy of scale, but it has certainly changed for me the idea of what I deserve versus what I would like. I wrote an article over a decade ago for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy entitled Karma, Yoga, and Business that suggests a new model for thinking about compensation. Ten years later, I still believe in this model, and perhaps it is more timely now than ever.
3. Consider the feedback you are giving and if it is helpful, especially anonymous feedback. This one comes up again for me every couple of years, and I have been on both sides of it. Many years ago, while I was teaching at the Texas Yoga Retreat, I attended a class on the Ashtanga Primary Series. I had been taught the practice with pretty strict guidelines and had very particular ideas about the way it should be taught. The teacher, who seemed fairly new to presenting in the conference format, did not teach to my liking. I didn’t like her style, neither of teaching the primary series, nor of teaching in general. At the end of the class, I filled out a feedback form – anonymously – stating as much.
As the day went on, I began to feel more and more ill at ease. By the end of the day, I was in my room crying, wishing I could somehow find my feedback form and tear it up. I realized, too late, that my own ego had gotten the best of me, and the feedback I gave would likely do nothing to actually help the teacher, but would most certainly hurt her feelings, make her feel self-conscious, and likely worst of all, wonder though-out the rest of the weekend who had written the feedback and why they hadn’t just come to talk to her, or why – if it wasn’t important enough to talk to her – was it important to tear her down, to write feedback that would be seen, not necessarily by her, but by people who were in a position to help or stall her teaching career.
I felt absolutely horrible and in that moment, without being able to take back the comment, commit to myself that I would never give any kind of anonymous feedback again— and that if I ever had negative feedback for a teacher or peer, I would never give it in writing to someone else, someone who was not the subject of my feedback. Instead, if I really thought it was important, I would go to the person myself and talk about what had transpired for me.
If the feedback is actually meant for someone to grow, why wouldn’t I approach them directly in the spirit of evolution? If, in the end, I really didn’t care, why bother writing it at all? No one grows from being shamed or humiliated. And the bigger question for me was, was the person so bad that the world would be better off without them? Or could I celebrate their contribution while providing real, honest feedback to help them to share what they were obviously passionate about – including having a positive impact on the lives of others? This is an example of not practicing ahimsa, the yoga precepts of non-violence and thereby jettisoning the most foundational tenet of our shared practice.
I have also been on the receiving end of this; I know how it feels to receive anonymous negative feedback. In fact, it just happened to me, where at the end of a conference that I felt great about, where I loved every moment and had made many wonderful connections, that I received anonymous feedback – directed not to me, but to my superiors – that included a litany of second hand complaints, culminating in the statement that “someone said she seems emotionally unhinged.” “Someone said,” not even from the complainant herself, but passing on what someone else said – in what context? How? Why” and….. really? And, if that is true, and I (or anyone) seems emotionally unhinged, and we are in the business of outreach to folks who are challenged emotionally through systematic oppression, trauma, of life circumstances, wouldn’t the compassionate thing to do be to reach out to that person and see if they need our help? “How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel, easy to be hard, easy to be cold….” Here’s the thing: if the feedback was meant to help me grow as a person, as a leader or as a teacher, it did not. How could it? It told me nothing about what I did or what I could do differently. It did not come out of love or a desire to support my growth, my work, or my approach. However, if the feedback was simply meant to humiliate me and hurt my feelings, it succeeded. But because of the anonymity, that person doesn’t even get the pleasure of knowing that their intent to harm me worked. And, just like when I gave anonymous negative feedback, I have to ask the question, “Are my limitations such that the world would be better off without my contributions?”
We all need each other – we need leaders and visionaries, we need teachers, we need workers and team players. Where we are now calls for nothing less than a revolution and we need more people than ever who are, at the end of the day, on our side. As a community, as a revolutionary force, we will need to give each other feedback, to talk to each other, to let each other know when they are doing a great job, and to offer kind reflections and specific suggestions when we feel someone could be doing better.
We can use our practice to discern not only how and when to provide feedback, but also to ask ourselves if every time someone does something we don’t like, if we even need to give feedback at all, especially if we are unwilling to share it face to face in a true effort to aid in someone’s growth, thereby aiding in our collective transformation.
We might use our practice too, to reflect on our own egos and how they might, at times, be the real drivers of our “feedback.” Perhaps if it is too personal, we might take time before giving the feedback at all to ensure that it isn’t more about us than it is about them.
4. The “sin of not bothering.” Even before I joined the Living School, I was deeply interested in several of orders of the Catholic Church and went through a period of time reading all I could on the different foundational principles of these orders. In that time, I came across a book called “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” by Revered James Martin, SJ.
There are many things that have stuck with me from that book, but the one I refer to most often is what Father James calls the “sin of not bothering.” Here our sin is not so much something done as something not done – usually because we just don’t “feel like it.” Often, in our overvaluing of the individual, and often especially in a growing spiritual context, we can use concepts like “boundaries” and “self-care” to create hard and fast lines and an impenetrable excuse for why we won’t do something. Don’t get me wrong, I think boundaries and self-care are both really good things. The problem is, when they are used as reasons for not doing even the simplest of things for another person, they become things that cannot be tested. Who can tell me I shouldn’t use this much needed time to rest, rather than to lend a hand to a neighbor who might genuinely need my help in the moment. Who can push back when I say that I am sticking to my boundaries, when I opt to not give one of the neighborhood kids a ride to the beach, even when I am going that way?
I know for many of us we feel like we just give and give and give – often to the “bleeding crowd” – and that we deserve time to ourselves, to be able to simply say “no” when asked for help from a needing friend. I understand that and I don’t have a simple check box for when to stand firm and when to give in.
However, ever since I learned of the phrase, “the sin of not bothering,” I have become a little bit better at yielding from my own impulse to “not do” and to considering if, in fact, I can do something small to help someone, instead of simply not bothering, of not giving that little extra, especially when I have so much and such access to resources.
Of course any one of these four suggestions could be unpacked and examined, and there are lots of details within each one of them that would change based on discernment of the exact moment, the exact circumstance. I offer these in the spirit of fellowship, of both a personal and a collective challenge to re-evaluate who the beneficiaries might be of our growing kindness and care in the face of such division and conflict. This is a call for myself as much as anyone to reexamine how I can address the very real and immediate needs of our friends and fellow community members.
I often used to say at Samarya that teaching kept me “good.” What I meant is, without community, without reflection, without someone to explore these nuances of my own growth, action, and inaction, it is easier for me to stay trapped in my own patterns. I need reminders, feedback and community encouragement to keep the fire of personal change ignited within me. It is in this spirit, and In the absence of an in person community, that I offer these thoughts, not because I think I have by any means mastered them, but because I see these things in myself, as much as I see them in others. I truly believe that the only real change, our only real hope for a just world, lies within the realization of our interdependence, starting with the people around us. We don’t need to hold out our love just for the bleeding crowd, the needing friend is always right here.
We are all in this together.