Three years ago in February, I was sitting in a window seat of an air-conditioned bus careening down the highways of south India, a Bollywood movie playing silently on the inconsistent screen above our driver.
As I watched the rolling fields fly by, wincing every time I looked up to see our bus just barely miss hitting a cow, or a rickshaw, or another bus, or an entire family riding – no helmets – on a motorcycle, a woman seated side-saddle behind her husband, bright sari flowing in the wind behind her as she held her infant baby to her chest, I sought respite from the terrifying and barely controlled chaos which often define road trips in India.
On this particular day, a bright, hot day, a long day of travel, respite came in the form of a headset and a podcast. Settling into the corner provided by my window seat, checking first to make sure all the students were cared for and finding their own ways to manage the adventure, I tuned in to an interview with one of my heroes, Representative John Lewis. The day made an impact on me, because it was tied to this particular interview and the profound influence it had on my consciousness, and especially a reconciling of faith and action – things I had been thinking about, teaching about, and grappling with for many years. I was moved not only by his direct impact and involvement in the civil rights movement, but by his unwavering integrity and his deep faith – the very foundations on which he stood to effectively lead the cause with determination and resiliency.
Three years later, I found myself once again on a bus in India, once again feeling the powerful awakening that comes with being immersed in a culture where faith is at the center of seemingly everything, and where the individual, direct relationship to God presence is respected and encouraged. And once again, I was feeling unnerved.
This time though, the sensations of instability and anxiety came not from the hurtling bus, but from inside my own heart, as if it were its own bus, making its way through the complexities of spirituality and social justice, barely missing collisions with friends and colleagues, both close and peripheral, feeling nearly derailed not by cows and families on motorcycles, but by the pressing rectitude of the current movement and its self-proclaimed arbiters of righteousness, the pressure to agree upon and adhere to the one right answer, the one right way, in the pursuit of justice.
With limited Internet, there had been so many windows, none big enough for real engagement or personal connection – indeed the Internet is rarely the place for real engagement and personal connection – but so many tiny windows through which I could see the conflict, the right vs. wrong, this vs. that, the exclusionary rhetoric that seemed to be a hallmark of much of the social justice movement as it was being “revived” in response to the current political climate.
It was a glimpse through one of these windows, a complex situation playing itself out on the unforgiving field of social media that set me in the state of frustration and inner conflict, the state in which I boarded the bus that morning. At first, I just leaned my arms and head on the seat in front of me and wept. Once I had allowed that physical response to move through, I sat back and closed my eyes. I leaned into the fabric of personal faith that is the backdrop of so much of India, and into the words and wisdom of John Lewis I had heard on a very similar bus ride three years prior. I softened into my own knowing – in fact, a profound “unknowing” – and returned to my own center, to equanimity and courage.
India has always been powerful medicine for me. It is a study in contrast, a study in complexity and dynamic tension. It is a place where, confronted by thousands of lives being played out in broad daylight, I am overwhelmed by the reality of all these lives, all the lives everywhere, each unique, complex, complete and incredibly meaningful to the one who is living it.
I get the same feeling when I am approaching an airport in a plane. Looking down I can’t help but think of the seven and a half billion lives that are each precious and singular, and at the same time, especially from that vantage point, that each one is nothing more than a tiny speck on the world stage, and an infinitesimally smaller one when accounting not just for the current numbers, but for the nearly incomprehensible number that includes all lives everywhere, past, present and future. Suddenly, that one life, that one voice, that one action that held so much meaning becomes lost in the sea of infinite expanse, of exquisite insignificance.
So here again is that tension – are we meaningful or are we inconsequential? What and where is our power, and how is that balanced by an understanding of the complex dynamic in which each one of us exists, and above all, how do we allow an openness to the not knowing, to the reality that whatever we think we see so clearly is necessarily distorted by the perspective of our tiny life? And when (if) we accept this insignificance, how do we also harness and channel the capacity we each have to affect change in our communities and in our world? How can we be both wonderfully powerful and wonderously inconsequential?
For me, a faith practice is the very thing that allows me to find and cherish this gift of uncertainty.
As a long time teacher and practitioner of yoga, and a more recent teacher and student of comparative contemplative practices, I have often been the one to use phrases like, “Yoga teaches me to be loving” or “My yoga practice gives me the ability to see things from a different perspective,” but in fact these are the tools of the practice, the outcomes of the practice. And these tools, these results, unexamined can lead us easily into what can be called “spiritual bypass,” using pat phrases like “Be the change” or “Just love everybody” or “We’re all the same,” – not to actually embody those adages, but simply to shut down the more complex and potentially illuminating questions and conversations that are longing to be explored, on both the inner and outer landscape.
So the question becomes what is the practice itself and how does that actually inform and transform us? What is this “yoga,” this “practice?” and how is it creating the inner stability and fearlessness, the unconditional welcoming, required in order to be the change, or to love everybody, or to see all lives as equally worthy?
Yoga –and in fact most contemplative practice – is a spiritual discipline, a personal relationship first and foremost. India, the birthplace of yoga, celebrates this personal relationship while allowing the question of “relationship to whom? Or to what?” to float relatively undefined. “Brahman,” the Sanskrit term for what Teillhard de Chardin might have called something like “the un-definable creative, unifying force that pulsates behind all the cosmos,” is encouraged to be imagined by the individual, taking whatever recognizable form the faithful is drawn to, in order to create that real relationship. So when we say, my yoga practice teaches me….We might consider changing that to my yoga practice awakens in me, and then ask ourselves not which tools or outcomes we are limiting ourselves to, but to ignite the infinite capacity that is offered to us as the fruits of faith.
We can take that personal relationship out into the world as John Lewis does, as the Liberation Theologists do, as Dorothy Day did, but it may help us to recall that they didn’t see their work as separate from their faith, nor simply the natural sequela of their practice, rather that their faith practice was the bedrock of their social justice work, the very ground from which their tools and subsequent actions arose.
So what are the fruits of the practice that give us that foundation? I see these as falling into at least three distinct yet overlapping categories.
Faith practices invite us to feel secure in the love of God, in Brahman, in whatever form that may take, or by whatever name it may be called. It allows us to remember our own essential worth, not measured against how many people agree with us on Facebook, or how we did in a line-up of other “righteous” folks. It allows us to remain steady and focused, and to not become discouraged by the nagging voices, either in our minds or in our communities, or social media feeds, that tell us we are on the wrong side of justice because we didn’t agree on that thing, that point, that particular means of action. We might include the 23rd psalm among our meditations, or the powerful words of Swami Vivekananda who reminds us “As long as we believe ourselves to be even the least separate from God, fear remains with us; but when we know ourselves to be the beloved of the beloved, fear goes; of what can we be afraid?”
Faith practices can lead us into a sense of wonder. They can invite us to a mystical experience in which we know, as a given, that we do not know, we cannot know, how the entire infinite tapestry of life will unfold, what is the one right thing, how things will evolve and change in their own cosmic process. Faith practices can allow us to be committed to seeking understanding of, or at least consideration of, truths that are beyond the purview of the intellect.
And finally, as an extension of this sense of wonder, faith practices, including yoga, can encourage us to reject “either/or” binaries in favor of embracing complexity and uncertainty. Indeed, faith itself is a practice not just sitting with the unknown, but leaning into it. It is a welcoming of intricacy and entanglement, rather than a fundamentalist view of one correct action, one correct process.
This dynamic tension is often generative; it has the ability to give way to a third, non-oppositional, force. Everything is not this and that, and taking sides rarely leads to resolution. Our spiritual life could give us the training to live in this tension and resist the either/or that derails progress and leads to hurt feelings, isolation and impasse.
There is not one single road to righteousness. This view in and of itself discourages participation and an honoring of personal evolution – how do we know that the right thing to do is to shut out relatives who disagree with us, or to “de-friend” or block people on social media who in our minds have said or done something offensive or unexamined, or that the view we have of another person’s spiritual and political evolution has to be on a parallel course with our own in order for it to be valid?
It bears saying as well that I don’t believe people have to be faith based to receive these gifts, nor to contemplate the questions, nor to act in integrity – every one of us may certainly drawing from a different foundation. I know that all kinds of people, with all kinds of ideas and backgrounds are necessary in the conversation. That for any of us to secure even the most tentative grasp of the mystery of life, politics and justice, that for any of us to understand “what it all means,” we would do well to invite a diversity of practices and experiences, and a variety of perspectives drawn from divergent personal journeys.
I am speaking here, then, to myself and to people who may have similar faith backgrounds and practices as I. Maybe this is the time to go back to those practices, not the tools, not the outcomes, but the pulsing heart of the practice, that deep inner relationship that invites rarification of the mind and a softening and opening of the heart. And let this place be our guide as we navigate those winding roads, those terrifying twists and turns, those traffic bumps, those sacred cows and those mesmerizing, distracting colors so that we arrive safely home, together.
“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognise and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet. / Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast. / Hello.” ~ Pádraig Ó Tuama
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. ~ Psalms 23:2
People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” ~ Dorothy Day
“The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, so we had to do something.” ~ John Lewis
“Being a theologian is not a matter of skillfully using methods but of being imbued with the theological spirit. . . liberation theology is a new way of being a theologian. . . Theology (not the theologian) comes afterwards; liberating practice comes first.” ~ Leonard Boff and Clodovis Boff
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