One of the hallmarks of Samarya Yoga is the work of making yoga philosophy “real”–something we can use every day, in and out of class, not sharing teachings that feel esoteric or untouchable. One of the blessings about my job is that I’m constantly looking at my daily life for personal examples to bring to my yoga students. How am I “living my yoga?” How am I failing to do so and what consequences therefore show up?
This month at Evolutions we’re studying Compassion, so I’ve been pondering how yoga helps me to cultivate compassion for others and for myself, and which situations in life challenge my ability to do so. Well, some information showed up loud and clear on a road trip last week when my husband and I flew to Denver to buy a Vanagon (I know, yoga teacher in a VW bus, perfect cliche!) and drive it back to Maryland. Why someone would travel so far for one particular vehicle is another story–car geeks feel free to ask me. So, as you can probably imagine, a trip covering 2,000 miles in an unknown-to-us, older vehicle left us with many stories, some harrowing, some hilarious. The one that brought me to the idea of compassion goes like this:
While we had planned to sleep in the camper van each night, my husband’s sudden bout of vomiting one night forces us to find the closest motel, and we find ourselves a motel in Newton, Iowa–a very, very small town. The next morning, with my husband over his mysterious illness (too much road trip-Red Bull?), we pack up and head to the lobby for a bite to eat before leaving. There’s one other family there: a man and a few children, eating waffles and watching a show on the TV about deer hunting. Now, I try to be flexible about most things, and hunting is one of them, but as the show progresses and I watch the deer die, and as I see how excited the hunters are about each kill, I grow more and more uncomfortable. The man and his children don’t seem at all phased–they smile and laugh along with the show. So my mind starts doing what minds will do. I wonder if the hunters will use the deer skin and bone, and assume they will waste it. I judge this man for teaching his children that killing is ok. I start to frown and furrow, essentially posturing for them (as if this could ever change them). And the chitta vritti grows: I wonder if the oldest daughter isn’t a daughter after all but his too-young wife, since the others have left by now and she remains. I wonder about cults out here in the middle of nowhere and finish my tea and probably pretty righteously take my things and head out.
Fast forward an hour or so: my husband and I have found the van battery dead and are in the 12 degree weather wondering what to do. We have asked strangers for help only to find varying degrees of declines: people who don’t have the time or those who offer tentative solutions which aren’t actually helpful. AAA has told us they can’t help us because of their rule that they don’t service vehicles without license plates (in Colorado, the seller keeps the plates, and instructs the buyer to get new ones in the new state), and it’s Sunday so there’s no chance of a mechanic–if there even is one in this town–being open for business. Out comes Mr. Deer-Hunter-Cult-Leader. My husband approaches him and explains what’s going on and he gladly pulls his big white van over to help us. He tries to jump us with our cables…it doesn’t work. He gets out his own much beefier cables and tries them…several minutes pass and our van is still dead. He fully revs his engine as others had been unwilling to do in their attempts to help us that morning…it seems closer but still no cigar. I find myself praying and imagining being stuck far from home for days, missing upcoming responsibilities. As we continue to let the vehicles share their charge, we learn that the man is a preacher from Missouri, on tour with his kids and wife, who has come out to the car by now with her children–and is, by the way, his age. His seven children, who sing acapella together, are performing a concert in a nearby church after their dad preaches; afterwards everyone will share a meal. We tell him about our son, we talk about parenthood. The man is gentle, and kind, and encouraging, and helpful. He then gives my husband a pointer about how to pump the gas pedal that *VROOM!* gets our van going. High-fives and cheers abound and he invites us to the service, Christmas concert and meal. We tell him we’d love to go but are already a half-day behind schedule; I say it’s probably better this way because acapella makes me cry. He asks us to hang on a minute, throws open the door to his van to say something to his kids, and motions us over. They burst into song and perform a little concert for us right then and there. Pretty soon I’m crying, then my husband is crying, and we’re basically having one of those moments where you look down from somewhere else and ask “is this really happening? I’m having a deeply moving experience here in a Super 8 parking lot watching seven glowing and gorgeous children sing to us from their van…”
So back to compassion. Early in the month I talked in classes about cultivating compassion for ourselves as the first step towards cultivating it for anyone else. We then talked about cultivating it for our loved ones, remembering how easy it is to take them for granted. Now I’m challenging all of us to take the next step: can we have preemptive compassion for strangers? For people we know but not very well? For “enemies?” This divine light–the light that shone so clearly from this man and his family on this cold, cold morning–is always there within all of us, and far too often our own stories about others make it invisible. We may not see this divine spark when others are engaged in activities we’re judging, but basic yoga philosophy tells us that this light is within us all. Even if we truly dislike someones behaviors or choices, or would never make them ourselves, that does not make them a villain, a wretch, or any less of a benevolent miracle all at the same time. We all do the best we can. Not only does yoga tell us this, I would argue that our own experience generally tells us as well, if we simply wait around long enough to see our fear-based or righteous stories fall apart.