Let’s face it: 2014 was a difficult year on the home front and internationally, marred by bloodshed, loss, disease, heightening economic disparities and heartbreaking racial tension and injustice. Feelings of anger, hopelessness and apathy are natural responses to the overwhelming bombardment of painful stimuli delivered by our news feeds and in our communities. Yet amidst the world’s despair, hope abides within the refuge of our yoga and meditation practices.
In my younger years, I recall impassioned dialogue with peers who questioned whether contemplative practice (i.e., yoga/meditation) could do anything to change the world. How could sitting on our meditation cushions or doing yoga poses have any impact on systemic discrimination and inequality? In view of the world’s great need for action, wasn’t taking time for these practices passive, apathetic or even selfish?
While our view of activism commonly includes thoughts of marches, rallies and political banners, this participation is merely rhetorical without honest investigation of our own hearts and minds. Meditation facilitates change from the inside out by cultivating wisdom, non-judgment and compassion that ripples beyond us.
There are several reasons this works. First off, every personality is an aggregate of conditioned ‘programs’ (samskara) accumulated through life experience. As a consequence of living in an inequitable and prejudiced society, we have all internalized beliefs about those different than us, which can, in the absence of awareness, guide our behavior and speech. According to Buddhist philosophy, unconscious beliefs guide actions that reinforce our own suffering along with that of our communities.
Committing to the path of liberation—i.e., practicing yoga and meditation—empowers us to be aware of these biases and to refrain from allowing them to result in unjust or unkind actions towards ourselves or others.
A second reason that meditation serves social justice relates to our over-identification with suffering. No doubt, connecting to and being touched by the world’s suffering is a powerful experience that can catalyze social action and change. Yet without the equanimity (i.e., holding this suffering in a balanced perspective) resulting from a regular practice, we may over-identify with and internalize the suffering, pain and prejudice that we witness. This process may result in a sense of despair or anger that spills into the world as self-righteousness or blame. As a result, rather than acknowledging the places within our own hearts and communities that support oppressive conditions, we externalize, labeling certain individuals and groups as responsible.
In such a way, hatred begets hatred, and prejudice, prejudice. Hatred and prejudice stem from hearts that are walled, defended, and closed to the world’s pain because they once learned it was unsafe to be open and connected, and because the injustice they experienced was too much to bear. In a cruel twist, it is these very hearts, exiled from their own capacity to be vulnerable and loved, that contribute to the suffering of others. Rather than meeting their hatred with our own, the most radical act is expressing of compassion toward the state of humanity that gives rise to these conditions.
So, then, you want to start a revolution? Liberate your heart from the conditioned prejudices and constraints that obscure you from seeing clearly and perpetuate your own, and others’, suffering. Start by unearthing these conditioned “programs” and recognizing their familial, cultural and historical origins.
When we can courageously face and own these biases and prejudices, not believe in these stories or let them guide our behavior, and speak our truth even though it may require social sacrifice or discomfort in our immediate communities, we come to embody deep and authentic social justice. As each individual node or consciousness module thus awakens or activates, the other nodes in one’s environment are impacted. And in such a way, the world can change, each liberated node activating the next.