Yoga and the Art of Relationships

view from midtown west Manhattan

view from midtown west Manhattan

New York City has around a population of around 8.6 million. That’s a lot of people in a very small area. With so many people to contend with daily, people are bound to get on one’s nerves. Just ride the A line from the Rockaways on the NYC subway system and you’ll know what I mean!

One bit of yoga wisdom and practice that all New Yorkers might be well served by can be boiled down to two words: “upekshanam” – acceptance, equanimity, neutrality – and “apunya” – non-virtuous, evil, bad. The yoga idea here as suggested by SwamiJ’s translation and explanation of Sutra 1.33 is that in relating with non-virtuous people, our mind can become purified by cultivating feelings of neutrality toward such people and their evil acts (evil, of course according to our own perception.)

In looking inward at my own self, I think I have a higher than average level of dislike for people who do evil things. I’ve always felt rather disturbed by the injustice of and suffering that results from people who are doing things that are just wrong (which is probably why it led me to eventually creating Keoni Movement Arts). In NYC, little things “get my goat,” such as kids playing loud music on the subway trains, people littering the streets, and aggressive drivers who try to cut to the front of the line. I think that my mind gets disturbed more than most people’s. I know that as a kid I was particularly sensitive, and I really disliked people who did bad things. I think this hyper-tendency of my mind has stayed with me into my adult life.

I won’t go into details, but several events in personal encounters in my life recently have really disturbed my mind. As I reflected on this sutra this past month, what has really helped me personally is to cultivate an attitude of neutrality towards the people involved and the events. SwamiJ suggested the following, which really helped me:

It can be difficult to cultivate this attitude [of acceptance or neutrality], since it might make us think we are approving of their bad behavior. We seek the neutrality of inner balance and equanimity, which does not mean approving of the person's actions. In fact, cultivating attitudes of neutrality might go a long way in being able to cause change. It surely helps to stabilize and clear the mind for meditation.

I would agree in theory with the notion that remaining as neutral as possible will possibly help the situation to be resolved in a way that is most beneficial for all. And in my own practice, I have witnessed moments where cultivating a neutral attitude afterwards that my present moment responses to certain “gets my goat” experiences recently have actually helped to bring my mind to a place of greater acceptance, stability and calm.

I think the character Mr. Spock is representative of this idea. He doesn’t overreact – for better or for worse – but rather just states the facts. Perhaps President Obama is also someone who exemplifies this characteristic of neutrality in the face of dealing with the wicked and evil. I’ve heard he has an amazing ability to keep his cool in the face of intense pressure. Conversely, president Trump might be representative of someone who doesn’t display “upekshanam” towards those he considers to be “apunya.” He is highly reactive towards his “enemies.” In dealing with the current state of American politics, we might all be well served by cultivating a more neutral and accepting attitude about the way things are as that might be the best way for us to get ourselves out of the mess we’re currently in.

This might be carrying this idea to the extreme, but in dealing with the “wicked” I sometimes remember the words Jesus uttered on the cross: “Bless them father, for they do not know what they are doing.” On occasion, this has helped to calm and stabilize my own mind. As someone who practices yoga and meditation regularly and sees how my own mind can get disturbed by wicked acts, I can only imagine how much harder it is for people who don’t practice to see clearly and remain neutral. After all, at least from the yoga stand point, we’re all living under a veil of illusion about what is real and what is not real – some more than others.

I think about my older brother, Dr. Bernard, who has told me that he deals with wicked people by saying to himself “I forgive myself for my feelings towards those people.” In a way, this is his form of meditation practice, as it helps his mind to come to a higher level of stability and calm.

According to SwamiJ, “stability and clarity of mind are necessary before being able to experience the subtler meditations.” In addition to “cultivating an attitude of neutrality toward those we perceive as wicked or evil,” Sutra 1.33 also suggests we try “cultivating feelings of friendliness (maitri) towards those who are happy (sukha), compassion (karuna) for those who are suffering (dukkha), [and] goodwill (midita) towards those who are virtuous (punya).”

Broken down, SwamiJ suggests that:

• When we are unhappy, our tendency is for us not to be around happy people. This is perfectly within the realm of normal human experience. Cultivating positive thoughts about such people can at least help to neutralize our own mind’s negative thoughts and emotions, and move it in the direction of more clarity and stability.

• When we’re around or hear of people who are suffering, we sometimes find our mind looking for an escape route. We have compassion for such suffering, but we don’t want to have to deal with it personally. Recognizing this attitude of our minds as just a normal human tendency can go far in helping us to truly have compassion for those who are suffering. SwamiJ says “awareness allows freedom and peace of mind.” It will also likely lead us towards taking appropriate and meaningful actions towards relieving the suffering.

• When we see the “do-gooders” of the world doing more than we can to try to try to be of service, we can get jealous, due to our feelings of inadequacy. Swami J says: “Better that we cultivate attitudes of happiness and goodwill towards such people. It is not always easy to cultivate such positive attitudes when, inside, we are feeling negative. But something very interesting happens as we become a neutral, non-attached witness to our inner process. That is, humor comes; the mind is seen to be a really funny instrument to watch, in all of its many antics. Then the happiness and goodwill seems to come naturally.”

If I’ve gotten anything from this yoga lesson, it is that our very own minds can be very tricky to be in relationship with, but if we can bring humor, awareness, and compassion towards our own tendencies, it will go a far way towards helping our minds to become more calm and stable. If we can achieve just a little more of this, perhaps – probably – in our own small, humble, yet not insignificant ways we can help out the planet and all its inhabitants.

Try a little thought experiment at the end of your next yoga/meditation practice: bring to mind someone who has “gotten your goat” recently. Then staying with the feelings and your breath, see how your mind shifts ever so slightly in the direction of acceptance. This practice has helped me, I’m hoping it can help you.

May you be healthy,
May you dwell in your heart,
May your mind be calm and stable, …
For the benefit of All Beings.

Keep practicing!

With Aloha and Metta,
Paul Keoni