Grief, Division, and the Necessity of Waking Up
In the aftermath of what for many of us has been a devastating month after the Presidential election, it’s hard to know where to begin. As I connect with my peers and my community, one thing is clear: everyone is in a different place in their process of coming to terms with the election results. Some people are in a space of subdued resignation;, others rage with fierceness, and still others are overwhelmed by anxiety. When I look around, I recognize much of what I see as grief: the shock, the bargaining, the depression, the anger and blaming, and ultimately, the acceptance.
Grief and its process are real. The shock, disembodiment, and isolation that many people are experiencing are also very real—and they come from the place where, according to the ancient wisdom, all suffering stems from: ignorance and misperception. In this particular case, those of us who are now grieving (myself included) were ignorant to the degree of division, fear, and discrimination that is still rampant in the consciousness of the country, communities, and even the families we love. We are shocked because we were just hit with a heavy realization: things aren’t as we thought they were. And then we woke up.It’s especially when our personal fears are triggered and we find ourselves in the throes of lost-ness that our practice can be a source of guidance, like breadcrumbs left on the trail to lead us home. This is the heart of our practice, and this is when yoga is most essential: when it becomes fully embodied—when it teaches us how to respond in times of deep wounding.
In order to return home, we need to take stock of where we are now. The heated election results (as well as the campaign leading up to it) prompted a sort of national reactivity. The divisive rhetoric that started well before the election results came in has succeeded in awakening within us, collectively, a very mythological, caricature-like “us” vs. “them” mentality; and hence, we find ourselves in that exact reality. Through the process of othering (which both parties took part in), we have brought to the forefront one of our most damaging human tendencies and easiest default modes. By creating such stark oppositions—not just about our political attitudes and philosophies on financial policy or immigration, but about who we are as human beings—we have drawn a thick line in the sand and have chosen to embody the epitome of duality. The problem is that while this situation is real, and its consequences are certainly very palpable, it isn’t actually true. The divisions are based primarily on falsehoods and misperceptions.
Xenophobia, for example, is rooted on the false premise that a person originating from outside of one’s own country is by default a threat. On the other side of the coin, the assumption that a person with xenophobic attitudes is a wholeheartedly rotten human being, is also dangerous. For stark, extreme divisions like this to take hold (as they have) requires that we throw the baby out with the bathwater (as we have); it requires that we willingly blind ourselves to the nuances of situations that always, necessarily, demonstrate the paradoxical aspects of any argument, no matter how corrupt. In other words, even in the most “evil” of places, there is good—you just have to know where to look; you just have to ask the right questions.
The result of adhering to a false division is that when we live in a state of opposition to the truth, we suffer. The current state of division has our (collective and individual) nervous system in an absolute fritz, firing like a pinball machine. When the nervous system is on alarm, we can’t act; we can only react, and reactions tend to snowball and deplete us. In talking to people, one phrase I hear often is, “I’m so tired.” Yes—we are depleted. In such a state of over-activation, we are unable to drop into the place within ourselves that can actually access truth, the place of inner knowledge known in our tradition as Vijnamaya kosha, or our wisdom body. This is the element within us that aids in our process of discernment. In order to access the Vijnamaya kosha, in order to tap into the inherent wisdom that allows us to respond with grace rather than reactivity, we must work through the sheaths of the body, and if the body is playing the fear game, the door to wisdom just won’t open; we get stuck in the cycle of duality—the dangerous game of fear mongering.
So what now? According to the Yogic Sutras, before anything at all, we need to learn to check ourselves: in what ways are we contributing to division? Instead of spending our energy proliferating divisive rhetoric and attitudes (a task much easier said than done), the sage advice is to rise above it. Does this mean that we ignore injustice and hide in a cave? No. Does it mean that we discard our responsibility to speak truth to power? Absolutely not. It means that we learn to do the work that’s necessary to come to understand others’ intentions, even if we disagree wholeheartedly with their conclusions. When we can understand the root of another’s experience, we gain insight into their paradigm and worldview. From here, it usually becomes clear what instincts drive their decisions (self-preservation, perhaps—it’s a powerful one). Then, we can pinpoint the root of emotions (like misplaced fear), and work to ameliorate these fears with reason (i.e. data), kindness, and education—tools much more powerful than a match of heated vitriol, which simply acts like kerosene on fire and keeps the wounds alive. In the process, we work our muscles of compassion.
Yet, the work is also within ourselves: we must check in with our own assumptions and fears. We must work to educate ourselves and others to enlighten, and to align with truth. This is perhaps what K. Pattabhi Jois meant when he said, “Practice, practice, practice” because it will take plenty of practice to accomplish such a task—to find the truth within ourselves, the rootedness into our wisdom, the compassion that allows us to recognize misconception, and the strength to enlighten it with the glow of fiercest gentleness we can muster.
The silver lining is that we now know what lies ahead. Prior to the election, we were asleep. No wound can heal if we don’t know it exists. Today, the wound and the work ahead, while deep and formidable, are clear. Now we have no excuse—we have woken up, and it’s time to practice.