Courage, Joy, and The Voices of East Harlem
With love and respect,
Whatever kind of body we live in, we all have a lot of work to do right now. Our way of life is being shaken up in the most beautiful and challenging ways. Our collective journey has brought us to the edge of a great chasm. We are not equipped to fly over, to fall into the abyss, or to move the land. Our only way forward is to collaborate and build a bridge that will support us all in moving into the next part of our sojourn. This metaphor is inaccurate because in truth, we are not going anywhere - here we are on this planet, for the duration. The obstacles we face, in addressing inequity in race, gender, and class cannot be avoided. They present a set of challenges, some obvious and some unforeseen, and the possibility of so much dignity, integrity, and cooperation.
It is a supreme act of courage to wake up each day and face this world, as it is. Engaging with and allowing the process of life to unfold, and sharing the broader context of life is the essence of yoga and all other forms of spiritual practice. The evidence our practice is effective is by our willingness to endure discomfort and sacrifice in order to touch into our dignity, our inherent value, and the dignity of others. The unmet parts of ourselves, those darkened corners which we fear to explore, prevent us from being present with those around us. Our fears, anxieties, and insecurities, as well as our unwillingness to investigate and disentangle them, also distort our experience of others. Our biases, and our idiosyncrasies are a great burden we not only inflict on ourselves, but on the fabric that weaves our relationships. We are all mired by the weight of unresolved conflicts, grief, and unacknowledged pain and suffering of our ancestors, each other, and ourselves. Directly facing the ways that our conditioning supports or sustains privilege, inequity, or violence is daunting and painful, but it must be done. The wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita is especially poignant here.
The central theme of the Bhagavad Gita is fighting the battle against injustice and treachery. Rather than passively avoiding the conflict, Arjuna is urged to engage with equanimity, wisdom, compassion, and the sincere desire to cultivate a social order that values and recognizes the mystery and sacredness of mortal life. The theme of dispassion, non-attachment, or indifference to worldly gains or losses is also clearly outlined throughout the text. Outside of the religious, metaphysical, or otherworldly overtones, applied directly to the lived experience of the average person these teachings are of tremendous practical value. We are encouraged to evaluate our own process of engaging with the context and conditions of our life. We are encouraged to examine our own ethical conduct, behaviors, and actions; to be self-reflective, and aware of the impact our actions have on those around us. We are encouraged to drawn upon our own courage and fortitude to endure the sacrifices of instant gratification, material comfort, and indolence or obsequience. We are encouraged to take up the sword of discernment, to carefully examine whether our actions, thoughts, and words are rooted in selfishness, ignorance, or arrogance or in compassion, wisdom, and humility.
If we were encouraged by the larger social order to contribute to the life, dignity, and livelihood of all other beings without concern or fear of having our worldly needs met, what might life be like? Together we create a culture of accountability. By first holding ourselves accountable, and then asking each other to join us in the shared endeavor of collaborating to promote and preserve dignity. What we make of this time is succinctly captured in Vasistha's Yoga, "as is the effort, so is the fruit." In the paradigm imposed on the world since imperialism, we are all more likely to be concerned with the "fruit" part of that statement; we live in a global society that values goals, results, and outcomes above all else. However, we are being invited to be diligent and attentive to the "effort" now. Life is a shorthand to describe a complex and incalculable number of processes that are constantly interacting. We are process beings. By identifying the processes at work within and around us we can discern, "are these thoughts, actions, or words helpful or hurtful?"
Lastly, in the grave indignities and harm that have passed through generations, people have continued both to struggle, but also to celebrate life. The hope, joy, and dignity that arises amidst anger, grief, and inequity cannot and should not be overlooked. Look at the music, dance, and culture of the world, and specifically of Black America over the last century and it is clear. If we understood joy properly, we would see why it, like dignity, cannot be extinguished despite all calamities or acts of violence. Joy is the spontaneous recognition and gratitude for being alive. Joy arises out of the depths of our experience, and is not a product of external conditions. Our capacity to touch into our joy is available if we make room within our experience to be moved by it. The joy within us is multiplied in the presence of the joy of others - just like dignity. Together our joy and dignity amplifies. We need to be able to rest, to be calm, and to enjoy life in order for joy and dignity to flourish. That is the long term vision for the movements of justice. It is possible. I feel it in the music and lyrics of The Voices of East Harlem when they sing, "Little People stand up and be counted. Little people the odds are gonna surmount."