One night, years ago, I was sitting with my teacher, Karina Mirsky. We weren't talking about yoga or consciousness. We weren't exploring the mysteries of the universe or even reflecting on one of her recent classes. Instead, we were watching a documentary on the Ku Klux Klan, when a question came to my mind.
"So yoga says that it's our duty to love the world and everyone in it," I began. Growing up mixed-race, I had been exposed to the violence that hate groups can cause in our society and the notion of loving these individuals was difficult to me. "How can we love those who wreak such havoc and hatred? How can we show compassion to those who perpetuate such small-minded prejudices that have clearly caused suffering to millions?"
Growing up mixed-race, I had been exposed to the violence that hate groups can cause in our society and the notion of loving these individuals was difficult to me.
Karina paused for a moment and replied, "We have to understand that these individuals are reacting to their own suffering." She went on to explain that although we may not condone the actions of others, we can take an objective step backward and view the paths that led to their actions with empathy. This perspective allows us to have compassion for them and (most importantly) not let their actions cause us lasting, personal suffering.
The current members of the KKK and similar hate groups have been conditioned through their experiences to act and believe as they do. This conditioning can come from their community, direct experiences, or any number of past impressions. In relation to the documentary we were watching, Karina said that this group has a certain way of life with specific conditions and value systems that they are afraid of losing; their means to protect those values may be violent, but the base mindset can be understood as conditioned and deeply ingrained.
Through this discussion, she had unwittingly given me a new personal practice: to not take anything personally. I thought about all the times in my life when I had taken something that someone had said or done to me personally, and came to the realization that in each and every single incident, the other person was reacting to their own suffering. In other words, it was never about me. Ever.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, to understand that when people treat us negatively it has nothing to do with us, and that at the core it is completely about their suffering. I made it my personal mission to practice this for a year, no matter what. It was difficult, especially in the incidences where my righteous indignation wanted to tear the other person apart. But what I came to find was that this mindset actually made me a happier and healthier person. It became a practice of ahimsa (non-violence), one of the five yamas prescribed in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It changed my reaction patterns and made me less angry.
This practice also asked me to look at my own reactive patterns. What triggered me to lash out? Were my reactions to the world helpful or harmful? Was I unintentionally causing suffering to others or myself? The hard truth was that I had plenty of work to do here. But just as I am asked to hold compassion for others in their suffering, I also had to have compassion for myself in my own suffering. Every action became a practice of questioning how I moved in the world, begging me to ask “who am I being?”
When someone says or does something harmful toward us, it is our duty to have compassion.
Years later, during my 500-hour teacher training with Karina, this teaching was both revalidated and expanded. While discussing the Yoga Sutra, we came to sutra 1.33, where the sage discusses the practices of cultivating a purified and peaceful mind, one of which is to have compassion for those who are suffering. When someone says or does something harmful toward us, it is our duty to have compassion. This is not so that they can be absolved of anything, but so that we may move through the world with a calm and tranquil mind—that we do not reflect that violence back onto others.
Now this teaching is not suggesting that we shouldn't protect ourselves from the injustices of the world, or that we allow others to inflict harm upon us; rather, it is asking us not to respond from a space that mirrors that violent behavior, but from a mental space of clarity, objectivity, and most importantly, compassion.