(Interview by Shannon Pritchard)
“If you think that you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito” Dalai Lama
Three associates working with NID are serious yoga practitioners, Mario (in Barbados), Leah and Racquel (in Toronto) devote a great deal of emotional energy and time to their learning and practice. They reflect on how their practice defines their professional work and personal mindfulness.
Today we see the ancient practice of yoga packaged and commercialised. Technical clothing, retreats and personal awakenings can all be purchased with a click. “Mindfulness” is the latest trend marketers are cashing in on – it’s hard not to be cynical. Mindfulness is a form of mediation that emphasizes self-awareness, monitoring your thoughts and feelings without judgement, as any Olympian will tell you that it’s the mind as much as the muscles that make a champion. A recent study out of the University of California San Diego, observed, after an eight- week course in mindfulness training, enhancements in the same brain patterns that distinguish elite performers from average ones. This is not a tool that you acquire once and then use as needed – the more you practise, the more you reap the rewards. I was left anything but cynical after speaking with Mario, Leah and Racquel. I asked a few questions and they each provided me with very thoughtful and insightful responses. I think you will enjoy the read and will appreciate a moment of introspection.
SP: Was there a defining moment that brought you to yoga or meditation?
MP: It all started when I was 6 or 7 years old I was often asking myself questions like: “why me is me?”, “why I am stuck in this body?”, “why am I separated from others?”. My first breakthrough towards this quest for “Self” discovery came 40 years ago. In my 4th year of high school we had a new religion professor (a catholic priest) who gave us lectures on Hindu philosophy and introduced us to Asana (yoga postures) and Pranayma (breathing techniques). I discovered a new world at the age of 16. His teachings resonated with me and I started practicing in earnest. A part of me realized that the answers to my question could not be found, in my case, in the obsessive reading of European philosophers and psychoanalysts but only in the vastness and profoundness of ancient oriental knowledge. The practice of all aspects of Yoga helped me, many years later, to find an answer to the primary question: “Who am I?”
RS: There was not a defining moment per se, but certain inner promptings or longings for which yoga and meditation seemed to be the best response. After about 10 years of migration from Jamaica, and lots of learning and experience and moving around, I’d gained a lot, but felt like I had become more lonely and isolated in terms of being able to share new and old experiences across new and old friendships and family. So I turned to the spiritual, to internal quiet, to look for peace and because instinctively I sensed that’s how I could develop my best self on my unique journey. That said, I’ve gone away from and come back to yoga and meditation several times since the start of my journey in 2007. Usually, I come back to it in moments I’m facing a lot of change or stress because I know that cultivating these resources never fail to calm and guide me.
LOB: I wish I had an eloquent entry into yoga but in genuinely reflecting, the truth is that I ‘dabbled’ in and ‘hacked’ at yoga for quite a few years before I resolved to have a greater personal acceptance of the process as a part of a much bigger journey. I use the word dabbled and hacked intentionally because it is these words in George Leonard’s 1992 book “Mastery” that nonjudgmentally and honestly describe my well-intended but also somewhat misguided and sporadic approaches to my yoga practice. I would get tremendously impatient with my progress and in so doing find a million+1 reasons to skip classes, or not meditate for months. However, the thing with yoga is that once you start practicing— no matter how sporadic or asana-driven it may have initially appeared— it leaves an imprint not just on your body but on your soul. It is that imprint that brought me back again and again. I began to understand the rich personal journey that both yoga and great yoga teachers were helping me to unfold. Through my yoga journey insights continue to be revealed that fundamentally enrich my life, my connection to community, and to the planet.
SP: If there is one piece of wisdom from yoga or meditation that you want to share with NID what would that be?
RS: “The meek shall inherit the earth”: we should be patient with social change, humble in the way we go about it, cautious about labeling people as victims who need us to work on their behalf, recognize that a spiritual approach to social change is more powerful than an oppositional one, which has the seeds of its own failure.
LOB: It’s really hard to select just one piece of a much bigger spiritual practice. I am not sure this counts as wisdom but a piece that really unraveled it all for me was the genuine recognition that there is very little room for the ego in yoga and if there is little use for it there, then there is probably little use for it in anything else we are committed to. That ‘I’ part of the self that holds onto beliefs, habits, ideas, and attachments that create disconnect. Once that part of you can be witnessed for what it really is, then a more healthy relationship with it could be developed. In so doing I recognized that we all interconnected. This connection is to our inner-self and that self’s intrinsic connection to the wellbeing of one another and of our planet.
MP: The wisdom of Yoga is due its non-dogmatic, non-ideological and non-religious nature. Yoga masters make continuous references to quotes of sages and saints of different beliefs and cultures. I have chosen two, which basically say the same thing and resonate perfectly with my practice: “What you are searching for is already where you are searching from”, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226); “I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from inside!”
SP: What does your personal yoga/mediation practice look like?
MP: It is very hard to put in words what a personal Yoga practice is, particularly because the practice takes you to a dimension where the persona you believed you were starts fading, as well all your beliefs including the assumption that you are the body\mind. I could describe my practice as a combination of techniques (breathing, body movements and meditation) done in a specific part of the day and self-inquiry is done constantly using everyday life as an opportunity to practice. Therefore Yoga is more a way of life than a practice. Unfortunately, in the West Yoga is generally perceived as a physical practice you do to increase body flexibility and feel relaxed. However, this is only one of the first steps, or a small part of what Yoga really is.
RS: I practice an hour of Vipassana meditation most mornings. I practice hatha yoga and tai chi as much as I can. I’m also a certified hatha yoga instructor and teach sporadically. But really, the way yoga and meditation are integrated into my life right now is through the underlying philosophy, trying to actualize my best self, share love and kindness, and managing my emotions by paying attention to my breath.
LOB: It looks like life because it is life. It is not separate. It is like that quote by Wu Li “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This is in no way to say that I consider myself in anyway enlightened or that life is mundane but rather to say that my practice reflects a consistent effort to move yoga off the mat and to: cultivate self-awareness; engender compassion; evoke creativity; and develop resolve, gratitude, joy, and peace. This must be done within in the daily ins, outs, and in-betweens of life. There are all sorts of days that conjure up all sorts of things. This is the joy in life; it is a journey to find equilibrium and equanimity between the known and the unknown. When I am on my mat or meditating I try to witness whatever is arising for what it is, face it with compassion, and to find stillness.
How does the practice of yoga bring ‘mindfulness’ to your professional work?
LOB: There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between yoga and this work. A great deal of this work is heart-centered and very multifaceted. Socio-economic and political issues are complex and the center of it are people with multifaceted, diverse and sometimes very complex realties. There are people who desire real positive change, justice, and equality. The amazing people that I meet are the ones who have poured their heart and soul into social justice. They actively promote the wisdom that while it is critical to stand-up for what you believe in and to always ‘speak your truth’ it must be done without causing harm (not to be confused with discomfort but real emotional, psychological, physical damage) to others as this is fundamentally also doing harm to yourself. That is fundamentally the premise of human rights!
Additionally, while passion and commitment are important to a rights-centered approach I know they can only take me so far. The ability to find balance, step-back, self-reflect and to understand privilege is equally important in working collaboratively to engender change. I think while I have always felt this to be true in theory, yoga and meditation have definitely supported me in the practice of finding balance, stepping back for greater perspective and in self- reflecting with kindness to determine where things arise. In so doing I am able to build greater cultural competency and be more authentic in my interactions. You therefore begin to practice the change from within first especially if the intention is to advocate or demand social change from others. When I start there I am better able to work through differences in opinions, recognize my connection to others and to develop some level of intuitiveness in understanding both what really underneath it all and also what is required. This kind of knowledge supports the development of programs, practices and policies that are creative, proactive, people-centered, and inclusive and can make a positive impact on others
MP: The acquired capacity through Yoga to become “the observer” of your thoughts and feelings, rather than acting upon them mechanically, has helped me to perform my work more effectively and more joyously. It is a bit like the concept of alternative balance thinking in cognitive psychology whereby you stop acting based on core beliefs but rather look at issues from different angles and perspectives. If I notice I am beginning to feel anxious or irritated about something said in a meeting or in a one to one discussion, I step back and ask inside: “who is the one that is getting upset?” It is easy after having practiced for quite some time to realize that you are not “the upset one” but that the arising feeling is coming from conditioning which you can also call the ego, personality or whatever you like. The same applies for the person that is getting upset with you. This allows one to also see when there is limited understanding in the person who is arguing with you and instant acceptance and forgiveness arise. This is of great assistance in maintaining good relationships even with “difficult” persons and to find flexible solutions which can be sometimes very different from what you originally thought was the only way forward. The more insightful you become, the more you drop your arrogance. Potential confrontations could turn into potential collaborations. As the Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes to whole world blind”. In development work this is particularly useful as you encounter many persons with passionate ideas and perceived ways of changing the world based on their personal conditioning and belief systems.
RS: Physically, yoga calms and relaxes me, which helps me be more aware, attentive, patient and a better listener. Empowered by the philosophy of yoga, I believe in bringing authenticity to my work, to believe in talking about ‘love’, increasing love and empathy, spreading love and empathy, to not ignore personal change, transformation and actualization as fundamental to real, enduring social change.
SP: Why do you think there is a movement towards mindfulness now?
MP: There is no easy answer. In Yoga there is not a specific focus on worldly issues. Everything is Consciousness and whatever happens in the world is just its manifestation. Astrologers talk about cosmological resonance and some exoteric schools talk about cycles whereby human development and decadence alternate constantly and there is nothing that can be done. For example, in the West after the decline of the hippie movement in the seventies we seemed to have been experiencing a long period of materialism and lack of understanding of mankind’s true potential. However, from the eighties and nineties we have been enjoying some awakening through the expansion of the New Age movement. The hippie movement did have an origin in the Eastern paradigm, while the New Age is a postmodern reaction against the hegemonic discourses of Western religions, especially Christianity, which they try to revisit, articulate and reinterpret in a new way. However, in my view, these movements only succeeded to scratch the surface as they aim at external and\or phenomenal changes, like natural living, changing the world through group meditations and simplified shamanic rituals, etc. Now with the economic crises which has led to value and social crises in many Western nations there has been a substantial increase in persons interested in deeper spiritual development also thanks to a positive use of social media. There are many gurus who have millions of followers on YouTube, have their websites where they share podcasts and live streaming and have retreats all over the World. One of their most important tenets is that happiness does not come from external things, which are temporary and fleeting, and is not even a state of the mind.
One of the greatest Jnani Yoga (the Yoga path of Knowledge) masters of the 20th century, Sri Ramana Maharshi, explained over 60 years ago that the best service you could do to humanity is to realize “Yourself”, that is, for us to understand who we really, really are, embracing our true identity, not based on social conditioning, psychological mind, physical body, memories, and individual stories, which are all phenomenal and objects in consciousness.
After 30 years working in and with development cooperation and strongly believing that I could give my “personal” contribution to the eradication of poverty in the world, it was very hard, for a long time, to accept Sri Ramana’s words. However, through my practices I have come to the realisation that Sri Ramana’s words are true and I have accepted them fully. This has brought me peace and perhaps I am in a better position now to make a contribution.
LOB: Many other cultures have practiced some kind of “mindfulness” for centuries. Therefore care is required in how we in the west understand it, how we apply it and how we locate it. In referencing a western context I think it’s important to acknowledge where cultural appropriation has taken place and what the results of that may look like. However that is a topic for a much larger discussion. With that said, if I were to reflect on some of the discussion I have been a part of, I would say that if there is a ‘movement’, it is definitely multifaceted. There are a variety of approaches being adopted all stemming from diverse interests, intentions, places and spaces. I know I am being vague but I also don’t want to overly simplify something that is quite complex.
A wider context may be that some people in the west have begun to feel (at different levels) how capitalism and consumerism has affected on their bodies, their mind, others across the world, and the environment. A feeling of disconnect. In feeling these things they have questioned the trappings of those paradigms which leave little space for self- reflection, healthy self-love, depth, collective consciousness, genuine connection, and inner-harmony. In questioning these things they have found tremendous social value in approaches offered by other cultures on ways to better understand who you are and why you are on this earth. Additionally there may be growing spiritual disenchantment even within spaces that purport to offers a more conscious way to living (like those provided by organized religion). But this is all speculative really. I also am contingent of how this idea of a mindfulness movement is manifesting in the west in order to recognize where issues of class, race, gender, disability etc. interact with it.
Is the mindfulness movement in the west one that is as accessible as yoga is intended? Does it apply to a certain cross section of the population who occupy a particular class, race, gender, body type etc.? Who is being left out and why? Where is my privilege in this space and in knowing that how do you engender change? There is a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusivity in certain spheres of the yoga community directly resulting from feelings of exclusivity and cultural appropriation. Here in Toronto there are a few studios and key people who are actively trying to cultivate more enabling, inclusive, safe, spaces for mindfulness a means of creating a more genuine movement that celebrates diversity.
RS: The world needs a force to balance the forces that are destroying the earth, the environment, distracting us from ourselves and from each of our personal callings.