So You’re A Yogi: What About Politics?

English: Cat Play-fight

by Jeff McMahon

Recently a lifelong friend asked me, “How did you stop fighting everything and become spiritual instead?”

This friend and I had fought side by side in many great battles over the decades—as activists, as environmentalists, as journalists. She’s a great fighter, but at this moment she was seeking some relief from the conflict—her vs. a corrupt employer, her vs. dastardly politicians, her vs. evil corporations—that seemed to occupy too much of her life.

Before I could answer her question I had to consider the assumption it contained: that I had stopped fighting.

It’s true that it had been a long time since she’d heard me rip into a politician or a corporate stooge, and I can see how a cessation of mudslinging could look like an end to battle. But my life, which is predicated on a sometimes painful degree of voluntary simplicity that my friend in California doesn’t witness, is more dedicated than ever to caring for the earth and its creatures.

At the same time, I experience much less conflict in my life, much less disturbance in my mind, and as a result, I’m happier.

“I don’t think I’ve stopped fighting,” I told her. “I think I’ve stopped fighting ineffectively.”

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Hillary S. Webb, a scholar of Andean shamanism, who described a similar change in her life. She had been in Peru studying the indigenous concept of yanantin and masintin or “complementary opposites.”

In the dominant culture of the West we tend to see dualities—good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, left vs. right, male vs. female—as conflicting opposites. Webb studied Andean cultures that see dualities like these as partners in a dance.

Initially her Western mind resisted this way of seeing. When she asked her shaman teachers to help her understand yanantin and masintin better, they suggested she “download this information from the cosmos” by drinking the hallucinogenic juice of the San Pedro cactus.

She did drink, and she did understand. She experienced a paradox, in which opposites were simultaneously and harmoniously true, and she emerged with both a book, “Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru,” and a more peaceful outlook on life.

“By looking at the world through this lens of yanantin and masintin, and the beauty that comes from the tension of opposites, I have a lot more fun in my day to day life,” she says in the interview. “I take things a lot less seriously.”

And people have said to me, ‘Well if you’re taking things less seriously, doesn’t that mean that you’re not standing up for what you believe in?’ And it doesn’t mean that.

You’re still standing up for what you believe in. You’re still following your passions. You’re still trying to save the environment. But you do it from a place of more serenity and joy and calmness and a recognition that everything has its positive and negative, and trying to dance with those two things for the greatest good that you can. And I really do believe that joy is so healing both for the self and for the outside world.

This posture is itself a paradox. You accept the world as it is, and yet part of your purpose is to make it better.

Until I heard Webb’s interview, I’d never heard of yanantin and masintin, but I had encountered ideas in yoga and Buddhism that are similarly liberating: ahimsa, equanimity, acting without attachment to outcome.

I’ve seen activists turn ugly with hate, go shrill through attachment to their outrage, come unhinged when they couldn’t let go—or just wear out.

But when we act out of duty to what we love, rather than out of investment in victory, we remain limber and effective. “Therefore, O Arjuna,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “surrendering all your works unto me, with full knowledge of me, without desires for profit, with no claims to proprietorship, and free from lethargy, fight.”

I was thinking about these parallels when Pema Chödrön’s weekly “Heart Advice” email arrived in my inbox. This clever Buddhist teacher always seems to know what we’re thinking about.

This week, she wrote about habitual patterns of reacting when we’re triggered. And what in the world is more triggering than politics? Whatever side we take, when the other side does something wrong, we tend to react habitually.

The answer is to refrain, Pema writes, without repressing or rejecting the impulse.

“Not acting on our habitual patterns is only the first step toward not harming others or ourselves. The transformative process begins at a deeper level when we contact the rawness we’re left with whenever we refrain. As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than ‘boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup,’ we simmer in it. We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in. Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false. This is the journey of developing a kindhearted and courageous tolerance for our pain.”

The in-between place is the place to be, Pema has told us before, because it’s the place where we remain flexible and free.

It’s a place where we can live peaceably, in a world at once imperfect and perfect-just-as-it-is, a world we can both accept and strive with every breath to make better.

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