Ashtanga Adaptability,  History,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Being a Good Person Does Not Negate Someone’s Actions

I have been active in the Yoga community for around 13 years. A common theme, when something goes awry is, “well I know they did __________ but they are a good person. They are going through __________.” That line basically means, “just get over it and act like it didn’t happen.” It means, “suck it up buttercup.”

Forgiving someone for their actions, does not mean that you are cool with their actions or that their actions are cool. I am not Christian but the concept is pretty big in the Bible. The Bible also talks about hell…which is where you go if you don’t change your ways.  So even in this seminal text on forgiveness, if a person does not change their ways after being forgiven, they will be partying with Lucifer for eternity.

Forgiveness can be seen as a two part process.  We forgive to free ourselves. The other party changes to free themselves. Each is a singular journey. We can’t make someone change and other people cannot make us forgive. The other person’s part is theirs to play alone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an amazing piece for the New York Times, “The Good Racist People” where he reacted to the actor, Forrest Whitaker being assailed in a New York deli,

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”

A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

Coates beautifully illustrates that slip ups, by “the good people” still help to solidify racism in America. That these “slip ups” don’t happen in a bubble and that they come from some where. A person, who is not racist, would never slip up and call a Black person a “nigger”…..no matter how mad they are. It is not a part of who they are. It would be like me slipping up and starting to speak Italian. It does not matter how stressed out I get or if I was hurt as a child, it is not possible for me to speak Italian because I don’t know Italian.

Another point, in Coates article, was that a little bit of racism is still racism and not okay.

The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

Even if we forgive, it does not mean that the action is okay and that we should shrug it off. We don’t need to go to war, as Coate’s wife chose to do, but it also doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to go back to the deli.

The “good person” argument gives people a pass. They don’t have to change because they are a “good person” who occasionally does bad things that are accepted by their peers and in society.  I had a disturbing conversation once with a couple of prominent people in the Yoga community. We were talking about male yoga teachers randomly sleeping with their students. To caveat, we were not talking about relationships in the Yoga community where people are sincerely looking for love.  We were talking about “hook ups.” “Booty calls.”  We were talking about teachers of Yoga who know that one of the tenets of yoga is bramacharya or restraint for the purpose of spiritual development.  When I pointed this out, their answer was, “men will be men.” Ooooookaay then.

This is why sex scandals happen in the yoga community. People turn their heads because men will be men.  They are good people…they are just men who can’t control themselves…okay then.

This is a strong statement. If I offend you, forgive me. LOL. It feels to me like the yoga community is devolving. That the community is lowering its standards so that more  “good people” get involved. The more people, the more money. The Yoga community is throwing out the Sutras, the Gita, the Pradipika and the traditional teachings to make room for “the good people”. Don’t get me wrong. The “good people” need Yoga. They are throwing them out so that the “good people” don’t have to change. Because change is uncomfortable. If the “good people” are made to shift, they will leave…with their money and support.

The argument, that is commonly given for throwing out tradition is, that it is outdated. I am down for a good outdated argument. When I compare my TV with the fat back to a flat screen ultra HD or 4K TV at Best Buy, it is clearly out of date. The picture and sound is dramatically more amazing then my old TV.

However, I have never been in a good out dated Yoga argument. The conversation always ends with people throwing out what doesn’t work for the life they chose to live, not because it is clearly not good anymore, but because they don’t want to change or because it doesn’t make them any money.

To be clear, it is okay to throw out what you want to throw out because it does not work for you. I am talking about justifying it with an argument that it is not right, outdated or needed. Just because it is not right or needed for you, does not mean it is not needed. Do you boo. However, just because you don’t want to do it, does not mean it doesn’t need to be done. I feel that way about cleaning my house. I digress.

I used to feel that the Pradipika was completely outdated. I even made a point of telling people that. I read it once. Hated it. Dismissed it.  When I went to India, a good teacher changed that for me. When Lakshmish at KPJAYI broke it down within the context of modern day life vs the period in which it was written, it became clear to me that it was definitely still applicable. Context, wisdom and discernment is everything. Now will I be plastering my Yoga room in cow poop as the Pradipika says? No. However, after researching the practice and discovering that cow poop, when treated in the traditional way, is actually made sterile, I understood that a clean sterile room is what is needed. Cow poop is outdated, cleanliness is not.

The deep internal changes, that the philosophy of yoga guides us to, are definitely needed.

What does the Sutras say about treatment of people, here are a few translations, from Atha Yoga Anusasanam, of Yoga Sutras vs 1:33

Source: Sanskrit transliteration from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Sri Swami Satchidananda)
MAITRI KARUNA MUDITOPEKSANAM SUKHA DUHKHA PUNYAPUNYA VISAYANAM BHAVANATAS CITTA PRASADANAM.

Source: English translation from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Sri Swami Satchidananda)
By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.

Source: Sanskrit transliteration from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (B.K.S. Iyengar)
maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

Source: English translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (B.K.S. Iyengar)
Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.

Source: How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (Swami Prabhavananda, Christopher Isherwood)
Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.

Source: English translation from The Heart of Yoga (T.K.V. Desikachar)
In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our mind will be very tranquil.

Source: Sanskrit transliteration of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati)
maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

Source: English translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati)
In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.

It does not say, keep going to the deli. It does not say, keep communing with “the good people.” It does not say, stay involved.  It says be neutral, indifferent, or disregard them in your life…depending on what translation you like.

Yoga Sutras Vs 2:16 says, “Pain, that has not yet come, is avoidable”. We have to couple this with the discourse on the Kleshas, specifically, raga, running towards pleasure and dvesha, aversion which can also be obstacles to Yoga. Though this sounds confusing, and maybe even contradictory, it isn’t.  Lets couple it with Yoga Sutras 1:33.

 The key is looking at the behavior and not the person as a whole. Yoga teaches that we are all divine. Through living life, we pick up baggage and garbage along the way that blocks us from acting from that place of divinity. So yes, essentially, we are all good people! LOL. Like a reflection in a fun house mirror, the baggage though is causing the goodness to look skewed, but it is still there. We can only act from our current consciousness.

To see the divinity, we have to drop the baggage. If the baggage is seen as normal and okay, it becomes a part of the person’s identity and they forget that they can drop it. Yoga gives us the tools to drop it but if we don’t know something needs to be dropped, we won’t drop it.

So Yoga teaches us to be equanimous towards the person ( indifference towards the wicked sutra 1:33) but that we don’t have to wait around for them to do it again (pain that has not yet come should be avoided (Sutra 2:16).

It also teaches us in Yoga Sutras 1: 5-6, that memory can be painful or painless. We have memory for a reason. If we were supposed to forget everything (forgive and forget right?), we wouldn’t have it.  Memory is a tool for discernment. Yoga Sutras 2:26 states that discernment should be uninterrupted and discriminative.

Through discernment, the Yogi knows that the action is not the Self. They can still love a person fully without condoning the action the person took.  They don’t need to push the person away (dvesha) nor do they need to attach to them (raga). They can simply love them.  They can love the racist and still not go into the deli. They can love Trump and not support his policies. They can love Yoga but still not go to class with the booty call Guru.

The “good people” argument happens because people cannot separate the two. So it turns into, “if someones is a good person, and they do something wrong, to show love, I have to overlook everything.” Even though, the person has not changed and is not showing signs that they are working on changing, I should continue going to the deli so they know I love them.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it the best:

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

3 Comments

  • William Erickson

    Thank you;
    Loved the article. Thought provoking, informative. Without our yoga philosophical traditions we are just doing exercise. Not a bad idea either but perhaps that’s not why we come to yoga.
    Bill Erickson

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