I see you.

The National, Milwaukee, Summer 2014

I used to know this yogi. He seemed interesting: inquisitive, considerate, funny; he was occasionally too self-deprecating--I could never be sure if all the negative comments he made about himself were rooted in insecurity, were false, or if he was fishing for compliments--but otherwise, he was nice enough, and whenever I was struggling with something, he seemed interested in being a good friend to me.  

Something broke, and my best efforts to fix it only made it worse. Anyone who's been dumped will tell you that no amount of ownership, thoughtful reflection and interrogation, and conflict resolution will help if one person in relationship is unwilling or unable to be open and to communicate. It's funny, this is someone I thought I knew well, a member of my community, whom I still see occasionally; and now, we don't speak to each other. We pretend the other is invisible. Frankly, it feels a bit like junior high. After a few months of really hurting, I can finally look at him, and whenever I do, he turns away. When I enter a room he's in, he turns his back to me. For a while, we were doing this totally fake, "how are you?" politeness--which I hated--but  even that fell away, and now, we might as well be strangers. 

I don't feel great about this. As a student of yoga, as a person of faith, I feel I should be able to do better than this. I know, I can't do it by myself; still, I can take in someone's humanity without making them my brother... can't I?

I'm dismayed by how much trouble we go to in order to pretend that others aren't there. On public transit most of us plug our faces and ears into our phones, and a few holdouts read a book. In the grocery store, we push carts down the aisle and inspect boxes and jars on shelf, trying desperately to ignore the person who's whisking past us, or who needs something we're blocking. Rather than say, "Excuse me," with a smile, we wait, or we slither in and snatch the jar off the shelf. Behind the wheel, we split our attention between the road and the smartphone, and we change lanes without looking. We only see other drivers when we shout at them for screwing with our commute.

I've heard plenty of yogis talk about avoiding watching the news because it's too sad, or because they're too sensitive and it affects their energy. Our practice often serves as a kind of panacea for what we'd rather not see or acknowledge about what's happening in our cities, our suburbs, our shopping malls, community colleges, and our capitol buildings.

I think I read in Yoga and the Quest for the True Self that part of what the practice illuminates in us is an increasing ability to see things as they really are. (For the record, this book is great. It combines yoga philosophy with an exploration of psychology of the true self and the false self; it's really compelling and insightful.) But there's a lot in our world that challenges doing that. Seeing what is real means acknowledging that as much as I want to believe that I'm brave, I know fear is still a challenge in my physical practice, especially in inversions and backbends. (Pincha Mayurasana and Ustrasana are especially challenging postures for me, and mostly on a mental plane.) Much as I want to believe that I'm disciplined enough to go to bed early, the truth is I really enjoy staying up to watch (bad) TV. Beyond all the surface stuff, seeing things as they really are means examining the way I'm reenacting past patterns of injury in my present relationships; it means acknowledging when my ego is what's causing my pain, and how I am contributing to my own suffering; it means sitting with the qualities and the realities of my life that make me really uncomfortable, over which I lose sleep.

I've written before here about what it means not to look away, and asked if it's cruelty or dishonesty to avoid some of the images of bodies being murdered and destroyed that zing around our media consciousness. I can't really pinpoint the place or the moment when avoiding images of violence and murder in the media stops being self-care and starts being avoidance. I wonder, if the practice is about giving us the strength, the bravery, the equanimity to be able to see, to sit with, to tolerate things as they are, then maybe the practice also gives us the strength to make a change when we can't tolerate it. 

Elisa Commerce said once that all people really want is to be seen and known. That's it. The ability for one person to stay present with another, in joy or sorrow or mundanity, and share by their presence or their language, I see you. I'm with you. I bear witness to what you are sharing and experiencing. I know this is true of me. Sometimes I wonder if I can take it. Sometimes I wonder at the fact that so few of us are able to do it.

In an essay by Matthew Remski (an essay that's changed my life, the way I practice and the way I work) he advises practitioners:

2. Measure your spiritual evolution by your general capacity for social participation.
3. Work toward an equal balance of self- and other-care. If you go to one-hour asana class, donate another hour to the society.
— "Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double As a Soup Kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism" by Matthew Remski

I love this idea. After all, at a certain point, we expect or hope our practice will bear more fruit than being able to stand on our hands or put our feet behind our head. Natasha Rizopoulos  said in a workshop once that her goal for her students was that yoga would help them in their regular lives: make it easier to carry groceries, climb stairs, run in the yard after their kids. I want yoga to make it easier for me to spend time with relatives that stress me out, or to tolerate sitting in traffic when I'm late. I want yoga to help sustain me in the work I do with other people. I want it to fill up my fountain so that I can keep filling others' cups without feeling depleted and resentful. 

Seems to me the spiritual evolution becomes clearer as I'm better able to acknowledge others.  To meet the eyes of the yogi who ignores me, and hold my gaze steady even when he averts his eyes; to dwell in the presence of those who've hurt me, without feeling like I have to flee whenever they arrive; to smile and nod at the woman picking out mac and cheese for her mouthy kid perched in her cart; or even to acknowledge the one who plunks down beside me on the red line: this is my spiritual practice. My work is to acknowledge the humanity of others, without attachment to how they respond to or treat me, and to stay present with what arises. The world, the city, the block is full of people who challenge us with their presence, and remind us of what we'd like to forget about ourselves. So I'm trying not to ignore you. If you see me walking down the street, and I start to cry each time we meet, well, don't walk on by. Catch my eye and let's take a beat together in a shared human experience.