Tuesday, July 3, 2012

4th of July Reflections

Fourth of July for Yogis!
Which is Better: Republican or Democrat?

I would venture to say that most of us who are practitioners and proponents of the practices and precepts of yoga are overwhelmingly self-identified as Democrats. While yoga is all but synonymous with the so-called “New Age” or with the “Green Movement,” yoga itself is as “old as the hills” and teaches precepts, morals and ethics that are unquestionably traditional (and universal). The cliché, “Even the devil quotes the scriptures,” is as true for yoga as it is for Bible thumpers. We tend to view reality through the filter of our own tendencies and biases, even in our search for truth.

Consider that conservatism in its emphasis upon tradition and the status quo represents the caution that derives from an understanding that fundamental values never change and that change for the sake of change often derives from restlessness and infatuation with novelty both for its own sake and as an excuse to reject reality as it is (or at least due to ignorance, inexperience, or rebelliousness). Conservatism in American culture emphasizes the need and opportunity for each person to take responsibility for himself whether in failure or success. To that end, the conservative ethos distrusts government intervention. Of course we know that under the banner of such values can hide selfishness, greed, and a lack of compassion by those in power and wealth whose status is threatened by any effort on those less privileged to assert themselves.

Democratic values emphasize individual worth, too, of course. But here the emphasis is tempered by the inclusion of the good of all arising from compassion and desire to share the freedom and prosperity with those less fortunate. Such compassion is clearly a fundamental value. One of the core differences lies in the role of government to effectuate justice and promote freedom and prosperity. In truth the difference is more ephemeral than real, since both political parties have initiated many government reforms, policies, and programs to one end or another for the betterment of those less fortunate.

Paramhansa Yogananda, the legendary master of yoga and author of the world renowned classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, stated he was a Republican, a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln. He decried the seed planted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression which was to sprout into what he might (had he lived longer) have also termed the modern “Welfare State.” Every few years there’s some movement to reform the gargantuan entitlement systems that have their origins in FDR’s seemingly compassionate desire to create safety nets through social security and government funded work projects. 

Even the pressing issue of health care in the United States has as its core issue the tension between the need for individual initiative, participation and responsibility, and the compelling social value and obligation to help those less fortunate. A health care system that simply dispenses care without thought of individual initiative is, let’s face it, unaffordable and, given the limitations inherent in the scarcity of resources, therefore unfair, as perhaps everyone may get something but many have too little and quality suffers deplorably. By contrast, a health care system based solely on individual initiative and financial wherewithal isn’t a health care system at all and is both unfair in that many suffer needlessly when even but “reasonable” acts of sharing and compassion would alleviate much suffering.

Those who practice yoga (the term which more correctly refers to meditation than to physical exercises) know full well that no one can do it for you. No one can “make” you meditate or practice yoga poses. The intention, the desire, the motivation, and, yes, the grace to practice disciplines of bodily, mental and emotional self-control, offering the ego into the Spirit can only come from within — just like creativity, ambition and any number of impulses that bring health, success, and happiness to the human spirit. At the same time, almost no one would practice yoga if others didn’t share the art and science selflessly. This starts with the rishis and great masters of yoga and includes many, if not most, yoga teachers who serve without material recompense.

Jesus Christ said, as if running on the Republican ticket, “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who lack, that which they have will be taken.” Energy attracts success; lack breeds inertia. Only the spark of desire can ignite the fuel of Life Force to drive the engine of self-effort towards fulfillment and self-improvement. Government assistance can spark or enhance self-effort in one but stifle it in another. Entitlement is the necessary legal and social consequence of legislated assistance which tends to dehumanize its recipients and rob them of the opportunity of giving back or of attracting it by merit. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t the obligation of society to render aid to others in need, however.

It has well said that to feed a man who is hungry is to allay his hunger for a few hours; to teach a man to feed himself (through a skill, e.g.) is yet a greater gift; to open the heart and mind of another to the power of the universe (of Spirit) is the greatest gift. Jesus Christ openly counseled the value of compassion, of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.

So, you see, it’s a spectrum that, once we exclude the extremes of heartless insensitivity or naked greed as well as the useless bleeding heart effort to save others from themselves (Jesus said, “The poor ye shall have always….”) against even their own will (for which they will only “bite the hand that feeds them”), we see that one’s attitude derives from one’s individual temperament. Thus it is that you can be either a Republican or Democrat in good faith, goodwill, and in good conscience as a practitioner of yoga. I suppose it could be said the former is more masculine (emphasizing justice) and the latter more feminine (emphasizing mercy). But of course someone is sure to object to that analogy!

A Republican yogi might be more inclined towards valuing self-discipline and the ten commandments of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the “yamas,” rules of self-restraint, and the “niyamas,” the rules of right behavior). He might tend to think in terms of karma and reincarnation wherein one’s past actions lay the groundwork for one’s present circumstances and inclinations and against which only self-effort (united to Divine grace) can lift us from the consequences of past actions. This yogi would tend to see withdrawal from the ways of the world and nonattachment as guiding precepts. Ego-transcendence and desirelessness would be important values and practices. Such a one might feel in tune with Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita that “it is better to fail in the effort to perform one’s own dharma (duty) then to succeed in performing the duties of another.” If this yogi becomes too focused on these values however, he may become cold, ruthless, unfeeling, and insensitive to the needs of others. Yogis are cautioned that without the balancing qualities of the heart the ego becomes inflated and the yogi may be tempted to seek yogic powers rather than soul freedom in God.

A Democratic yogi would tend to go more by heart, by devotion, by seeing God in all. Krishna counsels us the “Gita” that a true yogi feels the joys and sorrows of all as her own. She would understand the need to expand her sympathies and consciousness to embrace the whole world as her own true Self. Thus expansion of consciousness through the heart (rather than annihilation of ego through mental effort and will power) would be the preferred path to freedom by the Democratic yogi. She might, however, tend to rescue others, to do things for them that they ought best to do for themselves. She might find herself subject to mood swings, from enthusiasm and compassion to self-doubt, depression, and self-induglence unless she is guided calmly by reason and wisdom and avoids becoming too attached to individuals or particulars.

Of course I am stretching a point and placing the tongue securely in the cheekiness of the eye’s twinkle! For what unites both of these is the wisdom to respond to life’s opportunities, challenges and perceptions with the flow of God’s grace, whether taking the form of justice or compassion. For a mother, too, must learn to discipline her children even as a father must, at times, act with mercy. For in our souls we are neither mother nor father. The middle path (which indeed is found in the spine of the yogi!) necessarily activates wisdom, compassion, and practicality in measures appropriate to the rising current of Life Force of our own karmic needs.

“Oh, Arjuna, be thou a yogi!” Eschew superficial self-limiting identities such as “democrat” or “republican.” While American culture inclines perhaps more to individual liberties and self-initiative, we also embody a spirit of cooperation and enlightened reason, guided by God. Such is the grace and wisdom of our founding Fathers. We have much to celebrate and be thankful for in our heritage and culture, but also much yet to learn and much effort needed to balance justice with mercy.

May we understand that true freedom is freedom from delusion and is found only in the transcendent, redeeming power of Oneness in God. As chains cannot bind the human spirit neither can personal liberties to express desire driven likes and dislikes free the soul. Let us seek freedom of the soul and share the bounty of our liberty with all.

Blessings to you this 4th of July!
Nayaswami Hriman