Years and years ago, in a conversation about inequity, my friend Scott—who it should be mentioned, was raised by a baptist preacher—reminded me that Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He was reminding me that our desire for an equitable world need not take us toward a belief that we should be equally poor, but toward a vision of shared abundance.
Abundance is a wonderful word. It calls to mind visions of plenty—of there being enough. Enough of everything. Enough food, enough safety, enough love, enough jobs, enough shelter, enough time, enough hospital beds for the sick.
But we live in a world—or at the very least, I live in a country—where capitalism has run amok. And our views of abundance and our ideas about what constitutes as enough have been utterly distorted. We’ve been trained to focus on scarcity and lack and individualism. And so we take more than we need. And we create systems that allow some people to be billionaires while others starve to death. And we delude ourselves into thinking that the people who are starving just didn’t work hard enough.
An important part of yoga is learning to see things as they are. If we want to change unjust systems, we have to clearly see our place within them. The systems and structures of this world don’t exist on their own. We’re not separate from them. We are them. We are the systems.
Rumi is quoted as saying:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Yes. And. Let’s not forget that we can’t separate ourselves from the world. It’s our desire for a better world that draws us to examine our own lives. And it’s our efforts to act from the perspective of our best selves that changes the world. The comfort we find in Rumi’s words is the shifting of scale.
When we, as individual beings, try and imagine how to change the entirety of the world we’re instantly overwhelmed. We freeze. But when we bring the task of change down to the scale of our own life, our imagination opens back up. It becomes easier to discern the next best step—the step that leads toward healing and shared abundance. This shift in scale allows us to release the false story that we can and should save the world and turns our attention toward the ground on which we stand—toward the work that needs to be done in the world of our own life. Because the reality is: We can’t expect a transformed world until we’re willing to do the hard work of transformation ourselves.
The work of transformation begins with examination—with noticing what’s real—because we can’t change what we’re not aware of. Our daily lives are filled with seemingly mundane actions that we no longer pay attention to. Just like we don’t see the air we breathe, we don’t see the invisible ways that every action we take helps to build the structures of our world. Our systems are a collection of our actions. Every action taken by every individual has created the world we now call “normal life.” This means, if we want to change the world, we have to change “normal life.” We have to notice our everyday actions.
And right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we have the opportunity to notice our actions in a wildly unprecedented way. What we call “normal life” has been disrupted in a way we’ve never experienced. It’s a wild opportunity to see things differently. Which means, we have the opportunity to do things differently.
And so I’m begging us, please: Let’s not go back to normal.
Let’s take this strange moment and look around. Let’s examine the ways that our understanding of everything has been shaped by capitalism, by an emphasis on scarcity and a constant need for more. Let’s examine how our relationships—with each other and the earth—have been shaped by the doctrine of individualism.
I’ve heard “We’re all in this together” so many times over the past month. It’s a beautiful idea and maybe in some ways, it’s true. A virus doesn’t care about individuality. We live on this planet together, so we have to deal with this virus together. But in other ways, we have to admit that the “we’re all in this together” refrain isn’t true. Our systems—the systems built of our choices—aren’t equitable. And this virus is making the invisible painfully visible. It’s clear we don’t all have to face this pandemic in the same way.
So let’s not go back to normal.
A central thesis of the Bhagavad Gita is that we must act. We must act. It’s impossible to be alive and not participate in the world.
I said that our systems are a collection of our past actions. This means that if we want to change our systems, we have to change our actions.
Our actions are the fruit of our conditioning. Every single one of us has been conditioned—we’ve been trained—to understand things one way instead of another. Our families have trained us. Our religious, educational, and political institutions have trained us. Media and culture has trained us. And continues to train us. We’ve been conditioned to see the world in a particular way. And our conditioning shapes our desire, which leads to our feelings, and forms our thoughts, and becomes our actions. Our actions are the fruit of our conditioning.
Swami Rama, one of the great Himalayan Masters of the 20th century, told my teacher that the whole goal of yoga is to surface our conditioning so that we can be free of it. We are to empty ourselves of our self-importance—our judgements, resentments, and ego based identities—so that we can see what’s real and be compassion (dāna).
Life isn’t a blank slate. We’re born with genetic history into a world of history.
We’re working through collective karmas that includes the history of slavery and colonialism. We’re working through collective karmas that includes our conditioning to become insatiable consumers demanding cheaper and cheaper products that exploit workers and destroy the earth.
Let’s not go back to normal.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that we must act. In this moment of massive disruption, let’s not miss our opportunity to refocus our attention on how and why we act. Let’s examine our conditioning so that we can be free of it. Let’s change the world by changing our own actions. Let’s move away from unhampered capitalism and rampant individualism. Let’s move toward each other and shared abundance.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells us to let go of our attachment to the fruits of our action. We can’t act from an egoist desire for reward and expect a just world. Krishna tells us that we are to act with yajña, dāna, and tapas. Sacrifice, giving, and discipline.
We become who we practice becoming.
What if we practice becoming the kind of people that act with a sense of collective responsibility.
Yajña is the duty we owe God and the universe. It’s a recognition of something greater than ourselves. It’s worship as an act of gratitude.
Dāna is the duty we owe others and society. It’s a recognition of our collective life. It’s the ability to empathize and the disposition of kindness.
Tapas is the duty we owe ourselves. It’s a recognition that how we treat our bodies, how we think, and how we speak matters. It’s the practice of establishing ourselves, again and again, in our highest Self.
Let’s not go back to normal.
Let’s act from the spirit of worship, generosity, and discipline. And together, bring forth a world of shared abundance.
Please. May it be so.