Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.
January 20, 2019
I’ve got a new sermon for you today!
But I have to warn you… It poses some big questions.
I hope you’ll take some time with this one because our world needs us to ask big questions right now. Are you willing?
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr Day and while the civil rights movement made great strides, we still live in a world where it’s not obvious to everyone that Black Lives Matter.
We’re currently in the longest government shutdown of our country’s history and my best friend (a lawyer) just told me that parts of the federal court system might be shutting down on January 25th if it doesn’t reopen. I don’t know about you, but a country without a functioning court system gives me thoughts of a totalitarian state.
… I’m going to interrupt these political statements to ask you a question: What’s your dharma?
In this week’s sermon I offer several definitions of the word dharma including this one:
Our responsibility for the maintenance of order.
How are you called to work for order in the world? (Which I interpret to mean: How are you called to work for a world where people are safe, fed, housed, free, living in peace…?)
Some of us are activists. Some of us are parents. Some of us are artists, doctors, librarians, janitors, community organizers, people who cook their lonely neighbor dinner…
I’m a preaching yoga teacher (and if that doesn’t give you permission to find and follow your own personal dharma I don’t know what will!).
As a preaching yoga teacher it’s my job to offer you useful tools to help you ask yourself big questions.
This week I invite you into an exploration of suffering. Our text is Yoga Sutra 2.16: “Future Suffering is to be Avoided” and the sermon and reflection questions are designed to help you reflect on the ways you both contribute to and alleviate suffering in our world (and, of course, to help you think about avoiding future suffering).
(I’ll also tell you that at one point in the sermon Indy leaps across the path behind me! A good reminder that even when we’re serious and talking about suffering, there’s always room for joy!).
Once you’ve had a chance to watch (or listen to, or read) the sermon, please be sure to share your insights with us in the comments below.
Future Suffering is to be Avoided (yoga sutra 2.16)
My teacher Robin’s favorite sutra is found less than halfway into the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras—the chapter dedicated to practice. It’s a very short, very simple sutra. It reads: “Future suffering is to be avoided.”
It’s a somewhat obvious sounding teaching, right? Future suffering is to be avoided. Yes! But we all know that suffering is a big word—one that needs to be unpacked. We’ve all experienced some degree of suffering in our lives. And we’ve witnessed and heard about suffering of all kinds in our families, communities, and the larger world. Suffering happens every day in the form of anxiety, fear, and unhappiness. And there’s great suffering that happens in the form of violence, racism, grief, hunger, poverty.
Saying that future suffering is to be avoided is actually not simplistic at all. It’s a statement that points us toward many of the most complicated, most complex issues we face. So how on earth do we live out this teaching? I certainly don’t know, but I can give us a place to start trying.
When we try to respond to the complex realities of suffering in the world, it could be said that we’re enacting our dharma. Dharma is a sanskrit word that can be translated as duty, righteousness, obligation, responsibility for the maintenance of order. As spiritual practitioners we could say that it’s our dharmic obligation to work for peace in the world—to work against suffering.
Scholar and seeker, Ravi Ravindra, in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita says that “Dharma is concerned with right action, whereas yoga is the science par excellence of the transformation of a person into the right actor.” And he gives a good example. He says that Arjuna—the protagonist of the Bhagavad Gita—“needs to be transformed by the multifaceted yoga taught by Krishna; only then can he understand what dharma truly is at all levels, from the personal to the cosmic, and struggle for its establishment.”
So for Ravi Ravindra the first question cannot be ‘How do I solve the problem of suffering in the world?’ The first question is ‘Who am I in the world? Who am I as an actor, as a person who takes action in the world?’ Finding the answer to this question takes serious commitment and self-awareness. You have to explore the roots of your actions. You have to determine why you act the way you do. And how your conditioning and habits shape your behavior.
In the yoga sutras—you’ve heard me say this before—we’re told that suffering arises from ignorance of our true nature. We forget our True Self and get lost in the world of change. Think about the change we live in… We’re deeply effected by our changing thoughts and senses. By the changing weather, by our ever changing circumstances. We get lost in the world of change and forget the deepest part of ourselves. And from this ignorance sprout the seeds of ego, attachment, aversion, and fear.
And here’s a key point: When seeds of ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear are at the root of our actions we create negative consequences for ourselves and the world. We create more suffering.
I said we have to look at why we do what we do. But we also have to examine the effects of our actions—the fruit that we bear in the world. And if we’re interested in alleviating the suffering of the world we have to look at the effects of our actions far beyond our own life. For example, everyday we eat food and wear clothes. These are two very simple, very normal parts of daily life. So here’s the beginning of serious self reflection: Do you know why you choose the food and clothes you do? Do you know where your food and clothes come from? Do you know the labor conditions of the people who make your food and clothes? Do you know the environmental impacts of your food and clothes? Do you know what happens to the waste created by your food and clothes?
OK, let’s all pause here and not get overwhelmed by this line of questioning. Bring your attention into your feet. Into your belly. Into your breath. Into your heart.
Sutra 2.15—the one just before the one telling us that Future suffering is to be avoided—tells us that for the one who has discrimination, meaning the one who’s paying attention, the one who can see things as they are, sees suffering everywhere. Part of any true spiritual practice is opening our eyes to the reality of suffering in the world. This isn’t easy, but no true change can happen without it.
Sutra 2.16 tells us Future suffering is to be avoided. This is an optimistic teaching. We know that everything is always changing. This teaching is reminding us that we have the ability to direct the course of change away from suffering. We can work toward our own transformation. We can pay attention and start to make different decisions. We can pause before taking action—before saying something, before purchasing something, before responding to something—and contemplate what’s underneath our desired action. We can take a moment to look farther down the road and imagine the future consequences of our actions. We can dedicate our spiritual practice to becoming right actors and taking right action.
None of this is easy work. Like all meaningful things, it takes commitment and effort. And it often requires that we move in the opposite direction of our conditioning and habits. If you want to make real change in this direction, I encourage you to start small. Don’t overwhelm yourself and burnout. I encourage you to begin by choosing one aspect of your life to pay attention to more deeply. Regularly pause to notice if the root of your actions are based in ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, or fear. And before acting on something, take a moment to ponder the future fruit of your action.
Through our personal practice I hope we become people interested in reducing the seeds of suffering in our own life and in the lives of others.
Remember we become what we practice becoming.
- Thinking back over the last week, can you identify whether any of your actions were rooted in ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, or fear? If so, what happened as a result of that action?
- How often do you explore the fuller reality of the everyday things you participate in (like wearing clothes and eating food)?
- Are you willing to look at the reality of suffering?
- Are you willing to look at areas of your life where you might be unwittingly participating in the reality of suffering?
- What inner inklings are you ignoring? (We’re all called to something… Sometimes our inklings seem scary and so we keep them trapped inside our heart. What would happen if you gave your inner inkling a bit of voice? What would happen if you said it out loud to yourself? To someone else?)
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?