If I think about it too long, I can easily become overwhelmed by the fact that I live on a planet that’s hurtling through space. I know scientists have figured a lot of this stuff out, but as I look up into the sky and imagine myself flying around the sun, several childlike questions pour out of me. Why don’t I have to hold on for dear life? How come I’m not dizzy? Why does it feel like the earth is standing perfectly still? And as I imagine the moon circling us, as we circle the sun, I start thinking about the other planets circling our sun with us and all their moons (did you know that Jupiter has 79 moons?). And then I start thinking about all the planets (so many planets) and the fact that our sun—which feels so significant and massive and powerful—is one sun among hundreds of millions of suns that fill our galaxy—our galaxy, which is of course just one galaxy among billions of galaxies—and then I start to shut down, because I can’t actually imagine it anymore. The universe is just too big.
Which leaves me feeling very, very small.
Which could be interpreted as a bad thing… But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels more like overwhelming awe. It feels more like being struck with silence because no words will ever capture the immensity of it all.
I am but one life, on one planet, in one galaxy.
Knowing this, I return to my simple mantra: Here I am. I look up into the mystery of the universe and close my eyes. I bring my hands to my heart and bow my head. I feel my feet on the earth, open my eyes again, and look around—I look at the world in which I live and say: Here I am.
Here I am in a world that can feel as overwhelming as the reality that there are billions of galaxies. Trying to understand and untangle the global systems I participate in everyday can be as daunting a task as trying to understand the workings of the universe. As I read story after story of governmental failure, grave injustice, and seemingly never ending racism, I start to shut down. I start to feel small. And while this kind of smallness isn’t awe inspiring like the mysteries of the universe, it still strikes me with silence. It leaves me feeling that the immensity of the problems are simply too big to figure out. It invokes an avalanche of feeling that turns into the question: What can I do? How on earth can I respond to the immense problems I see everywhere?
This desire—this inner call to respond to the complex realities of suffering in the world—is part of our dharmic work. As human beings living on this earth together, spinning around the sun together, we share a responsibility. Together, through our collective action, we build our world. And together, we share a collective dharma to strive for a better world.
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.” 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 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 a brave self-awareness. We have to explore the roots of our actions. We have to determine why we act the way we do. We have to investigate how our conditioning shapes our behavior.
The practice of yoga calls us to search out our ignorance. We have to try and find our blind spots. Georg Feuerstein defines the sanskrit word for ignorance—which is avidyā—as “not merely the absence of knowledge but a positive misconception about reality.” In other words, when we’re living in the fog of avidyā, we don’t recognize our ignorance. We think we know what’s real. We think we understand why we see the world the way we do.
But our understanding and our actions rise directly out of our conditioning. Part of our yoga practice is working to figure out how our conditioning shapes our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We have to face the difficult reality that we’ve been conditioned by white supremacy and unchecked capitalism. We’ve been trained to value whiteness. We’ve been trained that hoarded wealth is the definition of success. And we’ve been trained to value individualism above all else.
I recently saw a piece of artwork—a page from someone’s art journal—that said something like “In these difficult times I have to remember that all that matters is that the people I love are safe.” The comments were filled with gratitude for this reminder, which people said helped put their worry back in perspective. But as I read this post, something felt strange to me. Gratitude was far from my mind. In fact, I was angry. The idea that “all that matters is that the people I love are safe” is poison. It’s seems sweet right? It seems harmless. But it’s deeply rooted in our conditioned belief of individualism. If anyone is starving on this earth, it must matter to us. If health care is denied because of income, it must matter to us. If someone is shot and killed because of the color of their skin, please god, it must matter to us.
Sutra 2.15 tells us that the one who’s paying attention sees suffering everywhere. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s hard to see the suffering happening everywhere, especially for those of us who have the privileged ability to look away. But true change can’t happen in the world unless we free ourselves from the grip of ignorance.
Sutra 2.16 tells us that future suffering is to be avoided. We know that everything is always changing and this teaching is reminding us that we have the ability to direct the course of change away from suffering. We can dedicate our spiritual practice to becoming right actors and taking right action. We can search out our ignorance. We can search out the conditioning that lies beneath our automatic reactions. We can examine our habitual behavior—why do we say the things we do? Why do we believe the things we do? Why do we buy the things we do? This moment of global pause is an open space to examine supply chains and worker rights and environmental consequences. In this moment of global pause, we can search out the consequences of our habitual behavior. What kind of world are we creating through our everyday actions?
This is hard, exhausting work. And as we look at the immensity of it all, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and to shut down. I am one person, on one planet, in one galaxy. In some ways I am very, very small. But I have to remember that I’m not alone. I have to fight my conditioning, which tells me that I have to do everything myself and turn my attention toward the truth of our connection. Together, through our collective action, we build our world.
So let’s each take an honest look at what’s happening in the context of our own communities and figure out the next, right step. No matter how mundane. Let’s get really concrete… What are you doing tomorrow? What’s the next decision you have to make? What’s the next thing you’re planning to buy? What’s the next action you have to take. Before you do anything, take a moment to examine your habitual behavior. What would you normally just automatically do?
Here’s the practice: Can we interrupt our autopilot long enough to pause and look underneath our habitual behaviors? Can we be brave and search out our conditioning? Can we be courageous and examine the ways that we’re perpetuating white supremacy and unchecked capitalism through our seemingly innocuous actions? Can we interrupt our autopilot long enough to shift gears and change course?
Let’s remember that together, through our collective action, we build our world. So together, one intentional action at a time, let’s move in the direction of community care and love.
What’s your next, right action?