Something I read last week from Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor* has been lingering in my mind – the idea that ethics are rooted in three things: empathy, courage and intelligence. My attention was caught in part no doubt because our current political culture, featuring a dramatic range of beliefs about what is ethical, has brought these traits into the limelight. Who do we individually and collectively care about? Are we willing to stand up for who we care about? Are we open to pairing our emotions with reason?
It also made me pause as someone who strives to bring a set of ethical precepts of sorts (yoga sutras) to life in a business committed to becoming more just. How does and doesn’t 8 Limbs demonstrate these qualities? How do we or don’t we support our students to nurture these traits? Ethics are often reduced to actions and morality – with what the right thing to do is. Batchelor helped me remember what shifts when we turn attention towards what it takes to do the right thing. And yoga’s potential role in that.
In a nutshell, Batchelor’s idea is that to be ethical we’re called upon to move beyond our own perspective – to hold the well-being of others in our awareness, to care. Taking an ethical stand is also not without its risks. We may risk diminishing our own sense of security for the security of others. We could find ourselves bumping up against a status quo that runs deep. These things take a certain sense of courage. Intelligence comes in by way of discernment – learning to distinguish between what might simply be harder or more uncomfortable from what actually would be a poor choice. Wisdom encourages us to learn from mistakes in order to resist auto-piloting along the path of least resistance.
As someone who was raised by an ethics professor my mind has been part of more than my fair share of the-meaning-of-a-just-life conversations. I’m well versed in how to debate ethical nuances in a given situation. As a dedicated yogi, I’ve come to appreciate that my personal ethical compass is something that resides deep in my bones. My body will always signal, loud and clear, whether or not I’m proceeding with that hat trick of empathy, courage and intelligence. There’s a certain flavor of icky that shows up in my core when I do something uncool – whether it’s in the form of being overly self-serving or simply putting on a pair of blinders. And there’s a certain feeling of distaste that arises when I am in the midst of people essentially not doing right by others.
Yoga helps us to be present with our bodies. A common by-product of a yoga practice is feeling more at ease in our bodies. That is, when we practice yoga we tend to feel less icky more of the time. The challenge for us yogis often comes in the form of confusing the understanding that yoga can help us to feel more at ease (less icky) with the idea that feeling at ease (comfortable) is the point. This is an understandable confusion with so much emphasis on the fourth limb of yoga– asana. We take a yoga class and afterwards we usually feel better. So we take more classes.
Behind-the-scenes at 8 Limbs we continue to wade through our own confusion on this matter. We routinely feel uncomfortable. The current socio-political climate of othering in our nation feels uncomfortable. Shedding a layer of privilege and bias to uncover seven more layers is also riddled with discomfort. What do we do in the face of all this distaste? We head to class. The bigger question though is why really are we turning to our practices on a given day or in a given moment? (A question we asked ourselves in our recent 28 Day Commitment. A question we also asked ourselves at our recent all-day admin retreat.) Are we seeking a salve? A truth serum? Instant peace?… Ease?
Of course our namesake is a reminder that there is more than that fourth limb of yoga. The first limb of yoga – yamas – is actually dedicated to ethical principles. It’s when when you bridge these two limbs with the rest that you start to get at what Batchelor is talking about. Yoga in its full expression helps us to Know with a capital K the feeling of interconnectedness – a feeling that inspires kindness and care. To practice yoga with regularity means being willing to, in the midst of vulnerability, show up nonetheless. And as we practice yoga over time, with our bodies aging and the world face-palming us with life, we learn that wise discernment is a great ally. We start to notice when paths of least resistance are in fact forms of resisting. In a nutshell, yoga as a full practice can up our chances of getting on the empathetic, courageous and intelligent path of ethical integrity. A path with a certain sense of urgency right now.
So I’ve been wondering… what might be like to turn to our asana practices with the intention to grow empathy, courage and intelligence. That is, rather than (consciously or unconsciously) seeking ease by the end of a 1.25 hour studio class, aiming to foster ease in our collective bodies in daily life. Not to say these experiences need be mutually exclusive. It’s hard to get around the fact that moving our bodies in energetically thoughtful ways, culminating in svasana, typically feels good. Something though does shift when we step off an immediate aim to practice for long vision of the greater good – to actively think of others, to stand up even when some of our own security is at stake, and to have the wisdom to distinguish between reacting and responding. That is, I’m sitting with the idea that nurturing the qualities of empathy, courage and wisdom throughout one’s practice may in fact be our best shot at feeling truly at ease in our bodies in this world. To stand up for everyone we believe in.
My question for you…what does it take for you to show up in your life and your community with empathy, courage and intelligence? I always love hearing from people so feel free to share your insights with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Stephen Batchelor discusses this idea in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.
Submitted by: Ashley Dahl, 8 Limbs Executive Director
Want to further explore qualities like empathy and courage in yoga? Join Ashley and Senior 8 Limbs Teacher Tracy Hodgeman, April 2nd in their workshop Self-Compassion: A Radical Path. During this special workshop they’ll unpack these qualities through the lens of ahimsa, the first yama (ethical guideline) in the eight limbs of yoga.