Activism and Service, Fear and Necessity

Yesterday’s post about a renewed perspective on suffering that was illuminated during my yoga practice was a late night piece of writing about an issue that I usually push to the darker parts of my mind. It could have been four times longer and still would not have begun to encapsulate my thoughts on the tension between tending to the garden of one’s own soul and looking beyond one’s fences in hopes of effecting change in this troubled world.

The beautiful BlissChick spoke to some of the very issues that have me feeling so conflicted. I mentioned a speech that Bono gave to call attention to the neediest people in Africa, but I did not offer the usual caveats. I didn’t say I was taking with a grain of salt an address by a zillionaire superstar in love with the sound of his own voice who should clean up the streets of Dublin and downgrade his own jet fueled lifestyle. I let his wisdom stand and simply appreciated that a guy in orange sunglasses who may or may not have been wearing leather pants made me think. I spoke only of my recognition of destitution half a world away without offering myself, and perhaps my readers, the consolation of “thinking globally, act locally” with a strong emphasis on the local, be that defined as inside your own head or your own neighborhood. I let my heart bleed for the people of a distant continent without the qualifications that keep their poverty far enough away for comfort.

It is as if I am in a state of almost perpetual frustration when I stop looking into my own third eye and start seeing the man pushing a shopping cart full of his possessions through the streets of Poughkeepsie and when I let myself read about AIDS orphans. Of course, I am often trapped in a similar state of frustration when I am letting the world fall away and am diving deep within myself. The discontent I have with the state of the world is more than mirrored buy the unquiet nature of my own soul.

I thank BlissChick for sharing her experience with making a difference at a local level, and reminding me of its importance. Thing is, I have yet to be successful at finding a way to reach into the community to make that sort of a difference. There are always so many excuses: the lack of time I currently have for creative projects and soul work, family commitments, a phobia of those large busted, overly-efficient women in charge at soup kitchens who you to scrub pots with a worthless sponge even though your blouse is dry clean only (I admit, I have an inner princess who is a bit of a scaredy-cat in such situations). There is an unnameable fear that must be a sign of something unresolved in myself. And that gives me two options: continue to stay at home and work on this elusive issue or just face that fear and watch it evaporate under the light that’s generated when I help someone else.

I found what Bono had to say compelling because he freely admitted that America has its own troubles and that we could gain much by focusing our activism and resources here at home. When we are already awake to crisis, however, why not also challenge ourselves to look a little further? He said:

When America looks outside of itself, its view of itself is never clearer. Its faith in itself is never firmer. Its purpose is never stronger.

As vital as it is to work deeply on our psyches and our souls, we are also at risk of falling to narcissism and protectionism both on the individual and national scale. I can translate Bono’s rallying call into doing something as little as writing a letter to Congress on behalf of the people of Africa, but I can go further and move outside of myself and finally show up to help at that battered women’s shelter.

All of these points do not add up to a cohesive thesis, but they reveal that this inner work I am doing needs to be accompanied by a willingness to move outside of myself. I need to break the barriers I have created that were formed of a belief that my prosperity is so fragile it might shatter in the face of another’s need. I must realize that I am a hell of a lot stronger than I let myself believe, and I have to think America might just be a whole hell of a lot stronger than we are letting on.

(Heady stuff, this, but I was able to stop in the middle of this harangue because this song came on. It always reminds me of my Nanna and tells me that no matter what happens, she’s always looking over my shoulder. “The world has lost her way again, but you are here with me…”)

Yoga as Metaphor, Suffering as Reality

It was one of those unexpectedly commitment-free rainy Saturdays, and I spent much of the day at the computer, mostly dodging work on my novel. Eventually I willed my way through one of Elsie’s yoga podcasts and though there were a couple of shining moments of bliss as I unfurled cramped muscles and remembered the strength of my shoulders, most of my practice was like wading through a personal hell. Marisa over at Creative Thursday talks about whether blogs are “too nicey nicey” and lacking in honesty. Here’s an honest confession: sometimes yoga is not a beautiful affirmation of what it is to be an aware being, sometimes it is just a miserable parade of all of the body’s limitations, the otherwise hidden aches of ligaments and sinews. Sometimes it is like lifting lead weights with nothing but balsa wood bones. Sometimes you cringe at unsightly flesh you never imagine bulged in hidden places and are haunted by memories while you lie prone in pigeon pose. Oh yes, sometimes yoga is transcendence, but how can I talk of it’s solace unless I admit to its torture?

Of course, countless teachers have talked about how yoga is mat-bound metaphor for the rest of life, so mine is not a fresh epiphany. Like so many of the realizations I record on these pages, however, this bit of wisdom didn’t become reality until I actually groaned my way through another miserable bid at a well formed chattaranga. If I am going to apply the lesson that the mat is a microcosm of existence beyond the relative safety of asana, then I must come to the recognition that, despite our noble dreams, sometimes life is truly suffering.

Perfectly illustrating this realizations of the life’s vicissitudes, I came across Bono’s speech to the California Women’s Conference in which he talked about his work with The ONE Campaign and their bid to eliminate global poverty, hunger, and disease. I found his entreaty that we not only care about what is happening to the people of Africa, but to actually do something to be deeply affecting. He closed with “America: We are asking you to help put humanity back on this Earth.”

My struggle on the yoga mat not only made me receptive to the devastating reality that half the world lives on $2.50 per day, but also reminded me how difficult it is to understand true, base need from the middle of a cozy weekend when I berate myself for too many trips to the fridge. To compare the crippling nature of my privilege or a lousy yoga session to the reality of starvation is irresponsible and detestable, and I do not dare to tread on such territory. I only remark on how it is challenging to understand the sheer scale of deprivation and decide how to react to it in a more active fashion than lending my name to another petition.

The revolution that we need will undoubtedly start from within.  Still, I must ask: when must your focus on the internal work expand beyond the borders of your own mind and daily experience to allow yourself to be so affected by the plight of others that it is no longer enough just to pray, but becomes necessary to act?

I think that’s a rhetorical question.