On Not Stealing Struggle: A look at Asteya

 

 

uganda chapel

Asteya translates to “non-stealing” and reminds us that we have all that we need; that we should act from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.” Coral Brown, Yoga Journal

I would have been very content in Uganda had it not been for the women. I would be wondering at the colorful roadside shops and the overpacked taxi buses, and then I’d see them walking along the margins of the  busy red-rutted roads, lugging a yellow tank of water. I would be laughing at the monkeys in the trees, and then notice women peeling potatoes behind the student cafeteria, a charcoal fire burning beside them where they would cook hundreds of meals for the students. Even when I was in their homes, listening to the husbands and male visitors chat, the women’s absence pestered me as I ate the watermelon they had diced and the curry they cooked. When we left the homess, the women waved goodbye, then hurried back inside to wash dishes with the water they had fetched earlier in the day.

In March 2016, after enduring three flights and a twelve hour layover in two days of travel, I settled down for a week at Uganda Christian University. I was there on a research grant to interview and observe the American students studying abroad there, and while I had never thought of Uganda as a place where I could happily live, within a few days I was smitten with the relaxed beauty of the country. Sure, the main highway through the country was a two-lane road clogged with potholes, but on the campus where I was staying, the red dirt paths were fine for walking. The water never got warm in my guest room, but it was so hot outside that I didn’t care. I swallowed pills to prevent malaria, wore light skirts to the sweltering classes and practicums, and ate inexpensive, tasty meals every day. The Ugandans on campus smiled at me as I asked questions, and the Americans grinned as they shared their Ugandan culture shock. Monkeys played in the trees, and some of the American families at the campus invited me over for dinner to their cool, clean houses. The internet was inconsistent, but it worked, and I enjoyed every visit I made to practicum sites and classrooms. I could have lived there pretty comfortably, if I could have forgotten that most of the population was not living comfortably at all.

I watched the women from the inside of the van where I was being driven to or from the airport, to or from an NGO serving abandoned children, and their struggle irritated me, similar to the irritation I feel when I see a homeless person, or kids walking to school through rough neighborhoods. These people made bad choices, the industrious American inside of me says, trying to ignore the Holy Spirit whispering there but for the grace of God go I. Uganda magnified this feeling, because being comfortable, at least in my sense of the word, meant either being very rich, or white. I was both.

The more the women bothered me, the more I caught myself trying to believe that they probably liked walking to get water, or that they were so used to it they wouldn’t want to live differently. Or maybe they had done something to get in this situation and they could choose to escape it. My logic was ridiculous. I won’t pretend to understand infrastructure in developing countries, but Uganda (as also Flint, Michigan) is a clear reminder that hard work and industry will not route a water pipe or a paved road to a family’s home, even if that family owns their own business and puts all their children through college. Usually the job of fetching water also goes to the women and female children, as does the job of building fires, selling snacks, washing clothes by hand, and raising children. Their discomfort reflected back my privilege. I didn’t like how that felt, so I simply minimized their struggle. It felt like stealing.

In yoga philosophy, the third yama or restraint is Asteyaor non-stealing. This past month in my yoga teacher training we were to meditate on this yama and think about what it means to our lives. I thought about how my use of time steals sleep and energy from myself. How my schedule steals time from my husband. How my propensity for running late steals time from other people.  I had lots of personal conviction about Asteya, but nothing stuck like the images of African women carrying those yellow jugs, Michigan families holding signs reading FLINT STILL DOESN’T HAVE WATER,  African-American families in New Orleans pointing to their abandoned home, and African-American parents everywhere mourning the deaths of their children–and the dismissive comments we can find under each photo:

“Well, if they worked a little harder . . .”

“Well, if they hadn’t broken the law . . .”

“Well, why don’t they move somewhere else?”

As if industry can make clean water materialize in your neighborhood.  As if not using a turn signal or listening to loud music means you should die. As if hard work can hold back a hurricane.

We do this all the time, even to people we love. One of my students lost a close friend in a mass shooting. Three months after the event, her father asked her why she wasn’t “over it” yet.  A woman in my community was brutally raped in her home a few years ago; shortly after the fact some people in the community began trying to frame the assault as somehow “consensual.”  When I was going through my divorce, I heard a family member say that I probably left my husband because I couldn’t handle getting yelled at occasionally. This logic comes at the expense of other people’s dignity. When we try to minimize the suffering of others, or even blame them for their suffering, we are robbing them of their sorrow and struggle so that our abundance makes us feel less bad.

And we do this the most to people who already have a difficult life. I was riding in a taxi back to Entebbe airport when I looked at a woman on the side of the road and caught myself minimizing her hardships in order to feel less bad about my indoor plumbing. I tried looking away, and realized that approach was doing the same thing. No one in Uganda was asking me to carry water, but just to realize the miles are long, the water is heavy, and the jug will be empty again tomorrow.

 

Donald Trump Teaches Me Ahimsa

gun-knot

Ahimsa: the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of nonviolence towards all living things.

The week before I started my 300-hour yoga teacher training, a portion of America picked Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. Fifteen months of ugly public discourse ended not with the sane, flawed candidate I hoped would be elected, but with a man who has used words as violence towards women, minorities, immigrants, veterans, disabled people, his opposition, and the press. I thought after the election our nation would reset to the more passive-aggressive, shrouded language of public decency I was used to. Even if everyone wasn’t happy with Madame Clinton, I thought the more outspoken racists would retreat to the shadows. I could stop arguing with so many people on Facebook, and quit worrying about the what-ifs that came with Mr. Trump’s daily Tweets. I was, clearly, very wrong.

The day after the election I re-posted an article to Facebook that a family member found offensive, so this person called me a bigot. To say I felt hurt was an understatement;  I cried in the bathroom at work when I should have been supervising my students workshop their essays. I spent the rest of the day either crying with distraught students, or trying to talk about the election like a mature grown-up in my classes; anything to avoid obsessing over this rift with my family member. But by the time I got to yoga class that night, it was all I could think about. Teardrops fell on my mat during every downward dog. During my 200-hour teacher training we had discussed ahimsa, the yoga idea of nonviolence. In the book The Yamas and Niyamas  by Deborah Adele, she points out that one way we are often violent towards ourselves and others is by worrying.  We don’t trust ourselves or them to handle the situation, so we hurt ourselves by obsessing over it. I knew this as I cried through each chakra, but I couldn’t figure out how to let go of my worries.

The next day it became clear that no one was going to figure out nonviolence for me. The next night when I posted a statement asking the president-elect to denounced racism, my phone lit up with objections: why wasn’t I talking about all the Trump supporters getting beaten up? What about the people hating Donald Trump?  I started to feel the shaky feeling that comes from this kind of confrontation, and then instead of replying, I muttered, “Not today Satan,” and deleted the Facebook app off my phone. I grew up learning that “A soft answer turns away wrath,” but I seldom saw people model it, or the biblical idea of heaping coals of kindness on an enemy’s head. So three hours later, I went for as much kindness and burning coals as I could manage in my response, and ended my response by wishing the most belligerent respondent a blessed day. The comments stopped. I stopped feeling sick and angry. As I meditated on ahimsa over the last month, I found I could give myself a few extra minutes, and a little more charity, before I responded. This has worked in my internet life, as well as in my real life, where I work, worship, and spend family holidays with people who believe and vote very differently from me.

But the violence I’ve encountered since the election has been nothing compared to that of people of color. Two weeks before Christmas, an African-American student at my university woke up to find a note on his car saying that “people” at our college campus were tired of his presence and if he came back “action would be taken.” He live off campus, so the person who did this figured out where he lived or knew he was a student. No one knows yet who this individual is, and when my students asked me what they could do, I told them it wasn’t their job to go hunt down suspected racists on campus (some of them looked disappointed). Instead, I gave them notecards and told them they could write an encouraging note to the student. When I gave him the notes a few days later, his face lit up with a surprise and a “Thank you!” Sometimes ahimsa means silence. Sometimes, however, it means a very intentional choice of words.

I felt an echo of this student’s surprise myself when three friends sent me messages to say they valued what I have been posting and writing since the election. One specifically referenced how “gracious and warm” I have been. I have seldom felt gracious and warm on Facebook, but if my attempts at it are making a difference, then I will continue down this path. I am still negotiating how to speak against injustice while maintaining ahimsa in my responses; I especially still struggle how to stay calm and non-violent inside myself when I see one of Mr Trump’s tweets or hear a clip from one of his speeches on the radio. But what I have learned is that intentional words of kindness, and more often than not, intentional silence, has been the first step in bringing a little more peace and justice in my world.

Revisiting Uganda

Back in March, I had the opportunity to visit Uganda for five days. I came home and wrote  a blog about it, and a month ago, I submitted it (with some revisions) to Topology Magazine.  I appreciated the opportunity to write for them, and the chance to revisit that piece and develop it.They published it today; below is an excerpt from the new section:

“Later, the students and I navigated the potholes back to the canteen for coffee and samosas. What is hard about Uganda? What will you miss? I asked. Their answers: Everything. Everything.

“Three months later, I’m trying to parse the everything while trying to remember what I loved. A place that I previously associated with homophobia and poverty now makes me think of tropical flowers, monkeys, and lively open air church services. My nostalgia is problematic. Uganda is still a place with poverty, homophobia, violence, disease, and ignorance—like America, but on the other side of the world, making it easy to picture only the flowers and monkeys. Why does the thought of a place that soaked my shirts with humidity and stained my shoes with red dirt and could have given me typhoid and malaria fill me with a powerful urge to return?”  (You can read the rest here.)

This week I’m staring down the last month of summer as well as my to-do list, and trying to figure out where to prioritize my energy and time. The flower beds that need mulch? the trim that needs painted? The online grading? The really dull but sort of necessary paperwork of the upcoming academic year? The book proposal I say I’m going to write every summer? The vacation I didn’t take? Lately I’ve been trying to write a blog about the yogic response to racial violence. I paused the writing last week because I realized I need to spend more time listening instead of assuming. The list of writing projects remains incomplete.

Usually these lists makes me panic, and I’ve felt that choking onslaught of anxiety a few times in the last week. I’ve also felt my other extreme unpleasant emotion–rage and frustration–on sweltering days when the news is unbearable. Today’s temperatures and news (the slain priest in Normandy, the entirely acquitted officers in Baltimore, the endless presidential election with its accompanying slander and buffoonery) could still take me there. I feel some peace, however, knowing that it doesn’t have to. This is not a testament to some great will power on my part, but the power of paying attention, and adjusting accordingly to what I need. Sometimes that means more vegetables. Sometimes it means eating a bowl of watermelon or drinking another glass of water. Sometimes it means going for a walk, or doing a very slow yoga practice. Usually it means taking a few minutes a day to read scripture and meditate, and taking less time to read the comments on social media. I can be upset about the injustice and cruelty around the world, and still choose a response that is not unjust or cruel itself.

The yamas and niyamas of yoga encourage this; Ayurvedic medicine and a lot of counseling give me the tools to follow through. In particular, the ideas of non-violence (ahimsa) and self-study (svadhyaya) are working on me this week. I’m trying, gradually, to not leave that snippy comment on a post, to not look away from ugliness, to not excuse my privilege or ignorance. Remembering Uganda seems to have something to do with that.

Listening to the students in Uganda talk about the former sex slaves at the Women’s Action Network who are working to bring forgiveness and restoration to Uganda taught me the importance of responses versus reactions. So did the Mothers of the Movement who spoke last night at the Democratic National Convention. Every mother there had a child taken from her early and unjustly, and each death was its own American tragedy, in the sense that each should have been preventable. No one needs to die after a traffic stop or for playing music too loudly.

Their speeches could have been angry. That would have made sense. Instead, Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, started her speech by saying,”We did not come here tonight because God is not good. We came here tonight because he is great.” This doesn’t mean she backed off from expressing her pain, or shirked from reminding Americans that, “when a young black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us.” But Reed-Veal and the other mothers on the stage bypassed anger and moved to action. They moved, notably, to speaking about the pain, particularly with those in a place of power and responsibility, so that restoration can happen. In their short speeches, their pain enabled them to give a blessing to those of us who have not felt their violent loss. Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, closed the speech by saying, “We leave you what God has given us–strength, love, and peace.”

In my original blog, I quoted South African writer Denise Ackermann, who wrote,“We must remember in order to redeem. Otherwise there will be no justice.” Sometimes justice also relies on us looking directly at the present, whether beautiful, fetid, cruel, exhausting, or sad, and giving ourselves a minute to respond differently–with strength, and love, and maybe even peace.

 

 

Let’s Talk About Sex: Yogi Edition Part 1

“Whether we find ourselves overdoing food, work, exercise, or sleep, excess is often a result of forgetting the sacredness of life. The fourth jewel, Brahmacharya, literally means ‘walking with God’ and invites us into an awareness of the sacredness of all life.”  Deborah Adele, The Yamas and Niyamas. 

Most of the students I teach at my Christian university grew up in some variation of an abstinence-only culture. They know, both because of the community lifestyle standards and their church’s teachings, that they are not supposed to be having sex. However, my students are also twenty-first century adults with libidos who are trying to figure out everything. “Do you think it’s a sin to have sex before marriage?” some ask, often because they already are. In their competing worlds of no-sex and SEX SEX SEX, sex is both the highest goal and the biggest sin.

I’ve realized yoga has a few things to say about sex too, some restrictive, some liberating. Early monks and yogis renounced sex, and modern yogis believed celibacy, or at least chastity, to be essential. “Too much sex leads the body, sense organs, and mind to become weak,” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois writes in his book Yoga MalaSome schools of yoga, such as Kripalu, used to make students take a vow of celibacy (this backfired in scandal years later).  In reading ancient and modern yogic texts, it is easy to infer that yoga is a practice designed to harness (or yoke, as the word yoga translates) one’s sexuality.

To yoke one’s sexuality, however, is not to kill it. What I have also learned about yoga is that it asks us to balance opposites as we honor the body.  Yoga’s relationship to sex can be distilled down to one principle: take care of your sexual being. Yoga seems to provide two guidelines on how to do it. The first guideline is brahmacharya: celibacy, chastity, or temperance.

Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by Claudia Cummins on the nuances, ancient and modern, of brahmacharya. She points out that in its ancient origins, celibacy was part of life for monks and yogis, mainly because celibacy prevented parenthood, and parenthood prevented total devotion to a spiritual life.  Yogis also believed sexual fluids distilled into spiritual vigor when not wasted in sexual intercourse. (Most current researchers believe that the yogis saw the problem of post-sex lethargy, which is really an issue of neurons firing, and attributed it to loss of essential life fluids). For some modern-day yogis, a practice of celibacy is an important part of their spiritual life. The Yoga Journal article references yogis like Swami Chidananda, a celibate leader of the Divine Life Society in India and Adrian Piper, a yoga student, artist, and philosophy professor who adopted a life of celibacy in her thirties.

Most yogis believe that monogamy within relationships is the best modern-day application of brahmacharya. Monogamy, and moderation, that is; Jois only recommends “union with one’s lawful wife [ . . . ] for the sake of begetting good progeny” so as to not “squander” one’s sexuality. Judith Lasater, author of Living Your Yoga, does not give restrictions on sexual activity, but believes that brahmacharya involves being very aware of one’s sexuality, and careful and wise about how one decides to be sexual.

A third, and looser interpretation of brahmacharya is that of temperance in how we use our energy, including sexual energy. Deborah Adele points out in The Yamas and Niyamas that any time we let something else control us, or anytime we squander our energy, we’re not practicing brahmacharya. She points out enjoyment and pleasure are good, but when pleasure moves to addiction, we are usually trying to cover up something else. “We must also be fearless,” she says, “in facing our sadness, grief, and disappointments without needing to soothe them with food or sex.” Jois writes that it is not good to talk, sleep, or eat too much, or mix with “undesirable or uncultured people.” If he had written Yoga Mala in the internet age, he’d probably add social media and video games to that list. Moderation is essential, especially with activities that produce an addictive hit of dopamine.  While food, sex, sleep, and drugs might make us feel better while we’re doing them, they don’t help make us better people in the long term, and can distract from the important task of honing our spiritual lives. Too much of these things becomes distractions on purpose. In particular, indiscriminate sex leads to focusing on short-term, pleasure-focused goals at the expense of one’s soul, and often, other relationships.

The major world religions include chastity, and often fasting, for a reason, and for adherents, these restraints can be their own gifts. Piper points out that when she stopped having sex, her relationships with men improved because she was no longer trying to get something from them. Many yogis believe celibacy and fasting are good short-term exercises to bring the body back into balance and determine what is pulling it towards excess. Almost all teachers, Cummins says, believe “that brahmacharya requires us to carefully consider the relationship between our lives on the yoga mat and our lives under the sheets.” Lasater states, “I don’t think one needs to be celibate in order to progress in yoga and spiritual practice, but I definitely think one has to be very careful and clear about the sexual choices one makes. You’re not going to be a whole healthy person unless you’re whole and healthy in your sexuality.”

I’m not sure I’ve given my students a straight answer on sex yet; to be fair, I doubt they want one. I find it more beneficial to think about sex as careful choices. Perhaps chastity does not ask us to shut down sexual expression but rather to “walk with God” and find the sacredness in one’s sexual life. “Brahmacharya is not an answer; it’s a question,” Lasater says. “And the question is, How will I use my sexuality in a way that honors my divinity and the divinity of others?”