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Pete Lawrence - 02 Dec 2019
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Yoga can be an inspiration beyond the mat and already is spreading its wings and unveiling transformative potential in a variety of directions.

I am faced with a bit of a dilemma. As a relative newcomer to yoga, I am enjoying the space and calm and it works well alongside my long-time love for getting out in nature, watching sunsets and night skies, sitting and meditating.

But as a caring human being, I also care deeply about calling out lies and injustices. I care about trying to do my bit to help to bring about an environment where changing the political system we find ourselves in is possible, where we can shine a light on the desperate tactics many have to employ to navigate our first-past-the-post voting, the outmoded combative parliamentary set up which has been built to encourage two sides of the house, and on our flailing government who relentlessly try to cheat the system and manipulate the billionaire media in a desperate attempt to stay in power. 

In the south west, I feel lucky enough to be surrounded by alternative thinking, progressive ideas, spirituality and climate activism. Despite the poverty and social injustice that is never far away too and the ubiquitous social media clickbait designed to raise of hackles and hook us in, we need to look to the light - how can we have conversations around principle and value that can actually bring about positive change? 

The climate emergency is the most pressing and most political hot potato of modern times, healthcare is political, schools are becoming a political issue, the media and especially how social media is toxic in affecting elections and political choices. Politics is everywhere, around every corner we turn. So unless we're in denial, how can we become more political in a way that is less about division, more conscious and mindful, and in a way that might integrate the learning that we are given through the yoga practices?  In way that tunes out of the current political mainstream, the circus of broken Westminster politics?

This leads on to one of the burning issues of the day - how to be zen, but at the same time to call out the lies, propaganda and unfairness that exists?  How would I feel if I retreated and didn’t comment on these issues that I see?  Would I be happy not posting them on Facebook (a medium I despise but one that I know can quickly reach hundreds of people)? Am I being a total hypocrite by even posting on that platform?

Most of the time, my mindset is one of ‘engaged separation’ from the political circus. I tend to watch with an all-seeing but detached eye whilst ever-increasing levels of buffoonery, skullduggery and chicanery parade past me at an ever-increasing rate. There is an ever-growing body of evidence that our system and politics is not fit for purpose.  

It feels as if it belongs to another world that is increasingly surreal, increasingly unworldly. One that I am happy to unplug from.

I live in hope that the real world will soon reflect the love that I sense all around, even in dark times. The compassion and the sidelining of personal interest for the good of all; the kindness I see every day. These qualities are surely at the heart of the change we need to be making and the urgency with which this change is required gets more prescient every day, not least because of climate breakdown and the complete systemic change required to respond to that pressing issue. 

Whilst the chaos ensues, and dark as the skies are getting in all directions, the real work is being done in parallel or underneath the radar of Westminster politics. In community gatherings, on London bridges during XR rebellions, in everyday conversations and in everyday situations. 

And in yoga studios around the world. This is an area where a real change is occurring and offers an energy we can learn from, we should be tapping into to make it a more compassionate outlook a predominant force in the world. I will attempt to explain why. 

1 Yoga is non-political, isnt it? 

Whilst on the surface yoga and politics would seem to be miles apart, there are some interesting connections IF the definition of politics (and by this I’m talking about new politics and future politics) is re-considered. And these revolve around how the culture of yoga might permeate through culture and society.

Recently I met with a wellbeing guru in Totnes. He is setting up a network directory around alternative practitioners and we seemed to agree on most everything - until it came to the mention of the word politics when he held up his hand, as if to say that politics was separate from him and he didn’t want to pursue that conversation. My suggestions was that every act is political in some way and politics starts with the self, how we feel, how we are, the choices we make and the way we interact with those around us – and everything disseminates out in concentric circles from there. Whatever light we choose to shine is both our guide and our projection. By the end of the conversation, he seemed to agree that politics went much further than party political bickering, which he’d admitted was his overriding response to the initial mention of the word.

We probably need a new word for how we envisage a different politics, something that reflects a move away from political parties, a word that personifies human engagement for the good of all. And one that doesn’t provoke such a knee-jerk reaction. Watching mainstream media coverage of politics as seen through that particular lens, any alien visiting our planet for the first time would be excused for thinking that we had taken leave of our senses and reached the bottom already.

2 Yoga means ‘to yoke, or come together.’ It affirms our interconnection and co-dependence.

I don’t begin to understand the ins and outs of yoga. Many devote their lives to studying it and its layers but in my humble and simplistic appreciation of it after being introduced to it two years ago by a friend, and practising it at most once or twice a week, to go to a place that my day-to-day hustle and bustle wouldn’t normally allow. it has not only brought a new level to my life but also taught me to think about oneness.  So I am speaking from inexperience and from the heart but with a strong sense of latent potential that is already in motion.

Whether a sense of oneness is about empathy, understanding, connection with nature and wider humanity, spiritual connection or fraternisation, it represents a subjugation of ego and a validation of a sense of place, a realisation than no single person is more important than anyone else. As someone once sang in a song ‘In Love We Are All One’ 

After yoga we may choose to move into solitary space but equally we might feel a calling to get out there and change the world. Emerging from the ceremony of a yoga class, it’s hard to find a greater contrast than the sudden exposure to the political circus. Speaking personally it’s a catalyst for any number of new directions. 

For those activists plugged into positive social change the tools offered by yoga and meditation are likely to offer a degree of otherness that, far from being stand-offish, is likely to produce a are sense of clarity.

3 How mindfulness can change the world

This is a simple formula. Yoga and meditation are inextricably linked with mindfulness, self-care and freedom. Mindfulness can lead to shifts in mindset and different choices. Different choices usually mean a deviation from the status quo or ‘business as usual’ That’s why yogis are well positioned as outriders to bring about social change. 

4 Zen and art of political maintenance

Jeremy Corbyn has been pilloried for his zen-like approach to politics, where he refuses to make it personal. Joanne Vanderhoeven’s blog argues for him to be respected as a zen-master.

“When we’re suffering the slings and arrows of those who are trying to undermine and attack us, we can let it go and focus on what’s important. What is important is the work that we are doing and the way that we live our lives. When we are able to let go of a self-centred point of view, with the “me” being all-consuming, then we broaden our perspective to encompass everyone and everything. This is compassion in its truest form.

Let the haters hate. Do the work, be true to yourself and see with the eyes of compassion. This is what makes Jeremy Corbyn zen”

Corbyn has also been extraordinary in bringing the word ‘love’ back to politics. Billy Bragg recently commentated on social media "Last Sunday night, at Labour’s launch of their arts policy, I was moved to hear Jeremy Corbyn end his speech with a commitment to building a society based on ‘decency and love’. I struggled to think of another British politician who would use those two words in a speech, never mind end with them, leaving the word ‘love’ to hang momentarily in the air, before being drowned out by roars of approval from the audience.”

5 Kindness and co-dependence are potentially more forceful notions than independence

Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, a US organisation that advocates the universal need for wellness, finds her yoga practice at the core of her political activism. She says. “Many of us come to yoga seeking self-sufficiency and freedom. We quickly realise that our liberation is bound with the world around us. This liberation is and must be all-inclusive: joy and pain, shadow and light, individual and collective. When we can hold space for our fear and brokenness and wholeness, then we can hold space for the complex and intersectional reality that we exist in. We are not separate from the suffering of our parents, families, neighbours, in the same way that we are not separate from our planet that we live upon. When we choose to ‘live’ interdependence, we see that the personal is political.” Our personal liberation is yoked to the incarcerated black man, the alt-right conservative, the single mom, the CEO, the immigrants, the children. The personal is usually political. 

6 The power of ceremony. 

Ceremony can become really important in finding common ground and in plugging into nature and the elements. Those who attempted Campfire’s Campout 2019 will have experienced the power of ceremony in connection. @Kimm Fearnley, founder of the Bournemouth Beacon who regularly holds her own fire ceremonies and shared with us the ritual elements and structure that make up her beautiful events. All important events in her life are marked in this way. For Kimm, ceremony reminds those gathered of the power of collaboration and the importance of sharing - something at the heart of Campfire.

@LAURIE PYNE, who conducted some of Campfire's ceremonies at Campout along with @Geoff Greentree thinks the direct experience of meeting others at events are key. "In order to create that level of transformational  awareness we need to get the message of interdependence out in as many ways as possible. And then create EVENTS which give people a direct experience of it, so that our understanding is both visceral, emotional and intellectual."

7 The modern day spiritual journey is now likely to be focussed around positive social change.

Our response to the needs of the day and has been to shift towards an energy that is grounded in co-operatives, community-based projects and collaborative initiatives, new ways of feeling and being, new ways of giving up stuff, of reconnecting with nature. Many are moving in parallel but have yet to find the common language, the online space, the new systems and currencies that will bring together the disparate elements of those undertaking what feels like a modern day spiritual journey.

Meditation and activism working together at XR, Trafalgar Square, October 2019  Photo: Pete Lawrence

Can we still be zen at election time?

I don’t see overwhelming evidence for changing hearts and minds in bubbles on our rotting social media. Built on a model of surveillance capitalism, clickbait has become a negative force at the heart of social media and seemingly, the more outrageous, divisive an article, the more likely it is to fan the flames of tribal warfare. But some might argue that there is a balance to be had through continued engagement, despite mounting evidence of the medium's adverse effects on mental health. Searching out ‘the truth’ (or something resembling it), or even impartial journalism is a dark art these days. 

In times of high pressure, such as general elections, the heat of the moment often causes me to let go of some of the zen qualities I’m hoping I am gradually stepping into as I get a little more partisan. On this occasion, it might be argued, because so much is at stake and because the prevalent forces of evil are unleashing themselves in such an obvious and undignified manner. But does that still mean that we should close off from the people whose views challenge us, refuse to engage?

One post on Facebook this morning suggested that direction, the person in question saying that they can no longer fraternise with anyone who can still vote Tory because they don't believe they have anything common whatsoever. Whilst I don’t think that calling out lies is ‘un-zen’ it’s often down to the way we do it that is the skill (or not) and that, similarly, is how each one of us has the unique ability to change hearts and minds, if done with respect and sensitivity rather than through warfare and stone-walling. 

This where the inner work that we might do can directly affect political discourse.  The deep listening techniques we can learn, the act of giving space to another person to be fully heard and held, which in itself offers the greatest form of respect available to another person. It may be a big challenge to those who are riled and ruffled by what they see as an opposing view, but common ground is never far away.

Proactively seeking common ground - radical kindness

The person who you thought you had nothing in common with whatsoever might just turn out to be a fellow human being, a willing and able co-traveler on this weird and wonderful journey called life, someone who might also enjoy sunsets and birdsong or a piece of music that moves you. They might also have found the blessings of being able to cry, to cook good food or to share laughter around a campfire. Common ground is all around and we can often be blinded to it.  The maxim “you have your way, I have mine” might shift towards “we can find a way together”.

How can yoga influence politics? 

Pam Hardy, yoga philosopher and environmental lawyer, says, “For me, yoga and politics are intimately connected. When I’m not teaching yoga, my job is to be an environmental advocate; it’s very political. I literally negotiate face-to-face with elected officials, the timber industry, and the Forest Service to make sure we get the most sustainable logging projects possible. I credit a lot of my success to my yoga practice. Yoga keeps me clear, centred, and balanced, even when I’m in a difficult or sometimes hostile situation. It also allows me to have a deeper understanding of other people that I’m negotiating with. Instead of seeing them as caricatures or stereotypes, I am able to be real with them. That allows us to explore solutions that are way more creative that the normal positioning.”

The first tenet of The Yoga Sutras explores ahimsa, or non-harming. Ahimsa is also at the heart of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience that ended the British occupation in India. His commitment helped end a form of suffering of an entire nation.

Amanda Stuermer, certified yoga teacher and founder of Muse, a Women’s Conference, offers: “The purpose of practicing on the mat is to be able to be more conscious in the real world, and what we practice on our mat is what we practice in the real world. We have the responsibility to be out in the world in a more engaged, conscious way. The future is in conscious activism versus reactivism, being aware of personal privilege and bias, then trying to see the world through others. Reactivism is a natural tendency, but to be able to be self-reflective and practice non-reaction, rather than pushing against the problem, and instead standing for something. Then you are standing for what you want to see in the world.”

Whilst MC Yogi’s “Be The Change You Want to See” will continue to inspire a new generation and new initiatives, we should let these words inspire each one of us to recognise our intrinsic privilege and our own potential empowerment. As Deven Sisler says in her Campfire article “If you read for leisure, are able to take a group yoga class at a studio, or have attended a yoga and music festival, you are among the privileged. Recognize this first and foremost. Now, choose what you will do with the power of your privilege. Hardy recommends practising daily and listening closely. “Watch out for fear that will try to blind you to yourself,” she says. “Listen for what makes your heart come alive and gives you the sense that you’ve done the right thing—even if it’s scary.”

This discussion for me has opened up vistas of ideas, connections, new and positive directions in thinking and acting. My conclusions, for now, are that we should try to agree on some basic values and principles. Not only are values and principles useful as a touchstone for how we might conduct ourselves, but they also help identify the common ground, the humanity at the core. As such, new politics isn’t about political party manifestos, it’s more about seeking some sort of consensus through common sense, humanitarian values and principles. 

Values and Principles 

Campfire has started to outline its ethos via values and principles. But here are a few spontaneous principles that summarise some of my thinking about how we might behave towards each other when the going gets tough politically, to bring a little more yogic mindset into play. I’d love to hear from yogis as to how we extend this. It might just give us a key to unlocking some ways of starting to bring people back together again.

Know gratitude and express it. Be courageous and unafraid. Challenge when you need to. Extend the warrior within to social change if you feel that calling. Step boldly but go forwards lightly. 

Put kindness at the centre of attention at all times. It is our only hope, as Theo Simon so admirably demonstrated in his influential talk at Campout 2019.

Engage in respectful conversation, practice active listening, and ask questions, rather than second guessing someone’s position. Shouting at someone or getting into a Facebook rant is unlikely to change anyone else’s mind on a contentious topic, but discovering what lies beneath their beliefs and opinions just might.

Let’s use non-violent communication and deep listening techniques so we can get ourselves and others heard in a calmer, more receptive environment. 

Be true, be honest. All around that is meant to be will find its own peace and its own path. All around that isn’t fit for purpose will be called out and will find its own resting place. 

Believe in the power of karma and zen in politics, whether personal or electoral politics, however we see the power axis of the world playing out.

Yoga can be an inspiration beyond the mat and already is spreading its wings and unveiling its transformative potential in a variety of directions. It's heartening to see.

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