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“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”

– Ancient Chinese Proverb

Yoga is most often defined as ‘union’ or ‘integration’. Through the practice of yoga we integrate body, breath and mind and also come to understand the connection of everything around us. But the end goal is to find freedom. 

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states yogah cittavritti nirodhah or yoga is the cessation of fluctuations in the mind” (YS I.2). Stilling the mind is just the first step, however, in order that the true nature of the ‘seer’ is revealed (YS 1.3) and, from this awareness, liberation can be found from the “tyranny” of the mind.

In other words we do these practices to become more integrated and at peace in our selves and our relationships in order to be free of ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’ in our lives. This is also the goal of the Buddhist and many other wisdom teachings. The experiences of pain, fear, anger. grief, stress do not go away but our ability to deal with them with a sense of ease is most definitely liberating. This also doesn’t mean that on the path we allow the experiences of pain and suffering to continue if we can effect change and this goes for both ourselves and other beings on this planet (including the planet itself).

Becoming an engaged yogi

The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes his method of making change as ‘engaged Buddhism’ and he argues that practicing mindfulness meditation is key in developing insight and compassion. On a worldwide scale this practice has the potential to create a global community of people willing to stand up for positive in the face of war, greed, terrorism and environmental devastation. Of course there are many other engaged, non violent, spiritual leaders including Gandhi, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and what they have in common is their commitment to their own practice of loving kindness and mindfulness in everything they do as well as a commitment to bringing about change and freedom for those that are currently unable to do so themselves.

I first became interested in Buddhist meditation and Yoga when at university when heavily involved in the student social justice scene. I have been an Amnesty International member since the early 2000s and was also active on issues such as the Free Tibet campaign, environmental movements and refugee and asylum seekers. I read many of the Dalai Lama’s books and have also always been so inspired by the non-violent (ahimsa), grass roots approach to creating change.

Human Rights became my main platform for action, helping to raise awareness about people who did not have certain freedoms (from torture; slavery; imprisonment for their political beliefs; persecution for their gender, sexuality or race; or oppression due to their culture). We wrote to numerous government officials around the world asking for change. In those letters and actions we were appealing, politely, to the humanness that is the same in every one of us. At its heart this action has an optimism that there is good in everyone. Even if the prisoner of conscience is released, not because the dictator had a change of heart but perhaps they were worried that ‘the world is watching’ or that they may face a rebellion within their own country, then this points to an underlying wisdom that they are doing something wrong or unnatural in taking freedoms away – that the natural way is to be kind and compassionate to all beings.

 

Our states of mind and needs are universal

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed on 10 December 1948 (just 3 years after the devastation of WW2 ended). The UDHR is difficult to enforce and no where near perfect. It is a modern, Western construct and doesn’t always meet the needs of communities that don’t fit within this mould (ie. Indigenous communities and other communities living more closely with the land than we do in the West). However there have sprung out of the UDHR new Declarations and Conventions including the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Hence this international instrument of law has still proved incredibly influential in lobbying governments and advocating for change on a global level. More important though are the values that underpin the various declarations rather than the specific articles themselves. Essentially that we are all connected as one on this planet, diverse yet equals, and we need to treat each other with kindness, respect, dignity and compassion. 

Through our personal practice of yoga and mindfulness we create more of that freedom and ease within our own lives and this allows more space and energy to be able to pour into helping others. We do this not through any wish to be seen to be doing good for our own self image, or through pity for others less fortunate, or any belief that if we do good we get a better rebirth or go to heaven. The drive to create positive change for beings around the world that are not yet free to do so themselves comes from the insight that we are all made of the same stuff, we all have the same pain, fear, anger, stress. The compassion that comes from this insight means that we can’t do anything but use the freedom we do have to make a difference.

On 10 December every year we celebrate Human Rights Day to commemorate the signing of the UDHR. Tomorrow I’ll be writing some letters to request the freedom of those around the world that are currently being oppressed and encouraging others to do so too. You can sign a letter or petition online with Amnesty International or take action in whatever way your heart feels called to do. But take action for yourself too, fill your own cup by taking some time out for meditation and self-compassion – you are human and deserve freedom too. 

 

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवन्तु

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”