The name Gopal means "cow protector", and this idea is at once symbolic and literal at the same time. Cows are gentle creatures who represent the meek among us. Cows are also one of the most abused species today. We use their flesh, their milk, even their skin. And so Gopal as cow protector is the poster child for heroism and anti-bullying.
When we think of heroes, we may think of those with special powers, those who have done extraordinary things, those after whom monuments are built. But if we dig deep into what makes heroes heroes, we may come to a simple conclusion. Heroes merely protect what they love. And because of this, we are all heroes. When those whom we love are hurt by the words and actions of others, we too feel the hurt. This is not something we set out to do or learned to do. It is our innate capacity to empathize, and it is our instinctive desire to protect those whom we love. This is what makes us heroes. At the same time, and as much as we are hurt by those we love being hurt, we also hurt others. Yet none of us wake up in the morning thinking "Today I will make someone miserable". We do not include in our 5-year plans "to inflict suffering to as many as possible". Even without these intentions, we end up hurting others. How is it so?
Disconnection is something we have learned. We have learned to judge and discriminate. We have learned to see others as separate from us. We have created distance from others because they are of a different gender, race, nationality, religion, social status, sexual preference, educational background, species etc. But because the disconnection is learned, we can unlearn it.
We learned disconnection from others at the same time that we learned disconnection from our authentic selves. We feel an emotion or sensation or desire, society tells us it is wrong or impractical. We set out to say something or do something we feel strongly about, and society says no can do, you are not conforming to what is normal. And then we start to repress, supress, deny or minimize these emotions and desires and passions. We disconnect from ourselves. And because we cannot come to terms with our own selves, we naturally cannot acknowledge the truth of others.
Yoga practice gives us a very good opportunity to find that connection again. As we practice asana or meditation, we can allow ourselves to experience the truth of the moment. Whatever sensations or emotions or memories come up, we can practice observing them as they are instead of denying them. It is through connecting with the reality of what is rather than what should be that we gain back our connection with ourselves, and then we can work towards regaining that connection with others. But it has to start from within. We work with ourselves to work out our relationships with others.
As we start to gain discipline in our yoga practice, we will also start to see how much easier it is to relate to others. In this week's class, I asked students to pair up for a partner exercise helping each other kick up higher in handstand practice. After one week of giving the same exercise to different classes in different time slots and different studios, the results came out the same. Before the partner exercise, students are so focused to the point of seeing nothing else but the world within the four corners of the yoga mat. We think, this is how I practice yoga. Got to get my yoga on. Focus, focus, focus. And many of us live like this, creating an imaginary bubble where there is no one else but ourselves, where we do not let anyone in, where we do not reach out to others. But in the simple partner exercise, students began to smile and laugh. Facial expressions changed. We all start to feel that we are in this together. You jump, I jump. Literally. And we experience how completely natural and joyful it is to have that connection in others.
In healing disconnection, we can practice seeing our sameness with others. There are those whom we consider heroes. It helps us to see that our heroes and ourselves are made of the same intentions. We have a lot of the same qualities. We are not different. We are not separate. We are connected. And then there are those whom we see as our personal anti-heroes, people whom we have conflicts with or do not get along with or who have hurt us. It also helps us to see that we too share a lot of the same qualities. Certainly, we have the same desire to be free from harm and suffering. We are not that different. We are not separate. We are connected. Within the practice room, we can see how different people come into different variations of the same pose. We have the same intentions and the same goals, but our expressions of those intentions and goals are different. We can practice not only tolerating these differences, but embracing and celebrating the diversity of our paths. We may differ in our asanas or religions or genders or preferences or backgrounds, but we are not that different. We are not separate. We are connected.
Heroes are not that different in the fear that grips us. They end up doing extraordinary things not because they have no fear. They do extraordinary things in spite of their fear, because they are completely connected to their intentions, and they know that their love, passion, cause, and purpose are bigger than this fear. We can practice doing the same by bringing to mind a fear that we have, then bringing to mind a love or passion or cause or purpose that we have. As we come into an inversion, we can start tipping the scale, making the fear smaller and smaller and making our love bigger and bigger. We apply what my teacher Sharon Gannon refers to as magic, a shift in perception.
There is one person whom I consider my hero. His name is Philip Wollen. At the age of 34, he became vice president of Citibank. But this is not why he is my hero. Years later, his life changed when he became connected to the suffering of others. His love and purpose drove him to give away everything that he owned so he can serve others, and this is why he is my hero. I did not know who he was until I listened to a debate he participated in, because he kept himself off the radar while doing many extraordinary things to help those who suffer. I hope you can listen to that debate, to what he has to say with an open heart and an open mind.
Heroes like Gopal are portrayed as Divine and extraordinary, but what they do is merely protect the ones they love. And so I ask, why not expand the circle of whom we love?
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.
We are all heroes. Because the truth is, our thoughts, words and actions CAN and DO contribute to the happiness and freedom of others. May we use our lives to serve the freedom of ALL BEINGS.