When I was in college, we had to take a lot of units in Philosophy and Theology because that was supposed to make us well-rounded. I remember that in one of the classes, we discussed morality- will you save your child or a train full of strangers- and other such hypothetical questions. I wondered why we never spoke of situations that are real, ethics that are relevant and practical, ethics that are not about what is interesting to debate but about what kind of world we want to create.
I read a book about practical ethics called "The Life You Can Save" by Peter Singer. I have to warn you that what he suggests is a radical idea. The premise is this: helping others is not charity, it is not kindness; it is an obligation.
The book started with a hypothetical question not very different from those posed in ethics classes. Suppose you see a small child drowning in a pond and you're the only person who could save him. Would you save the child? Most of us would say yes, of course. He then presents another condition. Suppose you were wearing your favorite pair of expensive shoes. Would you save the child? Most of us would say yes, of course. We would even find the question ridiculous. How can we even think of the shoes when the life of a child is at stake? We think of the act of saving the child not as kindness, but as an obligation. Saving the child does not make us a good Samaritan. It makes us a decent human being.
Here is the difficult part. Many are currently drowning. They drown in poverty, violence, abuse, lack of health care etc. And we are attached to our metaphorical pair of shoes. We want to keep our luxury homes and cars and travels. And so in this big scheme of things, we are so attached to our expensive pair of shoes to be bothered reaching out to the drowning child. The book is suggesting that we open our eyes to the many ways that we can save someone. Because it is our moral obligation.
In this same book, the author spoke about these amazing people who chose to donate half their income month after month after month, as a continuing commitment to help others. They are not famous. They are not extremely rich. They are ordinary people. One family moved to a house half the size of their original home so they can give away that excess. Others looked through their expenses to see which luxuries they can cut and give that money to charity instead. I am amazed at these people who give away 50%. That is simply inspiring. Whether or not they practice yoga asana, in my book they are yogis at heart. Yoga means union, and the path to yoga is through our relationship with others- all others. These people take that concept into practice in their everyday lives.
Neither the author nor I am suggesting that everyone should give away 50%. For some of us, it is not possible with our income brackets. What he is suggesting, and which I agree with, is that we can all do something. As yogis, we can start to think about how we can best reach out to others. We can start with what speaks to us. Although others mean all others, we can start with a cause that resonates with us- be it the elderly, the homeless, women victims of abuse, those with special needs, or animals. Then we can consider what we are already in a position to offer- be it money, resources, time, our words, our advocacy, our own way of bringing awareness to these causes and issues. Nothing is too small and nothing is too ambitious. We offer what we can.
We yogis are familiar with how we break things down in asana. If a pose seems overwhelming, we do not sit and watch and do nothing. We break down the pose into smaller steps, and we take it one step at a time. We are grateful to be working on a component of the pose even as it is unclear to us how or when we can get to the full expression of it. In the same way, when we look into the world and see so many problems and we may be swayed to believe that everything is hopeless, we draw strength from being able to do something from our own will and intention. And no matter how small our action may seem at that time, we trust that this action is a seed that will grow in its own time.
For many if not all of us, when we first started our yoga practice, we had a lot of doubts. We did not know if we were cut out for it. We did not know what the point was. We did not know where we were going with it. And yet we committed to it, and somehow we find ourselves back on the mat again for another day of practicing yoga. The offering we make will also face the same doubts and fears and insecurities. Does it even matter what I do? Does it make a difference? Does it even help? What we can choose to do is put one foot in front of the other, not because we do not doubt, but we do it despite that doubt, because with every step of the way, we also start to trust ourselves.
Union through others is the path to enlightenment. And while we see others as others, we work on this union by offering our intentions, thoughts, words, and concrete actions to others. The path to yoga is not an isolated one. It is not about strengthening the small egoic self. It is seeing how big we truly are, that we are so big we start to dissolve separation, so much so that when we see others, we no longer see others. We see our Selves.