What is ‘WRONG’?

This week I attended a master class and discussion with my teacher Baron Baptiste. He shared a quote from BKS Iyengar (one of the original yoga masters): ‘ Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.’ I love these words and how beautifully they describe the results of a dedicated yoga practice. It got me thinking- how does this experience really show up in everyday life? What does being transformed mean? It sounds great and poetic as many quotations do, but how does it actually happen that human beings see things differently based upon their participation in yoga. One way that was impactful for me was in my relationship to right and wrong.

When I took my first Baptiste yoga class at the YMCA in Charlotte North Carolina I was disturbed by two things. One: how physically challenging it was. Two: the things the teacher was saying. Number two was actually more intense. I had never heard anyone speak the way she did. Acceptance, wholeness and letting go of what doesn’t serve us: not to overdramatize, but I felt like I was hearing the truth for the first time. A truth that was simple and made sense to me. I progressed in my practice, listened and learned more. Fast forward to a few years later: the idea of letting go of right and wrong was coming up for me all over the place. In my close relationships and in the bigger picture of world events. Being the type A, first born child that I am- I like knowing who’s right and who’s wrong. Then I can adjust my behavior accordingly and always know where I stand. Being the people pleaser and goody two shoes I was- I always wanted to be on the side of rightness (ok, righteousness). I liked linear methods and equations where you solve a problem and it’s obvious if I’m correct or not. What I was uncomfortable with was the yogic notion that right and wrong are not as defined as I might have them be. Give up right and wrong? Um, no thank you. That made me feel nervous! All my rules? My frame of reference? What would I be left with? Mass chaos? Confusion? Total mental meltdown?

When I was in 6th grade, we experienced a tragedy in my class. One of my classmates was hit by a car getting off of the school bus. She was in a coma for several days before she passed away. This was my first real life example of something ‘wrong’ happening. Things like this shouldn’t happen to smart, beautiful 12 year old girls with nice families who have their whole life ahead of them. I grew up Catholic going to mass every Sunday, so I did what I thought would work when she was in the hospital. I prayed for her. Every night. And she still died. My 12 year old mind didn’t know how to process an equation that didn’t make sense. I thought that if you did X, then Y would happen? I felt let down by the system and let down by God. I was also extremely unsettled. This was a new world I was now aware of which had no guarantees and no ground rules. Even bigger than that- I wasn’t too confident about God’s willingness to set things back on course the ‘correct’ way.

Where did that leave me? Full of anxiety and with a very real and persistent stomach ache that I couldn’t shake off. An existential crisis at the age of 12. Life, death, right and wrong- what did it all mean and how would I navigate it? I remember that the only way I felt I could relax was to lay in my bed with my favorite book, favorite blanket and hope I could mentally check out. I stayed home from school. I must have read that book 100 times, but as soon as I finished the last page I became aware of my stomach ache again. All my questions and fears were waiting for me.

I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but what I needed was a shift in how I saw things. I was trying to escape and numb out reality with my coping mechanism (reading and control), but it was only a temporary solution. Here’s the groundbreaking idea: What if I saw all events as completely neutral and then decided what meaning I would give them. Are you kidding? Murders, rapists, genocide, natural disasters, Donald Trump? Was I supposed to look at these events neutrally? Was I supposed to divorce my emotions and become completely detached? The answer is no. What I needed to be willing to let go of was my own righteousness and also the resistance to things as they happened. By calling something ‘wrong’ I am creating an energy of resistance around it which is totally unproductive. It’s not so much the word as the energy behind it. Any energy I expend in resisting what is or has actually happened is wasted. What if I choose to accept everything that happens without labeling it. And I acknowledge the emotions of sadness, frustration, anger or whatever else arises and let them come. But I don’t make anything ‘wrong’. I forget the word ‘shouldn’t’. I just take one breath at a time and I accept the present moment. I accept it with all the pain that it holds. Then I can use my energy to consciously respond, instead of fight against reality (in which case I will always lose).

I realize that this is a lofty expectation. It’s not easy to take the high road when I’m feeling grief, despair and overwhelming sadness. As a mom, I almost lost my mind after the Sandy Hook school shooting. It was the definition of ‘wrong’. I couldn’t stop thinking about it or putting myself in the situation of those parents who had lost their children in such an abominable way. I couldn’t get through the day without bursting out in tears behind the steering wheel of my car or being scared about dropping my children off at school in case something happened and I never saw them again. I can’t say that I let go of making it wrong completely, but I knew that the more I blamed, demonized and railed against what had happened- I was just using my energy to no greater benefit and wasn’t honoring the tragedy. Prayers, honest emotions and solidarity honor tragedy and those affected. Finger pointing, revenge and retribution does not.

The biggest challenge and where I think the hardest work lies is in having empathy and non-judgment for the people who are on the ‘wrong’ side of the equation. The perpetrators and those who do terrible things. I try to remind myself to ask: What tragedy has happened to that person that they would be so lost, so desperate and then do _____________. As Jesus said, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.’ Can I look at that person through the eyes a parent sees their child? No matter what my children did- I would never stop loving them.

When I make myself right and someone else wrong, I am creating distance between us and putting myself above them. That’s pretty much been the basic operating model in the world since the beginning of time and it has us at this point. That applies to everything from personal relationships to foreign diplomacy. So- what if we challenge ourselves to go to a new level of acceptance and compassion and really acknowledge that we are all in this together. Benjamin Zander writes about this in ‘The Art of Possibility’. There is no us and there is no them- there is just WE. Our issues and problems are for ALL of us. There is nobody above anyone else. This is beyond the argument of ‘wasting time’ in blaming people as we often hear in politics. This is a deeper shift of knowing that we are truly all connected, one creation and using that not only to change how we see things, but to allow ourselves to transform. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t held accountable for their actions and integrity, but it does request that we operate from a different place.

What I have now is less resistance and superiority and more peace and freedom in my mind. I’m not free from the fact (or the fear) that bad things and tragedies will happen. I’m not free from feeling the intense sadness and pain that comes with them, but I have a deep peace in knowing that there is a higher power overseeing us and in accepting the way people are and the world is for better or for worse. Hopefully I can contribute to making it better.