Power Lives in the Struggle

I don’t want to talk about Israel and Palestine, especially not to you. I want these notes to bring you peace, not angst. I don’t want to think about any of it either, because it ruins me. If I let reality into my world of productivity and functionality, I will be rendered useless. I know this, because it happened after Sandy Hook, George Floyd, and the pandemic. Realities like Gaza are why I get up each morning and take Prozac. I’m at a loss. I don’t have the words. There are no words.

But I teach yoga, not Pilates or Barre or Cross Fit, and yoga holds human connection and suffering at its very center. It permeates our most splendid human experiences in tandem with their tragic opposites. It reveres friction and invites us in, especially when we are conflicted and bereft.  

So, I’m talking about it, and in doing so I will expose my weaknesses and understanding gaps. I will feel vulnerable and wrong. I will talk about it anyway, because yoga is a spiritual tradition, and we turn to our spiritual traditions when we’re at a loss.

***

We are impacted by events, images, and information coming to us from the Middle East. We feel grief and rage. We feel stripped of our power and simultaneously implicated. We experience vicarious trauma on behalf of those directly impacted, and first-hand trauma because of information we access and consume.

At the same time, we are far away in myriad ways. We toe the line at home, show up at work, make holiday magic for our kids, sort socks, and get dinner on the table. We’re spiritually grieving, and we’re householders far removed from the front lines of the situation that plagues us.

Our psyches long to hold, feed, and rescue, while our geographic reality presents us with cracked windshields and Cheerios on the floor. We dial the phone to schedule the cat at the vet and question the value of any of it.

We struggle to manage the chasm. We feel trapped. Our feet are in mud.

Does yoga have anything to offer that is remotely relevant? Especially as a tradition defined by liberation teachings, where is the freedom in children dying and people who want to stop it but can’t?

The closest answer I have is this:

Power lives in the struggle.

Wrestling with what is good and right versus what is happening in our world and our degree of influence is worthwhile, even crucial to our evolving humanity.

Spiritual and religious texts are loaded with horrors identical to the ones we’re witnessing in the Middle East. They are populated with violence, tragedy, genocide, murder, and unimaginable human suffering. A common thread weaves through diverse traditions: and that is the importance of the struggle.

Our hearts are broken because we love.

We’re at a loss because we’re human.

Our capacity for empathy and compassion are embedded in our DNA.

Yoga tells us there is room for all of it. We don’t need to choose between our own crying children and the children suffering in Palestine, Israel, Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen. There is room for all of them in our awareness.

In fact, we can have an impact, not just with our actions and words, but also with our thoughts and intentions, all of which are influenced by our inner struggle.

Bessel Van Der Kolk gave us his famous book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” to emphasize the importance of allowing the mind and body to process trauma.

He writes:

“The body responds to extreme experiences by secreting stress hormones. These are often blamed for subsequent illness and disease. However, stress hormones are meant to give us strength and endurance to respond to extraordinary conditions. People who actively do something to deal with a disaster – rescuing loved ones or strangers, transporting people to a hospital, being part of a medical team, pitching tents or cooking meals – utilize their stress hormones for their proper purpose and therefore are at much lower risk of becoming traumatized.

Helplessness and immobilization keep people from using their stress hormones to defend themselves. When that happens, their hormones are still being pumped out, but the actions they’re supposed to fuel are thwarted. Eventually, the activation patterns that were meant to promote coping are turned back against the organism and now keep fueling inappropriate fight/flight and freeze responses. In order to return to proper functioning, this insistent emergency response must come to an end.”

Van Der Kolk then describes therapies that have been proven to help people return to states of equilibrium after years or decades of feeling powerless. He promotes modalities like therapeutic writing, dance, art, music, theatre, martial arts, and yoga. In fact, yoga has its very own chapter in the book.

My inner skeptic asks, But why return to “proper functioning” when a disaster should cause prolonged stress? If we go on with business as usual, isn’t it irresponsible? Isn’t it looking away? What kind of spiritual practitioner am I if I continue with the grind and stand by while children die?

These questions reflect the struggle.

I pose the following question in return, and in doing so walk the fine line between spiritual self-care and bypassing:

How can I be in this world as it is and reduce suffering?

I have a partner, 3 children, and two cats in my most immediate circle of impact. I create more suffering for them when I am frozen on the couch doomscrolling. I bring more ease and joy into this circle when I embrace, hold, feed, tend, touch, care, and listen compassionately.

We can bring our awareness of global suffering with us and keep moving through our lives. In this way, things like washing dishes, walking the dog, going to work, and bringing home groceries become small acts of resistance.

We are not bypassing. We are not looking away. And we are not frozen with grief. We take on what we can while preserving our ability to function, stay mobile and aware in the face of violence and tragedy, and pour out love and tenderness in the midst of death and destruction. In this way, our lives become living, breathing, moving prayers.

Consume information responsibly yet moderately.

Limit your intake.

Hold what you know in your awareness and physically move or create.

Keep caring for those in your small circles of impact.

Take direct action when you can but remember that the small actions of daily life are not unaffiliated.

Caring for one is caring for the whole.

Loving action toward one impacts more than one.

We cry because we are connected, move and act because we are connected, and struggle because we are connected.

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