August 16, 2018

Peace, Love & Unite the Right—Taking my Yoga to a Protest Rally.

“Breathe in joy—breathe out empathy. Breathe in joy—breathe out compassion. Breath in joy—breathe out love.”

Using the complete breath, this was the breathing sequence I taught my yoga students at the beginning of class on Sunday morning, August 12th.

Immediately following that class, I headed to downtown Washington, D.C. to protest a protest.

Exactly one year after their rally burst into violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and a young woman was killed, the Unite the Right organizers were bringing their hate-filled followers to the nation’s capital. And those of us who opposed their divisive, hateful ideology would be ready and waiting for them.

Only this protest would be different for me.

I have been protesting one form of inequity or social injustice or another for 50-plus years. I am definitely a physically nonviolent person. But I have shouted my fair share of anger and rage-filled slogans.

For years, I have grappled with the idea of maintaining my “yogic cool,” so to speak, and being appropriately outraged at social injustice, warmongering, and environmental degradation. Last year, Heather Heyer, the counter protester who was murdered at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, said in her last Facebook post before she died, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”

Is that true?

Can we be paying attention and not be filled with rage and anger at those we hold responsible for the chaos that has engulfed our nation?

Can we be active participants in changing the negative trajectory of our beloved country without exhausting ourselves with anger and animosity toward those on the “other side?”

These last 18 months (since November 9, 2016) of rage, sadness, and fear, among other negative emotions, have slowly drained joy and happiness from my life. I don’t mean the temporary and fleeting happiness one can experience from material things like a good meal, a good show, getting together with friends, and pet videos (although they do help)—I mean the deep sustaining inner joy that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about in their book, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

A month ago, I realized that all of the awful consequences of the 2016 election coupled with an ongoing health issues (and not the subject of this article) had completely emptied my inner joy reservoir. I was running on a completely empty joy tank. I was at such an emotional low point that I couldn’t even teach my yoga classes for a week.

Thankfully, I made a conscious decision to fill it back up again.

A quote (often misattributed to Buddha) said, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It is also said in many practices, “intention is everything.”

It was my intention to bring joy back into my life and so, I discovered The Book of Joy. I am convinced that joy is more powerful than outrage.

“Still some might wonder what our own joy has to do with countering injustice and inequality. What does our happiness have to do with addressing the suffering of the world? In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others…The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves…being more joyful is not just about having more fun. We are talking about a more empathic, more empowered, even more spiritual state of mind that is totally engaged in the world…peace must come from within. We cannot bring peace if we do not have inner peace.” ~ The Book of Joy

I ended my Sunday class with a loving-kindness meditation. I told my class that I would be going to the counter-protest after class. I wanted them to know that I needed their energy to take with me that day. And so we meditated. We did this mediation for ourselves, for someone we love, for a stranger, and most importantly, for someone with whom we have difficulty—who has hurt us, who has angered us.

May I be well.
May I be happy.
May my heart be open and filled with loving-kindness.
May I enjoy true peace in my life.

May you be well.
May you be happy.
May your heart be open and filled with loving-kindness.
May you enjoy true peace in your life.

I arrived at the counter-rally to the Unite the Right rally with thousands of other people.

We gathered in Freedom Plaza where representatives from many organizations spoke passionately about justice, and against an administration that seems to have made unkindness, hatred, and a lack of empathy and compassion acceptable.

Then we marched to Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. There were thousands of us and it took an hour to walk the four or five blocks to the park. There were loud, angry chants. There were loud, not-so-angry chants. For the most part, I didn’t chant out loud. I chanted in my head, “May you be happy. May you be well. May your heart be open and filled with loving-kindness. May you enjoy true peace in your life.”

At the park we waited for the Unite the Right marchers to arrive. As I waited, I felt as if an invisible shield of empathy, compassion, and love surrounded me. I felt no anger and no outrage. I felt joy and peace and knew that I was changing the negative trajectory of our beloved country—without anger and outrage. I thought of something I read in The Book of Joy: “…compassion is a feature of strength, not weakness…”

In the end, there were two dozen of them to thousands of us.


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