I’ve been having a recurring fantasy that I’ve been trying to get rid of. Unfortunately, it’s very attractive to the part of my mind that feeds on anger. It goes like this:
I just happen to run into (fill in the blank – any one of many current evildoers). I just happen to see them somewhere and I just let them have it, whichever one of them it is, I just give them a piece of my mind like nobody’s business – tell them in no uncertain terms what I think of them. And if it’s that Nazi guy everyone’s punching in the face, well…
This kind of thinking is like an addictive drug: it’s hard to resist and indulging it gives very little satisfaction. I have to resist the temptation to dwell on this because if I fall into that loop I just end up in a really dark place.
Channeling anger is one of the trickiest moves in yoga judo. It’s so easy to identify with our anger and become an angry person. And anger leads to hatred. When anger and hatred leak out of our minds and into our bodies and into our relationships and our world becomes like a lake of poison. Hatred leads to suffering. If we hate our enemies then our enemies win simply by being hateful.
Anger is necessary because without it we can’t fight. And the fight is on. In the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna didn’t want to fight but his adversaries gave him no choice. Similarly, we find ourselves in the same kind of situation: all diplomatic options have been exhausted, the institutions that preserve our freedoms – our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceable assembly, freedom of religion – are all under attack by a hateful enemy that’s not interested in negotiation.
Inaction is unacceptable, silence is complicity, and each is an abdication of moral responsibility. Engagement, however difficult, is required.
One of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s six principles of non-violence is that non-violence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Following Dr. King’s principles means seeing evildoers as victims of evil rather than as being evil. Rather than hating evildoers, Dr. King insisted that love, even for enemies, is indispensable to solving the world’s problems.
The challenge in following this principle is in developing the ability to make a distinction between the hater and their hatred. This is hard because hatred comes from people: we want to hold people accountable for their hatred.
Yoga offers us some tools to help us reconcile these two valid principles of loving your enemy and demanding accountability.
Yoga philosophy describes our personalities as being composed of a combination of three metaphysical properties: goodness, passion, and ignorance. In Sanskrit, these are called tri–guna, the three qualities of material nature.
The quality of Goodness is characterized by the pursuit of knowledge, clarity of thought, and emotional equilibrium. Passion is characterized by intense endeavor, attachment to results, and the distortion of intelligence. The mode of Ignorance is characterized by apathy, bewilderment, foolishness, and violence.
Yoga proposes that all of us are influenced by these different qualities or modes of being in one way or another. Identifying with these qualities is considered a state of illusion that conditions us to act a certain way, like certain things, believe in particular ways. Our true identity is said to be beyond the influence of these qualities. The experience of our true identity is called moksha – liberation. Yoga is the bridge that takes us from a state of mis-identity to awareness of our true identity.
By seeing our selves as distinct from our mode of being, as the experiencer of that mode of being, we gain a healthy distance from our own psychology. This is the development of spiritual vision. Cultivating our spiritual vision leads to the development of compassionate detachment from our thoughts and feelings. It’s not denial or feigned indifference; it’s the experience of stepping back, taking a deep breath, and then proactively engaging with our feelings. From this position, we can work with our feelings rather than be controlled by them or try to hide from them.
The sense of emotional equilibrium that comes from just a little spiritual vision makes it a lot easier to see not just the difference between the hater and their hatred. It takes us one step further, to a place where we can see the difference between the spiritual person in a state of illusion and the qualities of material nature that create the illusion. The hater doing the hating is an illusory identity; a product of that person’s illusion; the person behind the mask of the hater is like a sleeping person covered by a dream.
Compassion for evildoers does not mean passivity in the face of evil. Evildoers must be stopped from doing evil, for their own good as well as everyone else’s. Anger is a form of energy that can be controlled and directed. The spiritual vision we acquire from our yoga practice helps us step back from our anger, make it righteous, and aim it at the right target while freeing us to love the spiritual person behind the mask of the loathsome enemy who must be defeated.