I Can See Clearly Now: The Hope of Liberation
written by Laura Johanna
Yoga sutra 2.16: Heyam dukham anagatam
“The pain that has not yet come is avoidable.”
“Future suffering can be avoided.”
We’re currently experiencing a massive uncovering in our society, as many of us are unlearning what we’ve been taught in history class and seen further reinforced by society, and learning to see the struggles of Black Americans more clearly. We are being called to action to develop new, anti-racist ways of being and to dismantle the parts of us that perpetuate and contribute to suffering. This essay was written as a reminder of our capability to learn and therefore also unlearn problematic behaviors and beliefs, including racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. Unless we begin this process of unlearning and relearning, the hope of preventing future suffering for others goes away. All of the teachers, quotes, and themes referenced in this essay are wisdom and guidance from Black educators I’ve had the privilege of listening to and learning from recently.
It might feel like the spiritual teachings give us a way out of our discomfort when faced with these issues, but my hope is to communicate how we can use these teachings and our inner work to be deeply uncomfortable and use what we know to act more wisely in our larger community until we uphold the statement that Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, and the lives of other oppressed beings matter. And it’s with that acknowledgement we begin to open our eyes and see clearly how to move forward with hope.
I recently co-taught a workshop on suffering. Not surprisingly, a lot of people are interested in the topic. As I was preparing for the event and compiling my notes, I was reminded of how the ancient spiritual teachings that inform our yoga practices don’t beat around the bush when it comes to the challenges of life. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism states, “Life is suffering.” Sage Patanjali gets even grimmer in Yoga Sutra 2.15 with, “A wise, discriminating person sees all worldly experiences as painful.” Ouch!
It’s true that we only need to look at the increasingly polarized world around us or glimpse at the news to see this message corroborated. It can be easy to sink into despair or hopelessness when we see the struggles surrounding us, and that reaction is understandable.
But clearly, our suffering isn’t the whole story. We also experience joy, creativity, love, and friendship. We cook delicious foods, learn new things, plant seeds in dirt, express our truths to others, sign petitions, sing songs, show up at marches, move our bodies, have deep conversations, and create art – all of which are inherently hopeful actions.
The ability to retain hope and beauty in the midst of a broken world may seem trite, but it’s actually a powerful piece of our ability to keep going and see clearly.
Right after Patanjali tells us the grim news of Yoga Sutra 2.15, he gives us what I consider the most hopeful of all the Yoga Sutras: Yoga Sutra 2.16, in which he basically says, but it doesn’t have to be that way!
Heyam = endable, to be ended, to be avoided
Dukham = suffering, struggle, pain
Anagatam = that which has not come
This sutra gives us hope of liberation from the world of suffering. Here, Patanjali is pointing to the process of waking up from our old ways of being. He states that we can make changes right now that will assist our evolution and eventually free us.
Many of us arrived to yoga looking to feel better, get stronger and more flexible, and increase our peace of mind. These are all valuable pursuits, but I believe that what yoga is truly about is this process of waking up. Waking up out of what, and into what? In one way, we’re waking up out of the trance of unconscious habit and into vidya, or right knowledge and perception—in other words, seeing clearly the ways our lives, beliefs, and practices have caused ourselves and others harm.
Yoga is the work of liberation, and this work takes skillful action and open eyes. This is not work for the faint of heart. It requires conviction, stamina, love, dedication, honesty, and courage. It’s easier, in many ways, to throw up one’s hands and leave the fight for our collective liberation on someone else’s lap, hiding instead behind cynicism, callousness, or a narrow view of what progress looks like. To continue this process of waking up, opening our eyes, and working towards freedom requires a strong daily dose of hope that says getting out of our collective “bed” of complacency will be worth it.
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Nelson Mandela
Dominant, white society puts a great deal of emphasis on efficiency, perfectionism, intellectualism, and individual success. We might view these as our unconscious, old ways of being. If we use these as our markers for growth, it will be easy to feel discouraged or pessimistic about our path towards awakening, because these are challenging standards to uphold. But these are not the only way to measure the world, and we can open our eyes to new, more hopeful models of growth.
Here are three approaches to the hope of liberation from patterns of harm that we might start calling on. They’re based on a lot of listening to and learning from Black teachers I’ve been doing in the last few weeks.
1) Get messy. The work of liberation and the work to undo patterns of harm we’ve caused ourselves and others requires experimentation, messing up, trying again, and often, looking silly. How could something as big as waking up be a clean and neat process? When we get stuck trying to act like we have everything figured out, we limit ourselves in a massive way from being able to ask questions, be humbled, and learn how to do better. Trying to place ourselves in a protective shield of perfection is not only impossible, it’s exhausting. Celebrate your mistakes. Practice taking risks. Get comfortable with the discomfort it brings. These are some of the most hopeful things we can do, because they give us permission to grow.
Invite humility to be your companion. It’s okay to be wrong and make mistakes. I’m very fortunate to have a partner who sees my struggle with perfectionism but does not suffer from the same disease. So every time I do something that I perceive as a “mistake”—breaking something, forgetting something, dropping the ball on something—he literally cheers for me and congratulates me on being human. What a difference from the critical world most of us live in! He understands that our mistakes point to our humanity and our beautiful state of imperfection. Mistakes are not flaws or wrong; they show us that we are alive, which is an inherently messy matter.
“Throw all that out the window – all this etiquette of trying to look good and comfortable. I determine the level of effectiveness of a conversation by how messy things get. The messiness is an indicator of the honesty we’re getting into.” Lama Rod Owens
2) Focus on relationships. Dominant culture tends to focus on individual success. Doing things as a collective is hard and takes more time. I see this often at Swan River Yoga Arabi, a donation-based yoga studio that I help manage. As a space focused on building an accessible and inclusive community, we bring many decisions to the larger table of our teachers and students to be discussed and approached together. Most of the time it would be much quicker and easier for me to make calls on my own, but this would neglect the foundation of community our studio is rooted in. How could I ensure that everyone is served unless I ask for input?
This practice has been a lesson in patience for me, as well as in letting go of my idea of the “right” outcome. Relationships are untidy, beautiful, and require time and energy be nurtured. And yoga is all about relationship – how we exist in the world, how we connect to those around us, how we link body-mind and soul, how we generally yoke two or more things together. Building relationships strengthens our muscle of compassion and support and offers constant doses of inspiration and hope.
“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” bell hooks
3) Slow down and rest. There is no quick jump to the finish line of freedom. Searching for immediate gratification or quick changes in yourself and the world will zap you of your hope. Abandon your personal timeline. Of course, this doesn’t mean stop doing the work. It means committing to the long haul and showing up every day, even in small ways. It means taking care of yourself by getting good sleep, turning off your devices periodically, and going outside to breathe fresh air.
I recently returned from a solo hiking trip in the forest. The first hike I went on was steep and strenuous. I felt unprepared and quickly began to tire. So I started focusing on each single, small step that my feet took. I took moments to pause and look around at the beauty of the forest around me. One step is not radical in and of itself, but placed together, they mean miles of exploration. This is, after all, not a race.
For inspiration on the power of rest, check out The Nap Ministry. Founder Tricia Hersey writes, “You can experiment with our work and rest theories by taking a nap, resting for 10 extra minutes and daydreaming. We send you rest vibes for the marathon journey we all have ahead of us to build a New World rooted in liberation. We will rest.”
Yoga Sutra 2.16 gives us the hopeful message that whatever we do right now can prevent future suffering—not just for us, but for the collective. This means we need to change our previous ways of being, our old models of approaching problem and situations, to try new ways of growing and seeing.
On your mat this month, I invite you to be brave as you foster your own wellspring of hope for yourself and the world. Drop out of the thinking mind and into the wisdom of your body. Be okay with not being perfect; connect to your larger community; take breaks. Practice balancing poses that you might fall out of and have to rebuild over and over again, such as Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3), Vrksasana (Tree Pose), and Vashistasana (Side Plank). As you balance, observe the calibration and thinking happening in the foundational leg or arm – you’ll notice they’re are doing an incredible amount of intelligent navigating in order to come back to center. Celebrate that miracle!
Having faith, or Shraddha, in the practices and work we’re doing allows us to remain stable in our hope for the liberation from suffering for us all and the end of oppression. Stay kind to yourself and others as a radical act of compassion in a challenging world. Open your eyes to a new way of being, seeing clearly what patterns, habits, and expectations are not serving you on your path of evolution. Remember that once you begin on the path, the path cannot be lost. Everything you do is a part of this unfolding and awakening from sleep. Everything can assist you to start opening your eyes and seeing with vidya, clear vision. This remembrance alone can connect us to the hopeful gift of Yoga Sutra 2.16: that there is a way out of suffering and towards the liberation of all.
YS 2.16: Heyam Dukham Anagatam
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya: the Liberation Mantra according to the Shrimad Bhagavatam. “Om: I bow to Lord Vasudeva, the bestower of wonderful teachings on earth.”
Om Sarva mangala-magalye shive-sarvatha-sadhike. Sharanye tryambake guari. Narayani Namosthute. “I salute the three-eyed Divine Mother, Narayani, who brings total auspiciousness and who fulfills the desire for liberation. Realization arises with her blessing. She is the world itself. Only through the experiences of life can the soul be perfected. Honor this gift, your life, and bow to Mother Nature.” Translation Sharon Gannon
There are 3 tips in the essay: get messy, focus on relationships, slow down. You could design classes centered on each one of these themes.
Spend time in balancing poses, some of the messiest and often most frustrating for students. These are so important to practice, especially as we age. The stabilizing muscles for balancing on our legs are primarily the adductors and abductors (outer hips and inner thighs), as well as muscles in the feet and ankles. Focus on strengthening these throughout the month.
Encourage students to think creatively of all the ways they can demonstrate hope: voting, caring for the earth, eating mindfully and compassionately, educating themselves, etc.
Discuss what you’ve learned from Black educators and your journey with antiracism recently.
Provide moments of pause throughout class to invite students to check in with their experience in every layer of their being. In my classes, we often pause after a challenging shape to close the eyes and dive into the sensations of the body that have been stirred up by effort.
Talk about all things nature, which exemplifies the recommendations in this essay in every way.
Talk about your experiences with perfectionism, as well as the pressure you’ve experienced to be efficient, productive, and successful.
Practice sama vritti and visama vritti with extended exhale.
10 Percent Happier: Interview with Lama Rod Owens, a Queer Black Yoga and Meditation teacher from the South
On Being: Interview with Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands
“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King Jr
“Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.” Martin Luther
“It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite.” Paulo Freire
“Hopefulness empowers us to continue our work for justice even as the forces of injustice may gain greater power for a time.” bell hooks
“It is a serious thing
Just to be alive
On this fresh morning
In this broken world.”
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou
“There’s a way out of this mess, and it requires each of us to begin with our own body. You and your body are important parts of the solution. [. . .] Your body – all our bodies – are where changing the status quo must begin.” Resmaa Menakem
“Recent studies and discoveries increasingly point out that we heal primarily in and through the body, not just through the rational brain. We can all create more room, and more opportunities for growth, in our nervous systems. But we do this primarily through what our bodies experience and do – not through what we think or realize or cognitively figure out.” Resmaa Menakem