More Warrior, Less Worrier: The Way Out Is In

Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film, Sex, Lies & Videotape, opens with Andie McDowell explaining to her psychiatrist her obsession with the mounting garbage problem- “Where is it all going to go?!”. This is exactly how I was feeling at the time and it was so validating to hear it expressed in a movie. Now, almost 35 years later, approximately 149 million additional tons of domestic garbage have ended up in landfills. The Covid years further fed my anxiety, with so many discarded masks, plastic testing kits, medical waste, takeout containers, and single-use plastic utensils (when most of us have plenty of knives and forks that can be washed and reused in our homes!). My head was spinning with all of this, and I found that I was terrified about the state and fate of the earth.

I cannot possibly be the only person who feels this way about some topic or another. Whatever your personal “sword of Damocles” is- social justice, racism, the growing prison population, gun violence, a new pandemic, or the state of New Orleans’ streets- there are many things to worry about. The thing is, there always have been and always will be. Every previous generation has thought the world was coming to an end for some reason, as evidenced by this famous inscription found on an ancient Assyrian tablet dating from around 2800 BC: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” That could have been written last week! Fast forward through millennia of plagues, war, and Y2K panic to bring us to today’s Covid-fueled, environmental hotbed of doom.

During the pandemic shutdown, as I was searching for a calming message, I began listening to a podcast series created by Thich Nhat Hanh’s (called Thay by his followers) Plum Village. To quote the podcast’s website: “The series mirrors Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives. Thay’s calligraphy of the phrase “The Way Out Is In,” which is used as the series’ logo, is a reminder that the way out of any difficulty is to look deeply within, gain insights, and then put them into practice.” One episode in particular really helped my outlook on the environment and societal ills in general.  The guest was Joanna Macy, who has been a warrior within the environmental movement for some 60 years, and at the age of 94, still is. She talked about the Shambhala Warriors who, according to legend, will someday come and save the earth. Their weapons, designed to fight our man-made weapons of mass destruction, are compassion and wisdom.

This 1200-year-old legend, which was orally transmitted and was given to her by her teacher, Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche, is paraphrased as: There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Barbarian powers have arisen. They waste their
wealth in preparation to annihilate each other and they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable devastation and technologies that lay waste the world. It is now, when the future of all beings hangs by the frailest of threads, that the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. The kingdom exists only in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala warriors, who move on the terrain of the barbarians themselves. The Shambhala warriors know that the dangers that threaten life on Earth do
not come from evil deities or extraterrestrial powers. They arise from our own choices and relationships. And so, they go into training with the two weapons that they possess – wisdom and compassion.

Both are necessary. We need compassion because it provides the fuel that moves us to act on behalf of other beings. But by itself it can burn us out. So we need wisdom as well, which is insight into the dependent co-arising of all things. Wisdom lets us see that the battle is not between good people and bad people, because the line between good and evil runs through every one of us. When we realize that we are interconnected, as in a web, and that each act affects the entire web, we can bring about consequences we cannot measure and might not even see. When I heard Ms. Macy speak about these warriors, I thought, “Yes! Bring it! How do we contact them!?” And then, I realized that we are called to be those warriors ourselves. Some outside force is not going to come in and save us. We have to roll up our sleeves and go to work, in the very corridors where the problems are created, because the mindsets that inform mass behavior are the pivot points for change, both positive and negative.

Yoga Sutra 1.33 tells us that if we practice the Brahmavihārā, or Four Infinite (or immeasurable)
thoughts, we can attain a peaceful mind.  These are:
1. Maitrī: Loving kindness, or being happy when others are happy
2. Karuṇā: Compassion for those who are suffering
3. Muditā: Empathetic joy when we see good in the world
4. Upekṣā: Equanimity when we see others commit harmful acts

I find the first of these three tenets fairly easy to follow. I love to celebrate with happy brides, ecstatic new parents, and friends with new cars or sudden wealth (maitrī). I feel deep compassion for our friends who lost everything in Maui, flooded families in California, and grieving mothers of children killed in random acts of violence on their streets and in their schools (karuṇā). And thankfully, I can cheer for wonderful people in the world doing important, selfless, and often thankless work in the world- from Greta Thunberg to an anonymous dogwalker picking up garbage in City Park (muditā).

For me, the most difficult by far is equanimity (upekṣā), defined as mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. I am instead naturally predisposed toward schadenfreude, or a feeling of satisfaction when those committing misdeeds get “what they deserve.”  If you’ve ever felt a slight shiver of glee when a reckless driver is pulled over or a corrupt politician is indicted, you’ve experienced schadenfreude. Equanimity asks us to remember that each of us has the same capacity for good and harm as both the saint and the felon and that the present is the result of causes and conditions that are both personal and societal.  My teacher, Lama Marut, used to say, “It’s like this now.” There is nothing you can do or say or wish that will change the present in thepresent. Equanimity asks us to accept this without preference or judgment.  This is a difficult proposition that requires a practiced spirit of non-attachment to people, sensations, and outcomes.

Yoga Sutra 2.16, “heyaṃ duḥkham-anāgatam”, states that future suffering can be avoided. If we believe in karma- that present circumstances are the result of past behaviors- it follows that how we react to what is happening in the present informs what we will experience in the future.  This sutra reminds us to practice equanimity: If there’s something you can do about a problem, why worry? And if there is nothing you can do, why worry? We may often wonder what impact we alone can have on the course of climate change, the lives of wrongly imprisoned, or the huge issues caused by systemic racism and inequality. It seems like the answer can be found in this ancient Zen adage: Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person. Start small: Find something you can do to make yourself feel like you are not helpless in the situation. Reach for low hanging fruit: Take your own bags to the grocery store or farmers’ market, consolidate errands in order to drive less, do research on organizations that are working in the field of your concern and subscribe to their email or donate your time and/or money. We don’t have to start from scratch to find solutions. Amazing people are already out there working on the problem. Doing even the smallest thing can help us feel empowered, like warriors.

Consume less: Another thing that we can do is watch our consumption. Just watch it, don’t necessarily change it. How many Amazon purchases have we made this week? How much meat are we consuming? And maybe most importantly, what are we consuming with our eyes, ears, and time? Celebrity gossip sometimes glorifies consumption and bodily perfection which can feed our anxieties of not measuring up. And our 24/7 access to news of doom and gloom as well as violent movies, video games, and television shows can either further stoke our fears and anger, or worse, desensitize us to the devastation of real lives affected by the very real horrors of violence and poverty.

Teacher Tools:
Four-part Sama Vritti with breath retention. All to an equal count: inhale, retain the breath, exhale, hold out. The main goal of this technique is to reduce mental chatter and anxiety. If conditions, such as pregnancy or blood pressure, keep one from safely doing the holds, two-part Sama Vritti without the holds can also be done. This can even be done while stuck in traffic to relax the mind and the body in a situation that we can’t control. (It’s like this now!)

Warrior Poses- There are five basic Warrior Poses, based on the mythological story of Virabhadra, a brutal warrior who was created by the forceful anger and heartbreak of Shiva. Virabhadra slaughtered Shiva’s father-in-law and all the gods on behalf of Shiva, who then repented and restored all their lives. The moral is that it is best to transcend our anger, fear, hurt and insecurity by activating our strength, power, courage and devotion. In the Warrior shapes, we embody the heroic energy of a warrior. As we breathe into these asanas, we connect to our strength, confidence, compassion and power. Each warrior posture requires grounding through the legs and offers a heart opening, some of which are more subtle than others and depend on how they’re cued. In addition, each provides an opportunity for a different drishti, or point of focus, asking us to look up, down, straight ahead, and especially inside.

“Remember, today is the tomorrow that you worried about yesterday” -Dale Carnegie
“Equanimity isn’t about pretending that things don’t affect you. Equanimity is actually about realizing that everything affects you and learning to stay present with that truth.” -Ethan Nichtern

“True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but in its fires. We do not always have a solution for suffering. We cannot always fix pain. However, we can find the commitment to stay connected and to listen deeply. Compassion does not always demand heroic acts or great words. In the times of darkest distress, what is most deeply needed is the fearless presence of a person who can be wholeheartedly receptive.” -Christina Feldman,
“She Who Hears the Cries of the World,” The Lion’s Roar, April 27, 2022

“What is it that dies? A log of wood dies to become a few planks. The planks die to become a chair. The chair dies to become a piece of firewood, and the firewood dies to become ash. You give different names to the different shapes the wood takes, but the basic substance is there always. If we could always remember this, we would never worry about the loss of anything. We never lose anything; we never gain anything. By such discrimination we put an end to unhappiness.” Sri S. Satchidananda, The
Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

“There are many changes to make over the next 10 years, and each of us will take different steps along the way, but all of us start the transformation in one place: our mindset.” -Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-