“The difference between an enlightened being and one who is not enlightened is that the one who is not enlightened thinks there is a Difference” (Some great zen master)
Before we put 2015´s endless stream of bad news behind us and start fresh, allow me to share something that happened last year which wasn’t all bad.
When planning a yoga retreat in Lesvos this summer several people advised me to cancel. The reasons were obvious. The village next to our retreat (Molyvos) is close to the border of Turkey and therefore among the first points of contact for the refugees crisis in Europe this summer. As the drama unfolded over the next couple of months, the media image of Lesvos changed from the wellness sweet spot I used to depict in yoga marketing to full-scale humanitarian crisis. Going through with a retreat there seemed like an insane thing to do. I mean it was perfectly safe there, nothing like that. But the bad press, the financial risk if nobody comes, the moral dissonance of it all…lots of red flags.
The decision to cancel was a no brainer.
The only problem was: I found myself unable to make that decision. Instead the decision came to do it as a donation project.
Where did that decision come from? If i´m honest, probably from some desire to to be a spiritual hero and feel better about myself. My entry into yoga was through Buddhism where i acquired a a deep fascination with the Bodhisattva figure. Bodhisattva are people who put the liberation of all sentient beings before their own. Rather than going straight to the state of liberation (nirvana) they commit to linger in in this world (samsara). Imagine filling a bottomless well of tears with the snow of loving kindness, one teaspoon at a time. For eons! That´s the Bodhisattva way. To dispel the miseries of the world, lifetime after lifetime until everybody is free. My favorite Bodhisattva-hero was called Avalokitesvara, a being who was said to have been awakened by the cries of the world. The pain of other living beings was what caused that magical event called “awakening “. At the age of 19 i thought that was über cool stuff ! Yes, I´m definitely prone to go for the narrative of spiritual heroism wherever i can – or its more modest cousin; moral commitment.
But honestly I felt nothing like a spiritual hero in 2015. Most of that year, i just opened the paper and cried like a baby. I cried when I heard about the Earthquake in Nepal, I cried over the Copenhagen assassinations, I cried over Danish politics going insane, I cried over lifeless babies on beaches, I cried over bombings in Beirut, the Paris terrorist attacks, climate change. I cried over loved ones that had died from cancer.
Worse still, I was fully aware that my crying did absolutely nothing for the world! (I actually managed to cry over that too if you can believe it!) Twenty years of spiritual practice and this was all I could come up with. A crybaby. A far cry from the Bodhisattvas I had been idolizing as a teenager.
Luckily I was in for some serious teaching in 2015. That year made it painfully clear to me that yoga is more than waiting for spiritual heroes (or waiting to become one). Opening the TV news continued to give me that throbbing pressure of anger in the throat, the abdominal wrench of guilt, that acid ache before the first tears, that sharp twitch of fear. Each sensation was a non-negotiable invitation to experience things as they were. Not as we expected them to be, not as we feared them to be, not as we hoped them to be. No one to save the day, no relief, just that shitty feeling.
But it felt more uncomfortable to sit in front of the TV screen and watch millions of people having their life destroyed than to go to Lesvos and try to help a a few to have a slightly less fucked up day. Notice the word uncomfortable there. That, i think is one big motor of action for human beings. It just felt bad to experience that roaring river of strong emotions stagnate in the shallow delta of hypnotic passivity.
I wanted it to go away, so I turned off the Facebook-drama-queen-machine. Didn’t work. I tried to meditate (BTW never try to meditate, just sit). Well, it didn’t work either. I went into heated political debates. That made it worse! I told myself spiritual bedtime stories to feel better about the state of things. Didn’t work at all.
I still cry like a baby most days when I open the newspaper.
If I have to be honest I can best describe the decision to do that Lesvos retreat as a completely ordinary and all too human reflex: A more or less unconscious move away from discomfort and towards comfort. It just felt bad to cancel so I found a way to go through with it that I could live with.
As it was, I was not the only one in discomfort. Despite my own and everyone else´s pessimistic expectations, yogis from different parts of Europe started signing up for the retreat. Some brought suitcases full blankets and sleeping bags for donation, some brought more cash from home, some gave their afternoons on the retreat to help out in local care initiatives. Apart from delivering the revenue from the teaching job to a local group working in the area, I did little to organize any of this. It happened spontaneously in response to the situation.
Acting on discomfort was not confined to yogic circles either. In Lesvos we met local business owners, families, and ordinary tourists who had spontaneously dropped whatever they were doing to help those in need. Some formed foundations, some canceled their flight home and stayed to help on the beaches, some passersby delivered a single day’s work, some organized collections of clothing and money from their home countries. Most of the people I met or heard of had no prior experience with humanitarian work and no idea what amazing things they were capable of before the disaster reached their backyard. In global perspective, their actions were perhaps nothing more than a teaspoon of snow in an ocean of tears, but that recognition didn’t seem to block their action.
If anything will remain engraved into my memory from 2015 it is that unflinching response of ordinary people exposed to the suffering of thousands at their doorstep. Last summer in Molyvos, no organizations, government, military or spiritual heroes showed up to save the day. There was just ordinary people responding directly to other ordinary people in need. No hesitation, no questions asked.
When fully exposed to the cries of the world, the next step is a no brainer.
It is my belief that the amazing people I met in Greece did what they did because they were fully exposed. They chose to do what they did not because they were spiritual people or because they possessed some special heroic nature. They simply woke up in that uncomfortable place on that morning. They simply could not do anything other than respond to the situation exactly as they did. For most of us, this full exposure was not available at that time. Action was not allowed to express itself in that particular way last summer. It was not our doorstep (Not yet at least). Unlike the people working in Molyvos, i went home again after a week. And cried some more. No shame in that.
Its 2016 now. I´m planning the next lesvos retreat in May. Some people say i should have cancelled. I have no idea how it will go. I also have no idea what is meant by words like Bodhisattva or awakening. I am more clueless than ever when it comes to walking “the spiritual path”. After seeing those people in Lesvos I am beginning to suspect I already met a thousand Bodhisattva in this lifetime but that I am too busy waiting for a hero in full lotus to actually notice. Not quite willing to expose myself to what is actually happening.
I can´t know for sure, but perhaps the story of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara being awakened by the cries of the world is nothing other than a story of you and me being fully exposed to the TV news, to other people, to internal sensation. Or to the one we see in the mirror.
We all wake up every day.