"Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." -- Pema Chodron
People come to yoga for a lot of reasons. Exercise, flexibility, stress management, and relaxation tend to dominate the list. Finding our darkness is not usually at the top of the list. Ironically this may be one of the most important ways yoga and law are connected, or at least one of the best ways yoga can inform the law and so many other aspects of modern life. That which is hidden in yoga is perhaps its greatest treasure.
Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun living in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. She has written several books, including The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, the book from which the above quote is taken. I was reading it the other day, and this quote struck me as something I had to hear (or read, but you get the idea). I realized this is at the heart of what we do in helping professions, and probably a big piece of why they lead to so much vicarious trauma for so many.
I think about this issue a lot, but I have never really had the ability, or perhaps the courage, to fully express it on this blog. I tried here but stopped at a more superficial level (a bit ironic considering the title of the post). Yoga has the potential, perhaps the inevitability, to bring us to the deepest places within us. In words, this is the body holding onto our emotions, which is why some people burst into laughter in yoga classes and some people burst into tears. That happens spontaneously when we tap those places within us holding those emotions.
When we make the commitment to look inside, we will probably learn to be more flexible and relaxed, and we will probably notice we handle stress better. But we may also notice the darkness. We may come face-to-face with everything we have been hiding from ourselves for years.
At first glimpse, this seems like a reason to not go so deep. It seems like a reason to get off the mat and into busyness. After all, busy is safe in this world. But even when we think we are running away, we cannot. It always comes back to get us. We have all experienced the vacation sicknesses. You know, the times you get sick on your vacation because you are finally allowing all those stress hormones to let go. It is no fun when we hide from what is inside only to have it come back unexpectedly.
Yoga gives us the opportunity to get there first. It gives us the opportunity to be (somewhat) in charge of facing what is beneath the surface. At one level, it helps us face our fears. We learn to be stronger people everyday. That does not seem to be a secret among the yoga world. I feel this gets simplified, as though this process is easy. “Of course, just learning to do a balance posture will bring us into balance in life.” It certainly gives us the tools to see it is possible, but yoga takes us deeper when we allow it.
And that deeper level is to finding our truest sense. As in the quote above, it can be our darkness. It can be that place within us we have done everything to hide. One of my fellow students in teacher training said she would go home from yoga classes yelling at her family, and she did not understand why. She had touched that place, but did not yet have the tools to move through it.
And yoga takes us there as well. When we hit those moments, whether our deepest darkness or our greatest lights, we keep moving, we keep breathing, we keep being. We can bring compassion to those moments (or years) and just let them be as they are. We can use certain asanas and breathing techniques to move through them, but and eventually they shift. But once we see ourselves for who we are, we see the greatest gift of all. We can then begin to connect with others and find compassion for them wherever they are.
And that is a lesson for all of us, especially for lawyers dealing with people in crisis.
I was having a conversation with someone the other day in which she said to me, “you’re a lawyer, you live in your head.” I laughed and said, “I think it is the other way around. I live in my head, so I’m a lawyer.” And that is exactly why yoga is so important in the legal profession. The law pretends to be rational, but the problem is that people are not. We need to be able to experience both in order to be able to best serve our clients.
As friends and family, we can best help our loved ones by understanding our deepest selves. And the truth is that can sometimes be very, very scary. It can also be very, very exciting. We have no idea what we may learn when we step onto the mat or sit on the cushion. What we do know is that this seemingly solitary practice is our best learning tool for connecting with our “shared humanity.” And while Pema’s quote only talks about finding our darkness to connect with the darkness in others, her point can be expanded. When we fully understand ourselves and our humanity, we can better understand others.
And that is true compassion. That allows us to connect with people and recognize we are all in this together no matter how different we may appear superficially. There may be two sides to a story or to a lawsuit, but underlying all of that is our humanity. Our work on the mat is a personal practice, but it can help us give ourselves to the world. Of course, I love the feeling of relaxation at the end of a yoga class, but more and more every day I am learning to be grateful for the depths of the practice, the ones I always knew were there, but also knew would take time to reach.
How has yoga helped you connect with yourself? How has it helped you connect with others?
© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.