Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” And while that might be a bit dramatic, they certainly can complicate things. Consider this: traditionally, yoga seekers spent the majority of their lives in solitude, deep in the mountains or jungles, in search of tranquility and divine connection. They believed the unraveling their personal thoughts and emotions could take thousands of lifetimes. So what chance do we have of ever finding peace when we’re surrounded by all these damn people?
We live in a world full of humans in progress, all with their own beliefs, preferences and distortions. We certainly can’t change them all…or any of them, so we need to find a way to coexist without losing our peace of mind. And the pandemic is only making it harder. Some of us are out of work or suddenly working from home, stuck inside with our partners, kids or roommates. And with many face-to-face interactions on hold, we’re likely spending more time connecting on social media, inundated with endless thoughts and opinions.
Thankfully, yoga practice offers us moments of solitude. Even in a crowded classroom our mats become little isolation pods where we contend solely with our own bodies, thoughts and breath. But as soon as we rise from shavasana we’re confronted with other people and all of their unpredictable humanness. Have you ever walked out of a yoga class feeling calm and loving, only to be cut off in traffic ten minutes later? “ Hey!! Namaste, Jerk!!” How quickly the index finger drops away from the peace sign!
What we need is a manual for maintaining our equilibrium in the midst of all of this humanity. Luckily the Patanjali Yoga Sutras offer us one:
This four-part prescription can help us navigate how we relate…to the people we hold most dear, the ones we know peripherally, and those we’re tempted to strangle. It’s actually quite simple, but it does require our vigilance. The key is to remember that we are all so much more alike than we are different…to recognize ourselves in everyone we encounter.
Be friendly towards the happy.When we’re feeling good it’s easy and natural to celebrate another’s happiness. But when we are low, someone else’s joy can feel like a personal assault. It’s hard to get excited about your friend’s engagement when you’re reeling from a breakup. And when you’re feeling defeated or overwhelmed, a Pollyanna’s chipper, “Cheer up, Buttercup! Life is beautiful!!” can grate like nails on a chalkboard. Roll your eyes all you like, but happiness can rub off on us and remind us that joy is our birthright.
Be compassionate towards the suffering.Conversely, unhappy people can activate our defense mechanisms. We might try to avoid them so we don’t catch their sadness. Or we rationalize that they brought in on themselves or are playing the victim, “At least you have a roof over your head and food on the table!” In this way we can pretend that suffering is avoidable, and that if we’re smart and stay positive, we can dodge it. Nope – sorrow is a natural and appropriate response to loss or hardship. We have all suffered before, and certainly will again. When we remember this, we can move from judgment to compassion, and become a source of comfort and understanding.
Delight in the virtuous.The virtuous can definitely trigger us. The Supermom who has spent quarantine Marie Kondo-ing her closets, baking bread, rocking home school, and starting an online business can leave you feeling like a loser. And that goody-two-shoes friend who won’t gossip “thinks she’s so much better than everyone else!” When we’re feeling bad about ourselves it’s tempting to try to level the playing field by tearing other people down. But comparison and jealousy never lead to contentment. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and when you see someone doing good work, use it as an inspiration and a reminder of your limitless potential.
Ignore the non-virtuous.And then there are the troublemakers, the button pushers…the nasty and the negative. You can find them in the “Comments” section. These people feed on conflict, and if you want to starve them out… Don’t Take the Bait!! You’re not going to change anyone’s mind about masks. When your spouse snaps at you after a frustrating day, try to let it slide. A fire will burn out quickly if you don’t add fuel. Avoid negativity if you can, and if you can’t, take care not to reward it with your attention. Perfectly wonderful people can be perfectly beastly at times. We never know what someone else is going through, so this is an excellent time to practice forgiveness…from a distance.
Apply this formula to the same aspects within yourself.When you feel happy, celebrate it! Grab on and let yourself feel great. When you are sad, practice kindness and self-compassion…even though other people may have it worse. Congratulate yourself when you are living up to your highest ideals. And when you falter…think a nasty thought or say an unkind word, apologize, move on, and remember your innate goodness…commit an act of kindness, make a gratitude list, breathe into your heart center, or step onto your mat.
With this simple teaching as a blueprint, we can remain unfazed in any interaction. Of course, it’s going to take practice, but the rewards are serenity in your heart and peace in your relationships. What could be better than that?