Common Sense + Viveka + Compassion: A Zen Yogi’s Response to a Diseased Planet

“The Buddha taught that there is no ‘sin’ as it is taught in some religions, the root of all evil is ignorance (avidya) and false views.” -What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, p.3

All around us is vast suffering. The Buddha based his teachings on this. The Yoga Sutras did not leave out this fact (see Yoga Sutra II.15). Sarvam dukham. Climate crisis, gun violence, racism, sexism, nuclear weapons, deep corruption in the leaders of our world, selfishness, shortsightedness, greed, ignorance. How can a yogi or any person respond? One way is by waking up and by developing common sense and viveka — to see clearly.

I am using “common sense” here to mean listening to our “gut feeling” and doing the right thing at that right time. Common sense is taught to us by our grandmothers and elders, by life experience and by simply listening to our bodies. Examples are: eating when we are hungry, not using excessively what we don’t need, listening to our feelings and emotions, and respecting our place amongst the web of life. Common sense can perceive that the universe is interconnected and that our actions have impact. Children can assess this sense of connection. 

Viveka, a Sanskrit word, means “right intuitive discrimination or discernment.” Viveka is discerning between truth and untruth, skillful or unskillful action. Rather than existing in the status quo without question and feeling a sense of malaise, viveka impels us to seek a kinder, more connected, healthy, authentic way to live life that is in alignment with the way things are. Viveka sees our common connection as a human species connected with the forces of the universe. In order survive, we all need to awaken common sense and viveka, which is the innate knowledge of how to live within that web of connection.

What is amazing it that this intuitive wisdom isn’t difficult to access. In fact, it is quite assessable, even obvious. But sometimes what is obvious is most difficult to see.  In yogic terms, the veils of our karma and kleshas (afflictions) stand in the way, and pull us back to the root affliction, ignorance (avidya).  Additionally, society, culture and media condition us see and act in a certain way.

To shed our ignorance is difficult.  However,  it said that enlightenment itself is obvious, it just entails a shift. What kind shift? It is like turning the lights on. One minute the room is dark and nothing can be seen. Then the light is switched on and forms can immediately be seen. When we sit quietly in meditation or pranayama, or practice asana in a deeply connected way, that possibility of illumination opens for us. In moments of connection, clarity can arise. By seeing clearly without the “filters” or “veils” of our thoughts, desires, aversions and persona, it is possible to shift our way of being. This individual shift is needed for each one of us, and it is also needed collectively.

Audre Lorde, writer, feminist and civil rights activist, in her Keynote Address, “The Uses of Anger” (1981, NWSA Convention) she speaks about the kind of shift needed to transform culture, specifically in this case how white women treat black women:

“I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration
in all those assumptions underlining our lives.”

In many cases, our minds are conditioned not to see what is inconvenient for us to see. We ignore reality so we don’t have to change. If we really did see (and understand) reality, we would have no choice but to change and to live truthfully with the way things are. Sadly, humans have the capacity to see and ignore the truth.

In this process of waking up, we all have moments of viveka, for example, “Oh, actually, I shouldn’t do __X__ because it is not good for ___X__.”  The message from viveka comes and then and sometimes we turn it off, or ignore the message. “Oh, I’ll just do it this one time…” This is like turning on the lights, seeing what is actually there, and then deciding the turn off the lights and live in a deluded state. Ignorance (avidya), by comparison is like being in the dark all the time without ever thinking that there is a light to turn on.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe that when memory is utilized properly (aklista smriti), this is a ground for discrimination to arise (see Sutra I.11). This memory is not only in our brain, it is stored in the cellular intelligence of the body.  One key to awakening to our basic intelligence, is to connecting to the body and to nature, which in turn connects us to our needs, feelings, emotions and wisdom.

Most of the norms, systems and institutions in the U.S. are backwards and operate against common sense wisdom. For example, the U.S. spends 18% of its GDP on health care, and yet our health care system remains one of the most dysfunctional and ineffective systems because is is not based on healing or heath. The Standard American Diet is comprised of processed and factory farmed foods which cause many health and environmental problems. In mainstream U.S. culture, people are not taught to listen to or understand the message of their bodies, and process emotions and feelings. Much of society lives disconnected from nature and natural rhythms. Many children are not taught to cook or clean up after themselves. Thankfully, as adults we can still learn these things.

The first of the Buddha’s Eight Fold Path is sama dristi or “right view”. Our view is our fundamental orientation to life. If we operate with unexamined views including biases and assumptions, this perpetuates suffering. When these biases become widespread, then even larger societal and cultural problems result and biases spread. A contemporary example is how racist thinking is embedded into our unexamined collective bias:

The period after a mass shooting is often very telling. When the shooter is white, the context is the individual narrative – this individual disordered white mind. When the shooter is black or brown, all of a sudden the disorder is culture. The narrative we tell then is about terrorism or gangs.  ‘Dying of whiteness’: why racism is at the heart of America’s gun inaction 

In the work of waking up, compassion is crucial, as we are all in the dark a lot of the time. Viveka is wisdom, and in the spiritual journey both wisdom and compassion are indispensable. When every day we are faced with such heartbreaking realities, it is compassion that gives the heart nourishment and sustenance, otherwise the heart can feel hopeless and depressed. B.K.S Iyengar in the Introduction to Light on Yoga tells us that we should not hate the doers of evil, it is only the evil that they do we should despise (p. 32 Light on Yoga). Maitri (Friendliness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upeksha (equanimity) are the foundational practices of both self care, care for others and the planet. I pray that we can all wake up together.

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