The endangered art of gentleness

It’s one of the ways we’ve grown accustomed to interacting, particularly in online spaces: A casual conversation or a post about some interesting tidbit degrades (rather quickly) into aggressive accusations, misunderstandings, agitation, personal attacks, and a generally shitty feeling about the whole encounter. After a decade of social media staining every facet of our (modernized and technologically privileged) lives, we’ve likely all gotten sucked into the mire at some point. Some suffer it more, and more intensely than others – and the overall effect is that we’re left feeling less safe, less happy, less respected … we’re left with a lot LESS.

There aren’t good signs that this situation is improving anytime soon. Political poles repel people into their corners, gender/race/economic/social/religious topics are like dry grass just *waiting* for the hot fire of one incendiary comment to be made or misunderstood. Hell, even in the yoga “community” space, allegedly full of free and loving folk, there are oft-devolving threads dripping with a vitriol that seems downright unnecessary. We’re really not good at being gentle with each other.

It all makes me feel sad … and old. I find myself responding with sentences that start with, “In my day …” Which of course isn’t true. Bullying is actually the oldest human profession, shrouded in some vacuous subconscious mess of craving for parental approval/discipline, a drastically misguided striving for alleged “alpha” status, or perhaps just the basic primal urge to distance ourselves from the weak in the pack by acting like aggressors to signal relative strength. Or none of that, who the fuck knows. What’s clear is that humans have an embarrassingly short fuse when it comes to anger, insecurity, and aggression.

So what’s a yogi to do?

Well, I have no real idea. I haven’t found anyone who does. There are likely better ways of being a good person, but is there an actual “yogic protocol” for how to handle all of this suffering? NOPE. There’s so little consensus on what yoga even is, never mind how to subscribe to it as a system by which to live, I say good luck to anyone who tries to do so in any formal way.

So … what’s a yogi to do?

Here’s what I think (since this is my space to share my thoughts; you’re free to have your own thoughts that you can express in your own space, of course): Anything can be used as a tool to support our greater intention(s). Whether or not what I’m doing is considered (by whom?) to be the “right” (by what standards?) “yogic” approach (what’s that?), is it actually helping me be the person I want to be in the world? I’m tired of trying to do battle in the world of titles and constructed categories intended to calcify organic adaptation. As well, people have used the titles of “yoga” and “yogic” to hurt as well as help, so there’s no magic in the water, y’all. In that vein, I think “what’s a yogi to do?” is the wrong question. Here’s a better one:

What do YOU/I WANT to do?

Behind this question is, I think, an even more piercing and insightful one, from the world’s Jann-Arden-of-life-guides, Danielle LaPorte: How do you/I want to FEEL?

Roll with me for a bit here. I recently became unintentionally embroiled in one of these innocuous-turned-unnecessarily-aggressive online comment thread blatherings. You know the ones: It starts with a posting about some thing, then is followed by people spouting opinions, unearthing a feast of conflict, and then promptly devouring it with fierce rigour. I got caught in the gravity of the comment event horizon and was half a dozen retorts in before I pulled myself back from the adrenaline rush and race for the last word. Two egos duking it out, looking for that conciliatory moment that never NEVER comes, punching the commentary shit out of each other until indeterminate defeat declares the winner to be … exactly no one.

I don’t know what that guy was feeling, but I know I had to consciously detach. I was hurt because the attack was (seemingly purposely?) done in a public thread meant to shame me in front of my peers and elevate (?) this person to a status of “greater know-it-all”. I was confused because the accusations seemed unfounded. I was angry. I wanted vengeance. I wanted to put this guy in his place. I wanted …

WHAT THE ACTUAL F. How did I go from being someone who adores being professionally passionate about freedom from suffering to some yogi Gollum in under a dozen back-and-forths here? My sense of calm and balance was shot, my energy was zapped, and I was feeling deflated. I was failing at being who I wanted to be. Big time.

I went to bed. And I woke up with a jolt at 3:30am. My mind was still chewing that bone, adrenaline still leaking into my body. I felt agitated. I felt like I’d missed an opportunity to be gentle, and had been self-protective instead.

So, I got up and had a glass of water, did a few stretches, and settled back into bed with a different approach: metta.

I laid in bed and sent this dude good vibes. And I felt better.

Who do you/I want to BE?

I don’t know if I’m being a good or bad “yogi”. I don’t even know anymore if I’m allowed to be a yogi, based on everything from where I was (and wasn’t) born, whether my position on forward folding in the mornings (I don’t do it, I don’t teach it) makes me worthy of basic respect from other yogis, right through to my stance (or lack thereof) on Hindu nationalism. I do, however, know what I wanted to do, feel, and be in this situation. Rather than angry, vicious, and vindictive, I wanted to be strong, gentle, and compassionate. I wanted to stop myself from feeling violence towards someone I didn’t know who seemed to mean me harm for no good reason. I wanted to stop feeling unsafe, at the mercy of his actions in an online space where I spend time. I wanted to be the change I was seeking from that encounter.

I set aside as secondary the semantics about labeling, definitions, ownership of titles, critiques, and abstract positions. I just repositioned myself as a person who could be gentle with another person.

What did I lose? Well, the anxiety, tension, and maybe that argument in his eyes. Who gives a righteous F.

What did I gain? Honestly, what I wanted to gain was my own sense of happiness and connection again. It’s tough to be gentle these days. It’s tough to generate a sense of optimism. It’s tough to stay centred amidst the storms of criticism and biting sarcasm, actual horrifying violence and aggression. But that’s who I want to be: gentle, optimistic, and unshakeable. This may be a strange statement from a person who calls herself a yoga teacher and yoga teacher trainer, but I don’t care that much about the title of “yogi”. I see yoga as another (rather excellent) set of tools to support our intentions. It’s my intention to be strong, free, gentle, bold, useful, successful … which all really boils down to how I want to FEEL. Every situation can be a tool to feel more free, or to fuel our suffering. I’m not really trying to be a “good yogi”; I’m doing my best to feel more free, to make gentler choices.

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