Feeling Liberated? Thank your Spiritual Kin

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”– Aboriginal, Queensland.

The idea of liberation can conjure many different images, but I imagine we are being set free from the confines of something. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explain liberation or moksha as one of the main goals of yoga. Sutra 1.13 says through persevering effort, we gradually attain and maintain mental peace and 2.2 says as the causes of suffering (klesas) decrease and fall away, our ability to reach a contemplative state is unhindered. Therefore, we could say we become free from our past and future mental and emotional baggage. We could also say as we bring an end to our suffering we see clearly and become one with the divine pure consciousness. One Buddhist definition of moksha is attaining the highest happiness. Whichever definition you choose, we understand we all have the potential to evolve towards a liberated state, but is this independent of others, or is our liberation bound to others? This may be a hard concept to grasp for it’s hard enough for many of us to focus on supporting our own environment for liberation to sprout and develop. How can we also provide and be responsible for the liberation of others?  

The answers to these questions lie in all of us, and I invite you to think about the last time the actions of others did not affect you, or when your actions did not affect another. It’s like the six degrees of separation idea where people you know are affected by your actions, their actions (influenced by yours) in turn affects others, and so on through a web of relationships. Many of us think of ourselves as the lone ranger, but in reality, we are at the mercy of others and they us, so it makes logical sense how our liberation is bound to others. We can let the individual ego fall away and see the world as a web of interactive play and move along with our evolution knowing as we positively evolve, we can affect others in a positive way. Gandhi said this nicely with, “be the change you want to see in the world”.

Sutra 1.33 exemplifies our relationships to others, “the mind becomes quiet when it cultivates friendliness in the presence of happiness, active compassion in the presence of unhappiness, joy in the presence of virtue, and indifference of error”. These words encourage us to actively engage with others and be part of their experience in a positive way such as being happy for someone who has come into abundance rather than being jealous, or feeling empathy for someone who has a negative experience, happiness when someone is living by moral or ethical principles, and approaching an erroneous situation with a calm mind hopefully translating into our ability to see things more objectively. In other words, we see the whole picture including others instead of only seeing from our own narrow lens.  If we believe we are a part of a whole, then the effects from our actions on others hence affect us. Therefore, we are helping our own evolution when we engage with others in a positive way. It’s a closed loop system where positivity begets positivity and conversely, negativity begets negativity.

Let’s use a real-life example to help us understand this idea better, and what better environment to captivate the effort of positivity than in a modern airport? One morning last November, I was set to catch a plane back to Colorado from Boston. It was an unusually busy morning even by the airport’s standards and so people were anxious to catch planes, frustrated by long lines and inexperienced travelers taking “too” much time in the security lines. Even though I hope I am moving (or most days bumbling) along in my practice towards liberation, I could not walk through security with the clearest and calmest mind so that the tension of others and the environment had no effect, but what I could do was to keep my attitude of positivity while being part of the chaos. But maybe that is what these practices teach us - to feel the reality of the whole, but still act consciously towards a positive outcome. That was the easy part.

I stopped midway in a Dunkin Donuts to investigate the menu when I heard something unintelligible coming gruffly from a man as he moved brusquely past me pushing me as he went by. No eye contact, no sorry, seemingly no awareness of his forceful interaction with me, and then I understood what he had said to me, “move”.  OK, my heart is racing now as my fiery nature comes truly into form, and I feel the heat on my face and body rise. I had to muster up the ability to stay “calm” until it passed because I was trying to stay positive even though I was mad at this person who was a reflection to me of a part of humanity that is selfish by diminishing the positivity of the whole. I get in line behind a woman with two children who were exclaiming insistently how hungry they were, as she apologized to them for their unhappiness being her fault because she did not feed them before they left. I approach the counter where the cashier was lamenting about her stolen cell phone from a bathroom, and I empathized with her loss and frustration. As I left the store and found a seat, I realized my anger had subsided, and the plight of others had softened my heart and mind. I even tried to envision the situation of the man who angered me, who may have been in a hurry due to a lot of stress. I was experiencing how my liberation from my anger was bound to others. By empathizing with others’ experiences in the airport, I was connecting to them, and I was able to remove my focus from my self-geared subjective experience and direct it towards a more objective whole. As I was mad about my plight, someone else was experiencing anger or frustration about their plight – we are not different, we just have different experiences that lead us to the same states. Thus, we can have positive experiences that can lead us to the same positive states thereby shifting the whole towards liberation.

Compassion for others will bring compassion for oneself. Thus we are all bound together as we move towards liberation. Gandhi said, “The yogi is not one who sits down to practice breathing exercises. He is one who looks upon all with an equal eye, sees all creatures in himself. Such a one obtains moksha."  Therefore, I see that I am like the people in the airport line. I am like the people in the coffee shop. I am all of them and they are one of me. So, the next time I suffer from feeling angry, sad, frustrated, or confused, I can soften my heart, understand that this is the common human condition, and move towards my positive evolution and liberation, which is not separate from the whole.  Knowing that I am not alone in this journey is liberating in itself.

1. Bouanchaud, Bernard. 1997. The Essence of Yoga, Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Editions Agamat, Palaiseau, France.