I grew up in South Africa during the height of the apartheid regime. I never really understood, at that time, what that kind of oppression actually meant for so many people in my country. After all, I was white and middle class and still a child. I never realized exactly WHY there were no people of color in my school, or on the beaches, or riding the bus or eating in the restaurants. It was just the way it was.
Our government controlled where people lived, how they traveled, what bathroom they could use and even what level of schooling they received. That control extended even further as the government controlled SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) monitored and managed exactly what was watched on TV, read in the papers, heard on the radio and even the lyrics of the songs we listened to. We were treated like children whose parents thought we had no right to think, believe or act in a way that was not condoned by them. Many didn’t know they were suffering the slow and steady loss of freedom while others lived under the real and daily brutality of it.
I graduated high school as the apartheid government was in its death throws. Our then president saw the writing on the wall and knew that the end of apartheid was inevitable. In an effort to avoid an all out civil war, he arranged for the release of Nelson Mandela and initiated our country’s journey towards political and social freedom. I am proud to say that I was a part of that transition. The very first election I took part in as a young adult was to vote for Nelson Mandela and for the new country I believed in so strongly. It was one of the most emotionally charged and inspiring days of my life.
Yesterday, I celebrated the 4th July, Independence Day , as a U.S Citizen. Having spent the past four years deep in legal paperwork, interviews and exams I finally stood, on May 31st , before the Flag, and swore allegiance to the United States of America.
I also promised to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States. The constitution, recognized as the “supreme law of the land” is in place to defend the rights of Americans. So who exactly are the people of the United States? These “American people”? They are firstly the native indigenous people of this beautiful country but also include all the generations (old and new) of people who fled economic, social and political repression to find FREEDOM in a new land!
Having fought (through my right to vote) for freedom in South Africa, here I was reflecting on what freedom means to me in my new home and in context of my yoga practice.
The journey of yoga has always been a journey towards freedom. Freedom from what you ask? Well, as Buddha put it so simply – FREEDOM FROM SUFFERING.
We are all familiar in some degree, with our own personal suffering of body and mind. Yoga recognizes this suffering and offers holistic practices and principles of right living as a powerful way of guiding us in the the direction of vibrant health and greater levels of happiness.
But the teachings of yoga also recognize a much deeper kind of suffering - a spiritual suffering – a suffering rooted in, and arising from ignorance. Ignorance of our true essential nature as an individual expression of the DIVINE and the belief that we are separate from other beings and the natural world.
Therefore Yoga is more than just the practice of poses, or breathing or meditation – it is the deep, heartfelt and heart centered search for FREEDOM – from all that makes us suffer.
But to begin this journey towards freedom we must first acknowledge, not just our own suffering, but also he suffering of others. For their suffering is ours too.
Many people do not want to admit they are suffering or do not want to look at the suffering of others out of guilt or fear that suffering is some kind of contagious disease that will spread across oceans and borders.
Although suffering is experienced individually it is still a universal condition. Our responsibility is to address our personal suffering and then to extend compassion and where possible, assistance to alleviate it in others.
So how can we cultivate the compassion for another’s suffering? By simply imagining ourselves in their shoes – to “feel” their fear, their frustration, their impatience, their pain, anger, and disappointment . To even “feel” the less obvious expressions of suffering which take the form of envy, greed, corruption, arrogance and need for power and fear of those who are different.
When we engage in this act of “feeling” another’s suffering and pray for and commit to improving the welfare of all beings (human, animal and plant), our minds and hearts expand in the direction of compassion and forgiveness for any words and actions that arise out of ignorance.
When I find myself wrapped up in the blissful abundance of my life here in Hawaii , sometimes easily forgetting the suffering that goes on in the world, I chant , as a reminder, the mantra “LOKAH SAMASTAH SUKHINO BHAVANTU” – may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may my thoughts, words and action contribute in some way to the freedom and happiness of all.
This is not just a prayer, but rather a heart centered, heartfelt commitment to remain grateful for the freedom and abundance that I have been given in this life. It is also the commitment I make to alleviate suffering wherever I can and in whatever way possible, big or small.
As we chant this mantra we are invited to reflect on what our personal actions are that are contributing to suffering in the world and how can we invite more peace, joy, and happiness into our own lives and others. As I chant this mantra it takes me out of my small egocentric experiences and connects me to all beings. We all become one on the level of our individual and universal desire for freedom from suffering.
I am not arrogant enough to think I alone can change the world. I can only change myself in my small corner of the world – my home, family and direct community. But through our words and actions we inspire others to do the same. And together we CAN make a new world! Call me a wishful thinker, a dreamer, but what a dream it is!!!