When Community Closes the Door.

Photo: Aunt Owwee

One of the very best parts about being vegan and doing yoga has been the sangha, community, of people that I have encountered and spent time with. Whether online or in person, those people have helped me to develop my understandings of the principles and practices of yoga. They have aided me in finding new ways to cook vegan foods, enriched my thinking about the ecology of eating, and entertained me with witty tweets, blogs, and facebook statuses. Through these channels, and this blog, I have also joined communities of writers on these topics that interest me, and that too has enriched my life.

But, all is not rosy in human community creation. I’ve spent some time, recently, in the presence of a very large group of people that has many small communities within it. This has made me think about some of the other experiences that I have had, that we all have had, with communities, and not all of them are positive.

Photo: Jody McNary

It’s a reality that, in creating an in-group, we naturally create an out-group. Generally, we don’t mean to do it, really. But it happens. We like the people we have grouped with and we feel commonality with them. We share in-jokes and our own forms of communication. We take on similar characteristics in our actions and our thoughts. We circle the wagons. But, this means that those who don’t know the in-jokes, don’t share the common characteristics, aren’t part of the circle, can feel left out. And sometimes, it takes a lot to break in.

The situation can become even worse when the individuals “in” the group begin to feel like they are superior in some way to those who are not. They feel that they work harder, are more committed to a particular issue, have made better choices, etc. Believing this about a group that you belong to is extremely self-validating, and we all look for self-validation sometimes. Once this becomes the case, people on the outside can feel not only left out, but also less than.

The onus of getting “into” a group tends to be placed upon the outsider. It can feel like a Herculean task. When you are the person on the outside, the magic key to open the door seems to be missing. Sometimes, all that you need is someone to open the door and invite you in with willingness and warmth.

Photo: Ezioman

As I’ve said before, creating division and antagonism between people seems not very reflective of the beliefs that often underly veganism or yoga. This is true for a lot of other communities, including religious groups, environmental organizations, circles of scholars, and so on. We believe in the importance of what draws us together, so why wouldn’t we want others to share in that? In most situations, community membership is not a fixed pie, there is always more to go around. Perhaps if we attend more carefully to who we are shutting out when we draw together, we can be more sensitive to opportunities to open the door to others.

I can’t even tell you what I hope to do by writing about this today. Perhaps I just felt like I needed to write this down while I was feeling the sensation, to remind myself to do better at being the one to open the door when I can.

Photo: Richard Smith

The Door
~by Miroslav Halub

Go and open the door.
Perhaps outside
there’s a tree, or a wood,
or a garden,
or a magic town.

Go and open the door.
Perhaps outside
there’s a dog scratching.
Perhaps there’s a face outside,
or an eye
or the picture
of a picture.

Go and open the door.
If there’s fog outside
it will go.

Go and open the door.
There could be outside only
singing darkness,
and there could be outside only
wind’s hollow breath
and there could be
absolutely nothing
outside,
go and open the door.

At least
there would be
a draught.

Knowing When Your Body Needs a Day

I’ve written about this before (here, for example), but I think it’s a topic worth coming back to.  I know that I continue to struggle with it on a daily basis, and judging from things like this post from my wonderful Ironwoman friend Maria, I’m not alone.

Photo: ButterflySha

Sometimes, it’s just not easy to tell what it is your body needs.  I woke up this morning with the same stomach ache that I’ve had for almost three weeks (due to iron supplements – long story – I’ve been living on crackers and the occasional toast).  My left hip was killing me and I hadn’t slept well.  My right shoulder is also being screwy and started giving me pain as soon as I got out of bed and gravity hit.  And, for a little extra woohoo, my head hurts.  Yeah, I’m a pathetic mess.  But, here is the catch, I’m trying to go to yoga on Saturday mornings.  I used to be able to go on Friday mornings, but this semester I teach too early to do that.  Friday night is an option, but last night I had an event to attend until 11.  That leaves Saturday morning.  So, I got out the yoga clothes and went downstairs and made a cup of tea and some toast.  And then I sat down at my desk to check email and work on convincing myself to go to class.  That went on for about an hour.  And then I gave it up.  I admitted to myself that going to class was not the best choice, and that my body was in no shape to complete a full vinyasa class in any manner that would really bring me closer to peace and union.  But, I can’t lie, I was still (am still) not happy about it.  A bit later, when I napped for a short period, my dreams were full of what a horrible yogi I am.  Clearly, I still have some things to work out.

In some ways, I wonder why this respecting the needs of the body is so hard.  But, in other ways, I know.  We are taught, so early, to ignore the body.  We eat and sleep at prescribed times and not according to the body clock.  We feed the body food that has been processed so much that it is without nutrient instead of the foods it naturally needs.  We spray it with chemicals to prevent it from smelling even remotely like a human mammal body.  We push it to be a certain size because that is socially acceptable, regardless of where the body’s natural set point for size might be.  We shut the body up and shut it down in so many ways; it’s no wonder that we have trouble hearing it even when we want to.

Photo: Andrea Parrish - Geyer

My challenge is, and perhaps will always be, to practice ahimsa with my body.  To hear what my body has to say without judging it.  To take its needs and requests seriously.  To give my body a “day off” when it needs it.  And to let myself be if my body doesn’t always match up to what I want it to be and do.  As I sit here at my desk writing this post, noticing that my work schedule is going to prevent yoga on Monday and trying to avoid letting that put me back into a bad place about not going today, I know that this is likely to be a lifelong practice.  Perhaps this journey is my destination.

Just Because It’s Called the Universe Doesn’t Mean It’s All About U

You know how, when you are having an argument, occasionally the other person will say “I don’t think you are really seeing this from my perspective.”? Well, he/she is correct. You are not seeing things from his/her perspective. Because, as a human, the only perspective you can fully “see things” from is your own. The only way a person can experience the world of stimuli is with the self as center. Sure, you can try to take the perspective of the other, but ultimately, in doing so you are using your standpoint through which to attempt to replicate the standpoint of the other. The only eyes you can see with are yours. The only ears you can hear with are yours. The only brain you can process stimuli with is yours. The only set of experiences through which you can understand what you encounter is yours. Functionally then, you are the center of your perceptual world. Everything else radiates out from you.

However, that perceptual reality leads us to, sometimes, feel that we really are the center of the universe. And by “we” I definitely mean me. Think about the small situations that happen in life where someone – maybe the boss at work – announces that _____ has been occurring and must stop. The first response most people experience, “It wasn’t me!” Or when we flip the channel and catch the weather report and realize it’s going to be really cold tomorrow, it’s pretty rare for our first thought to not be about how that impacts us individually, even though it’s likely a far more serious issue for someone who is living on the streets.

In online communication, it seems like this can become even more heightened. When the conversation with the boss happens, if there are other people in the room, perhaps that reduces the immediate need for self-defensiveness, because it leaves a small window of possibility that maybe the boss isn’t really talking to you. But, if you are sitting at home, alone, reading that facebook message or blog post that seems to be talking directly to you, it’s easy to forget that there are many many readers and that the writer may not have intended it for you at all.

This might explain, to some degree, the level of defensiveness that happens in online discussions, even on sites that are ostensibly about building community. A writer talks about overly self-righteous yogis and individual readers feel accused and respond from that perspective – even if the writer does not know them and doesn’t seem to be saying that ALL yogis are that way. A mother who is using formula feeding for her infant reads an article about the cognitive/emotional benefits of nursing and feels personally attacked. A man who eats based on a Paleo diet reads a blog post about research on health impacts of animal protein and feels that the author is somehow saying he has made a poorly reasoned choice and responds with anger to the post. And the examples go on and on. I can certainly admit that there are times when I’ve read things online that are positions contradictory to mine and immediately had a defensive or angry response about that claims being made “about me,” and yet the claims really aren’t about me as an individual.

Right about now you might be thinking, “So, what, Lorin? This is all very philosophically interesting (or not), but why should I care?” The underlying point here is that, while the individual-centeredness of our perceptual experience may encourage us to slide into this view of self as the center of everything, when we can’t see it happening, and we respond to messages that contradict our own viewpoints with defensiveness and anger, we lose the opportunity to even approach limited understanding the perspective of the other. And without that, we reduce our potential to grow and change, and the ability to create connection.

The Internet gives us an amazing wealth of opportunity to open our mind’s eye to the experiences of others. We can, however partially, get a glimpse of other ways of being in the world that are vastly different from our own. It’s one of the biggest advantages of this worldwide participatory communication medium. Through online conversation, on discussion forums and blogs and community sites, we have a crazily wonderful potential to widen our perspectives through communication with the diverse other. But, it requires us to be open to “hearing” things that challenge us.

Confirmation of our own viewpoints is a nice thing. And, sometimes we need it. But, without experiencing some non-confirming information, and some alternative perspectives, we stagnate. We can’t develop as individuals or as a community. We risk forgetting that at the end of it all, the universe is about the unity, not about the u.