This Sunday we’ll begin our fall Sweat+Study series, returning to one of the most profound and visionary texts in the yoga tradition: The Bhagavad Gita. And in less than two weeks we’ll end a seemingly endless campaign season, returning to what I wish was one of the most profound and visionary activities in our democratic tradition: the Voting Booth. So this week I want to look at a story of twin forces locked in conflict, fueled by deceit on both sides (but one side in particular), headed over the cliff, and the possibilities that open as we face the reality of a messy world. Yes, I will take the Mahabharata-ModernAmerica metaphor too far, and risk derision from the left as I imply a parallel between Arjuna and Obama. But mostly I want to take up the core teaching of the Gita: renunciation of the fruits of action, and suggest that the best thing we can do as we walk out of the polling place or lick the envelope closed and mail our ballot off is let go of what happens next. Fat chance, I know, but we’re yogis, and we have a job to do here that’s way bigger than politics.
When Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Gita that we “have a right to our actions, but never to [our] actions’ fruits” (2.47), what does he mean? To say that I have a right to my actions is to recognize the power of choice, or intention, in the unfolding of our lives. We do have the power to choose what we do moment to moment. And those choices matter because they affect how everything unfolds — my own story, the stories of those around me, and the One Great Story of… this. Everything. So to those who carp that their vote (for instance) doesn’t matter, for whatever good reason — the dysfunctionality of the electoral college system, or the not-different-ness of the two parties and the lack of substantive choice here, or the disproportionate influence of billionaires on the process (all true, and more…) — it is still the case that taking action does have an effect. It can’t not. It may not have much effect, or the effect we prefer, but that’s the second part of the teaching.
We have a right to our actions — we have choice and volition — but “never to [our] actions’ fruits”. The challenging rub here is partly obvious and partly fierce. We know that causes and effects are linked somehow. We wouldn’t make goals, pass laws, make promises, plans, or for that matter apologize, process, work hard, have kids, build things, or do almost anything if we didn’t have a sense that our actions could lead to desirable results. But it’s all in the could. We have absolutely no way of guaranteeing that our actions will produce the results we want, no matter how much we enjoy thinking that we create our own reality. The conditions are just too complex. Something unexpected could always happen (and usually does). Of course, you’re saying, I know this… but do we really get it? What would happen to plans, ambition, promises, growth… in fact all of social and political life, if we really understood that to promise something is to live in fantasy. That even to HOPE is to live in fantasy; to live in an idea of the future rather than the reality of the present. What would it be like to hear a politician admit this?
“The state of the country and world is very painful. Greed, hatred, and fear drive most of us much of the time, and their manifestations will be with us forever, constantly changing in unexpected ways. As your representative I will continually attempt to feel the full complexity of the situation at hand and not delude myself or you with talk of easy solutions. Acknowledging this complexity, all of us who represent you will work humbly and hard, doing the best we can to work for prosperity, peace and safety, not just for “us” but for everyone. I don’t know what we can achieve, or what will happen. No one knows. All we can do is apply ourselves now, take care of each other the best we can, and stay open.”
That’s my stump speech. Thank you. Please remember me when you cast your vote Nov 6.
The framing story of the Gita is the Mahabharata, which describes the mythic conflict between two sides of a royal family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. I’m tempted to draw out a parallel here, of course — the Kauravas cheat to take power, seek to humiliate the Pandavas, and the Pandavas try at first to stay ethical but in the end succumb to dirty pool and use all means at their disposal to win. Hmm. The hero of the Gita is a Pandava named Arjuna, who asks his driver, Krishna, to take him out to the middle of the battlefield just before the fighting starts, to survey both sides. Seeing his relatives (they’re all related) arrayed on both sides, he is struck by the reality of all the suffering and death that is about to unfold and is overcome by doubt about his role and the value of fighting. Not wanting to fight, he sinks down in his chariot in despair. (Hmm. First debate? Nah…) Krishna’s encouragement to him becomes the Gita, the Beloved Song, in which the teachings of yoga are laid out, and Arjuna is taught the way to the understanding of the true self. Here’s the full verses on action:
“You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.
Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure.
This equanimity is yoga.” (2.47-48, Stephen Mitchell, trans.)
To truly let go of attachment to the fruits of my actions, I have to be open to success or failure. Not grudgingly, like I’m a “good sport” (and Go Giants, btw!), but really open. My first thought is “But what about my self-worth?” I’m so used to valuing myself based on my “successes” and “failures”. What if that’s not where my value lives? ”Self-possessed, resolute… open”. Equanimity not as a passive state of quiet balance but a dynamic field of activity simply free from the gripping of preference for one future over another. What if this side of the equation (the action side, or NOW) is where happiness lies, rather than on the other (the results, or THEN)? This is the assertion of the Gita, and the practice called karma yoga, the cultivation of Wise Action. We’re so results-oriented, though, that a common first response is to not really hear the part about acting resolutely, not attached to inaction, but to react: “But the results matter! The two sides aren’t really the same, and getting people to turn out and vote my way is important and takes passion!” It’s true. And maybe if you live in Ohio your vote Really Does Matter — which is just a way of saying that it weighs more than mine does here in Oakland. But as I said in the intro, if we’re yogis — and I use that as a way of honoring the practice and Path of awakening — we have another, deeper, task.
A few lines down from the action verses, the Gita offers the second of its definitions of yoga: “Yoga is skill in actions.” (2.49) Not “stopping the spinning mind”, as in Patañjali, but “skill in actions”, and of course the “skill” is letting go. Make your swing state calls, click on a few more links, send some money… whatever you want, then walk into the booth with your notes, draw all your arrows (Arjuna was the archer, after all), and then walk out, breathing the cool autumn air, and see the sky. Consider not sitting glued to a screen all evening biting your nails. Let it go. Last time it didn’t go your way it wasn’t the end of the world, and the time it did didn’t save the world, did it? Come to class Wed morning and we’ll do what we always do: laugh a bit, enjoy our bodies and each other’s company, breath, move, sweat, and be still.
The end of the Mahabharata is heavy. The Pandavas win the war, but only barely, and they have to play dirty to do it. By the end, almost everyone on both sides is dead, and the country devastated. The last surviving hero of the Pandavas, Yudhisthira, walks up to heaven with his dog, finally meeting his dead brothers and wife there. It’s cold comfort. All the heroes except him have died early and spent time in hell as a result of their dishonorable behavior on the battlefield, and though they are reunited in the end, the tone is somber. It’s the end of a culture that honored Dharma, and the beginning of the Kali Yuga, our dark modern era. Krishna leaves the Earth. It feels like the elves boarding their ashen boats at the Grey Havens, never to return.
Sorry to end on a down note. Come read the Gita with me and a crew of sweet yoga friends, and we’ll discuss action, Dharma, meditation, devotion, choices, gunas, and war. And so much else in this incredible text. Whatever happens in November, your life is your own, your practice your own, your mind, heart, actions, and freedom your own. Once you know that, the war is already over.