Sometimes we all fall into negativity and despair, particularly when the news is filled with tragedies like school shootings and senseless wars, harsh political rhetoric and greedy behavior by banks, and the atrocities we humans are committing against ourselves, other animals, the oceans, forests and the body of the planet herself bringing us all closer and closer to an environmental, physiological and psychological collapse. From one perspective, things seem to be getting worse and worse. But is that the only perspective, and do we have the power to change it, if it is?
We can look to entertainment culture to get a picture as to what is in our psyches—what fears and longings lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. For example if you read 18th and 19th century literature, you will find a lot of class struggle and emotional unfulfillment. The characters are mostly dissatisfied and feel victimized by society. But there is little, if any, mention about the real slaves of the system—the horses who are harnessed to the carriages pulling human beings to this party or that, or the cows who are tied up in the back alleys of tenement buildings anemically producing blue-tinged milk. The other animals only appear as extras, insignificant to the important stories that are being enacted between the human beings.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, war and science fiction/monster/alien films were very popular. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero of the story has been shrunk down to a half-inch tall and has to battle a “giant” spider with a sewing needle. Many, if not most, of the films of that era reveal a deep mistrust of Nature and a feeling of human fragility and vulnerability in the face of Nature and other animals. The protagonists annihilate and conquer, rather than communicate, collaborate and get along. It was “us against them.”
More recently, films like The Matrix, which asks questions about the nature of reality, and novels like Cloud Atlas, which explores the concepts of karma and reincarnation, introduce characters who are empowered to work within reality as they find it to solve problems or improve their situations. It is inconceivable that works like these would have been understood and accepted in the 1950s; it would have been over people’s heads. In this regard I would say we are making good progress. The message is less “us against them” and more a reflection of shunyata (emptiness)—putting the cause of problems on the individual as opposed to the faceless other and exposing corporations and/or governments for what they are—amplified personifications of greed and boredom that arise out of ourselves. So from this perspective, there does seem to be cultural progress, and yet so many of us still feel disaffected and dissatisfied. How can we align our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world with our emotional and spiritual bodies? The answer is through kindness.
Often when I talk about animal rights, people ask me, “Why care so much about animal abuse when there is so much human abuse in our world?” I care about animal abuse because we are all animals, and I choose not to be locked into the prejudicial system that proclaims this animal to be more worthy than that animal. Human beings are animals too—that is a biological fact—and the systematic and unquestioned abuse of non-human animals creates a cultural environment in which abuse is accepted, which in turn results in the abuse of humans. If we want to solve a problem, it is best to look for the root of the problem and change that; otherwise our efforts will be limited to the surface and the problem will inevitably recur. As my holy teacher Swami Nirmalanda said, “This picking and choosing who to love promotes schisms and prejudices and causes us to feel separate from all of life. We should be more cosmopolitan and feel ourselves as a citizen of the cosmos—a friend to all.” Kindness can lead us in that direction.
We all want to be successful. Yoga teaches that success comes to one who is friendly and kind towards others. For Yoga to happen—for us to experience freedom from the need to consume material products and exploit the Earth and other animals, for us to experience the joy of needing nothing and feeling whole, as Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described the state of Yoga—we must explore kindness. We cannot remain tight and miserly, only doling out kindness to those whom we like or who are like us, or to those who will give us something in return. When we begin to shed the limits of our kindness, we begin to understand our potential for being the limitless beings that we really are. This is truly the great adventure: to break the self-centered chains that bind our hearts and begin to see the other as our own self. This equanimity of mind will lead to God-realization.