I live in a country that is a democratic republic and it is facing turbulent times. Some are calling my country “divided”, rather than the United States of America. I’ve been pondering this view and looking at it from different perspectives, from small to large, in order to understand what’s really going on.
In a republic, each citizen’s wishes are voiced by their representatives, and those representatives are meant to work out the best decisions for the nation based on their constituents. Sounds good on paper, but people are clearly not happy with how it’s operating in real life, because we have protests and hateful speech and citizens whose basic needs are not being met. I heard an interview on the radio with Ohio governor John Kasich, who wrote a book called Two Paths: America Divided or United, and he explained in the interview that he sees a tendency toward "self-absorption" as he looks out into the country; he encouraged us all to be more “concerned about somebody else.” Having empathy and concern for others doesn’t come easily to this union of unique states and in a culture of individuality. What does it take to flip this? When I reflected on this I decided to look inside as well as outside – far outside – myself.
The Microcosmic Perspective
There are times that my body feels a little like a divided nation. The parts that comprise the Republic of Me feel at odds with each other. This shows up as anxiety, difficulty breathing, fatigue, pain and lack of clarity. Perhaps I should take Governor Kasich’s advice and let my divided parts be more concerned about somebody else. What if I imagined my individual parts as individual states in this nation, and I let them talk and listen to each other, even if their opinions were opposing and uncomfortable for the other side? Perhaps then they would see eye to eye and there would be less disharmony. Maybe Kasich’s advice provides a way to heal not just the nation, but ourselves. Maybe we begin to heal our nation by first healing ourselves.
If I’m suffering with anger, fear, pain, can I tolerate an opposing view? Probably not; but if I have my basic needs and comfort met, I might be more open to opposing views. And I want to be more open so that I can participate in reconnecting our split union. Maybe in order to heal myself, I need to let my parts be okay with difference and opposition so that I can see past the division and open my perspective to the bigger picture outside myself. How do I do that? I’m sure there are many ways, but yoga offers me a path.
The word yoga means “joined” or “union” and it refers to the yoke that joins two oxen. This word implies that the yogis understood that we are made up of different parts and that when we cultivate that harmony within ourselves we shift closer to union with all other living things, as well as with the divine. So what are these different parts that yoga identifies as making up the Republic of Me? Before I go into that, I’d like to point out that the map of the Republic of Me is like any other map: a limited representation of a snapshot in time.
I Am a Piece of Cake
Imagine a landscape that spreads vertically instead of horizontally. Picture the magma, layers of rock, vegetation, atmosphere and space almost as if they were layers in a cake that had been sliced. Each deposit depends on the other, and the whole system exists because of a fine balance. Yoga teaches us that the coarsest and most obvious layer of a human is the physical layer, annamaya kosha. This is sometimes referred to as the food sheath, because what I eat literally becomes my physical body. The next layer is less obvious and is called the energetic layer, or pranamaya kosha. This layer is addressed by breathing, chanting and spiritual exercises, as well as the other layers. Next comes the manomaya kosha, or the layer of the conditioned mind. When we think something – anything – we attach a condition to the words of the thought and the thought itself. This means that an emotional response arises almost as quickly as a thought. The yogis break down this layer into subtler and subtler parts as they study behavior, and they recognized how the other koshas and this layer work together intimately. The next layer is vijnanamaya kosha, or the wisdom layer. BKS Iyengar has said, “When intelligence is awakened in the cells, then instinct is transformed into intuition and… when intelligence consults spontaneously with memory at each moment, then conscious intuition arises, and the word we give to conscious intuition is wisdom.” I imagine that this layer changes delicately, based on the sensitive work I do with the other layers. The last layer is anandamaya kosha, or the bliss layer. This is the layer that is at the root of me, it is the happiness that I feel regardless of situation and condition and it is in this layer where the atman, or Self is found.
If I can get these five koshas to “independently” (there’s no such thing, really) function, and then get them to work together, the Republic of Me will be in good shape. This will require a lot of releasing ego and listening. Listening to the individual layers, imagining them listen to each other, and at times, sitting with opposing and uncomfortable feelings.
The Macrocosmic Perspective
At the end of all this listening and sitting with discomfort, I will only move forward if I have a unified view, a reason that each part of me can get behind to make changes; this reason must be more than just a reduction of suffering, it must be something inspiring.
For this I turn to Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, who shares the “cosmic perspective”:
“The atoms in my body, the molecules that create my life are traceable to the stars; those stars manufactured the elements in my body in the crucibles of their cores, then exploded, scattering those elements across the galaxy, enabling the next generation of stars and planets to form… and at least on one planet, life… and at least at this time, people. So we are all participating in the great unfolding of this cosmic story. And maybe I’m not special because I’m different, maybe I’m special because I’m the same [as the stars].”
If I see myself as the same as the stars, I am more inspired to do the work of listening and integrating.
If the citizens of this country see themselves as the same as their fellow humans, I can hope that they will also be inspired to do the same work and maybe, just maybe, yoke the divide.