A grim headline for a yoga blog.
I was preparing to write a piece about cultivating compassion toward the cat callers who hassle me as I walk to the studio. Instead I’m writing a piece about cultivating compassion toward killers.
Last night, as I returned home after dinner, I heard sirens, saw a SWAT helicopter circling and sensed that something beyond the typical robbery had happened in our ‘hood. The DC police officer who guards our lobby told me that just minutes before, a child had been shot in his own home. I went to sleep wondering whether he was alive.
Then, today’s news confirmed: 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes died after being struck by a stray bullet (*) from the hallway outside of his family’s apartment.
This past spring, I taught yoga to grades K-7 at a school for children with learning and other disabilities. Most came from seriously challenged family lives. During Spring Break, one of our students, 11-year-old Erik Harper, was murdered in his home. The Friday before the holiday, I promised Erik that he could co-teach the next yoga class for his group. On Saturday, he was dead.
Last night’s killing stirred up memories of Erik’s death – and a grief for all involved in the loss of Oscar Fuentes. I started to feel really angry about the violence in the world today. Thankfully, I also remembered to use my yogic tools in order to cultivate compassion.
Here’s my POV. When I dwell in anger or hatred, resentment consumes me. I lose my ability to smile through the day, to relate to my loved ones, to be of service where needed. In this self-centered, negative state, I perpetuate pain. And when I dwell in pain, I inevitably hurt others. I believe it is this pattern of being in pain and hurting others that sparks any cycle of violence – from domestic violence to neighborhood killings to world war.
So, when facing the horrific trauma of violence, how can we be true to our emotions, but not live in resentment? In his commentary on Patanjali’s ancient yogic scriptures, Swami Satchidananda says, “Remember, our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds.” Whether interested in yoga or not, he says, one tool will help anyone maintain peacefulness through anything.
Sutra 1:33: “By cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and indifference toward the non-virtuous, the mind retains undisturbed calmness.” This tool is known as the four locks and keys.
To use this approach regarding Oscar Fuentes’ death, consider “compassion for the unhappy.” I would guess that something created a pain-driven unhappiness in the killer long before this crime. And I certainly have compassion for people who are in pain. So, I categorize all gun-wielding criminals as painfully unhappy and therefore try to cultivate compassion for them.
And what about the fourth lock and key? “Indifference toward the non-virtuous.” Killing is certainly not a virtuous act. To address this, I’ll adapt from a book called “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by scholar and philosopher Pandit Tigunait.
To label a person as “bad” or non-virtuous, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward. In judgment, we distance or withdraw from that person. Alienation sets the stage for violence. To change this pattern is to change our own attitude – and cultivate indifference toward the deed, not the doer. Cultivating indifference toward a human being damages our sensitivity and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness and love.
I choose to say, “That person’s actions are harmful, but I will regard the human behind them as unhappy and therefore have compassion.”
Practicing yogic tools does not spare me of my own humanness. I’m still crying and will probably cry for a while. A larger grief includes tears for people who have experienced so much pain in life, their only tool is to harm others. I think I cry the hardest for them.
May all beings be filled with peace, joy, love and light. AHIMSA NOW.
(*) – Correction: Monday, 16 November. Oscar Fuentes was killed by a bullet that was intentionally fired through his family’s front door from the hallway.