Emotions, inner balance, and ethical change
The Yoga Sūtra (I.33) presents a foundational practice famous in Buddhism too. It says: Practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward living beings who are happy, unhappy, good, and bad, respectively.
The most important practice in yoga is ahimsā, the first of the yama-s. Cause no suffering to all living beings, others or yourself. But what if kindness or love toward someone conflicts with ethics, with the greater good?
Arjuna faces this dilemma. In Chapter 1 of the Bhagavad Gita, he looks at the enemy camp and he cannot see people he should fight. In their place, he sees his grandfather, teacher, and others he cares for. He experiences compassion for all the soldiers who will die in the war. That is why Arjuna breaks down. He despairs not knowing what to do because of this inner conflict between ethics and his emotions.
As verse 5 of the Gītārtha-Saṅgraha of Śrī Yāmunācārya succinctly says, “From misplaced love and compassion, Arjuna’s ability to distinguish dharma and adharma is clouded. He surrenders [to Krishna], and thus receives the message of the Gita.”
We use phrases like “spiritual bypassing” and “toxic positivity” nowadays, but the ancient texts illuminate the heart of the issue clearly. When our personal emotions conflict with ethical choice, we must not ignore the latter. If we do so, we will never reach inner calm and clarity, nor will we lead the world to a better place.
Returning to the Yoga Sūtra, the complete sūtra I. 33 says, “Practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward living beings who are happy, unhappy, good, and bad, respectively… so that your citta (mind/awareness) becomes calm and clear.”
The ending of that sūtra is critical. We are not exhorted to blindly practice love, compassion, joy, or equanimity ignoring the outcomes. It is important that these positive emotions lead to lasting calm and clarity. Equanimity is cultivating inner balance. Practicing inner equanimity does not preclude acting against harmfulness in the world. Losing our inner balance will not help us progress toward peace and clarity within. But willfully ignoring unethical situations in the world outside will also cloud our mind and nurture negativity within us.
The ancient wisdom of yoga guides us: the pathway to be free of suffering is to actively move from adharma (unethical choice), to embrace dharma (ethical choice), and through that, go beyond, to moksha (stillness) – with as much love, compassion, joy and equanimity as possible along the way.