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Veganism and Yoga Sutra I:33

Yoga Sutra I:33
maitrī karuṇā mudito pekṣāṇāṁ sukha duhka punya āpunya visayāṇām bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanaṁ

To preserve the innate serenity of the mind, one should be happy for those who are happy, compassionate for those who are suffering, delighted for those who are virtuous, and indifferent towards the wicked.

When I went vegan fifteen years ago I found there were lots of reasons to be angry. It happens to so many of us. We see a video of a factory farm or slaughterhouse, or read a book about how messed up the environment is getting from people eating meat. We meet a cow and realize that she is a beautiful being with feelings and a unique personality, who doesn’t want to die. One way or another we see the light, so bright in front of us, and choose to be vegan rather than being a part of the system that perpetuates such atrocities.

Soon after we look for the perpetrators of this violence. We cast our eyes at the ones who have hidden this from us all of our lives; our parents, our teachers, our governments. We send violent thoughts out towards the butchers and the owners of the abattoirs. We feel rage again and again every time a new film of slaughterhouse workers caught beating and sexually abusing defenseless animals is released. How could this world exist, just outside the peripheral vision of our culture and our media?

I personally made sure everyone around me knew how fucked up eating meat was. I memorized statistics and recited them like vegan mantras. I would tell my friends and family the diseases they were likely to suffer and die from as they ate their various animal parts in front of me. I did not hate my omnivorous loved ones, of course, but I knew I was a bit more enlightened than they were.

Over the years as I tried various types of activism I found that the angry vegan schtick was not very effective. At best it bonded me with other angry vegans, and made made me some new angry friends. It did not seem to change the hearts of the flesh-eating zombies around me though.

I did find that food was effective. Sharing some vegan treats or a preparing a vegan brunch for my friends seemed to open their hearts some, to the point where they would ask me questions and lower their guards a bit. My health and happiness seemed to be the best advertisement for veganism, and I learned to radiate that wherever I went. People I never expected to would come to me and say they were thinking of going vegan. They would ask for recipes and health advice.

The Yoga Sutras were written either hundreds or thousands of years ago, depending who you ask, by a sage named Patanjali. They are distillations of the teachings and wisdom that came before them, meant to give us a clear path to yoga. Yoga means union, the overcoming of the illusion of duality that separates us from one another and from our true nature. In this philosophy there is no right and wrong, good and evil. Rather there are actions that will lead us towards yoga and actions that will lead us further into disharmony.

As animal activists we want the people around us to also see the unity of life. We want them to understand that what we do to the animals we do to ourselves. We need to ask, “what do the people around us want?”

The answer is happiness. Everyone wants to be happy. We all just have different understandings about what happiness is and how it is found. Our job as activists is to help people find happiness. That is why I think we should call ourselves activators rather than activists. We want to activate happiness in people.

In Yoga Sutra I:33 Patanjali is telling us that to preserve our own serenity of mind, we should be happy for those who are happy, compassionate towards those who are suffering, delighted for the virtuous, and indifferent towards the wicked.

Indifference towards the wicked is the hardest part of this statement for most of us to swallow. This indifference does not imply that we do nothing to change the world. The key point is that we take action in the world from a balanced place, with a serene mind. Developing anger towards people doing screwed up things does not change their hearts but it poisons our own. We do not see clearly in states of anger, and we compromise our own values.

If instead we invest our energy in feeling compassion for those who are suffering, often those very same people, then we get better results. The ones you can influence the most are the ones around you. The ones around you that are most open to influence are the ones you treat with respect, even if you are appalled by their actions. Their lives and past karmas have created the beings they are, and they all want to suffer less. If your example is happiness and freedom from suffering, it will attract them to your message. If you speak out of anger and a feeling of superior ideals, then you will lose their respect and ultimately the possibility of changing their hearts.

We are all subject to misinterpreting the data that comes to us through our senses. Our minds are complex organs that try to bring external input into coherence, but our operating systems are prone to bugs and viruses. Religions, economic systems, cultural traditions, family idiosyncrasies; they are all grooves that get worn into the fabric of our realities and cause us to see the world in habitual ways that are hard to deconstruct to check for erroneous beliefs. As activators this is exactly what we must do.

Yoga is one way to attack this problem. The yogi stands on her head and questions the logic of right-side-up. Veganism is a thread that is woven through the fabric of our worldview. We pull on it to unravel the lies that have been passed on for countless generations allowing humans to justify the exploitation of other beings, including one another.