Knocking on the Door of the Yoga Sutras

Last night in yoga teacher training we spent time on sutra 1.33, which is:  By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind (the mind retains its undisturbed calmness).  (Incidentally, this is called the 4 locks and the 4 keys.)

And yes, I pay money to read language this stilted.  But beyond that, I have to say that I’m glad I’m such a heretic/rebel and instead of really working on my homework I spend a ton of time doing related reading in Buddhism.  Because this sutra DRIVES ME OUT OF MY MIND.  (Not, admittedly, that I’m in my mind most of the time, but hey, meditation says that’s a good thing.  Hah!)

And, my class is to consider the last of the 4 locks and 4 keys–equanimity toward the non-virtuous.

I HAVE A LOT TO SAY ABOUT THIS!  And, of course, I have to practice step up/step back in class and not do a 40 minute lecture on the nature of evil and the dangers of holding ourselves to standards of perfection.  So, here I am, blogging away.

The first thing to say about sutra 1.33 is that the sutras, as part of Hinduism, can be a little like the 10 commandments.  They are gentler–they say, if you want to be calm, do this.  The commandments threaten hell and damnation.  But outside of that, it’s all about rules for behavior.  And I don’t disagree with the rules so much except for the fact that the minute someone lays down a rule I want to rebel in some way.  I mean, I don’t want to covet, lie, steal or kill…or, with the sutras, give myself over to jealousy, coldness, condemnation, etc.  But I know this–I can’t pretend that my fears, jealousy, resentments and withholding don’t exist.  I mean, me, personally, I’m really good at pretending about a lot of things, but not about this.  And it’s good, really, to be in reality about the nature of being human.  It’s mistake with these kinds of teachings to repress, deny, and bully ourselves into trying to have good behavior when we just want to get homicidal or at least bitchy.

This is why I’m glad I’m a heretic/rebel.  My latest book on Buddhism is called Living with Your Heart Wide Open, which I bought because I thought my friend Don had such an open heart, and I truly want to learn to be more like him.  And thank whatever/whoever, the book contains all these mindfulness practices for being with your jealousy, judgment, self-hatred, shame, etc.  It teaches you to live with them in kindness to yourself.

What scares me about the sutras, over and over again, is the idealization…that we are somehow capable of being all happy for people all the time with no envy, or capable of witnessing evil without real pain.  The sutras contain a potential for disowning what is broken and hurt in me and I know, as deeply as I know anything, that disowning is a recipe for disaster.  It causes shame and feelings of not being good enough, whenever I try to meet impossible standards.  And in trying to be perfect I build a strait-jacket that I then must escape…and the internal pressure means the escape is likely to be desperate and not very pretty.

Like I always say, it’s much better to just say I’m f*&(ed up… and enjoy it.

And so, part 2, we now come to the 4th lock and key, having equanimity with the non-virtuous.  The teacher of the training asked us to think of what this might mean, other than utter denial.  She asked us to think about non-virtue…or evil.

And I have been thinking.  Remembering.

I’ve been an activist since 1987, first as a volunteer, and then as a professional working with women through Family Planning.  The first issue I worked on was stopping violence against women and children.  In my position as a counselor and community liaison at Family Planning, I joined SECAT, the South Eastern Child Advocacy Team and became the secretary on the executive board.  This led to some networking (with the Nashua Rape Crisis Center among other non-profits) and I organized a supportive protest at the trial of Jessie Murabito, who had taken her children into the Underground after a jury found her husband not guilty of felonious sexual assault against her six year old daughter Bethany.  (Bethany had testifed against her father. )  I was in the room when the judge found Jessie Murabito guilty of abducting her children and took away custody.  I had heard about the social worker who independently decided that Mark Murabito was a good guy and made a unilateral decision to give him unsupervised visits–and then, after his ex-wife found guilty of abducting the children, he was given custody.  (In the late 80’s and early 90’s this was how it went when women took their offending husbands to court…especially if their husbands were white and upper middle class.)

I don’t have equanimity about this.

But the story–mine at least–doesn’t end there.  Two years later I was teaching creative writing and one of my students won a grant to go into the New Hampshire prisons and interview sex offenders, some of whom were part of an in-prison rehabilitation, and some of whom had refused to participate.  She interviewed 10 men, then wrote their stories in the first person, so the reader had the same experience she’d had, of listening to a man’s life.  She asked me to edit the book.

She’d done a brilliant job.  With each man–and these were serial rapists who’d raped 40+women, multiple offender child abusers–I entered the story of their painful childhoods, and I saw them as boys, being hurt.  And inevitably, as they became teenagers, I could feel the line approaching, the line they crossed…at 15, 16, 17, when they offended for the first time.  In my mind, reading, I’d be saying, “no, don’t,” even as I knew that they would, that they did, that they had been incarcerated for just this.  But I was enough on the side of these men that I wanted them not to cross the line–not only for the horror of what they did to their victims, told in detail, but the horror of what they did to themselves.

Reading that book made me want to scream, but it ripped away any ability I had to judge without mercy.

This morning, following last night’s class, I have been thinking about this…about my life as an activist, about evil, about women and children, about all the men I watched die of AIDS while Reagan refused to do what he could have done to halt the epidemic, about my witnessing of racism, about my own experiences of discrimination as a woman and queer person.  My yoga trainer wants us to come up with a way of understanding equanimity about evil, or another word that might express this sutra.

My words are spiritual fortitude.  Because while I can’t, in the particular, think of Jessie and Bethany Murabito without crying and wanting to scream at the injustice of their lives, I can, in the universal, hold what I know about humanity.  It must be held, all of it; it must be held by me, because it has been given to me to be up close and personal with evil.

How do I hold it?  This morning, I’ve used the mindfulness practice–I have to do this first–and I’ve sensed into my body, into the emotions, into the particular grief of the Murabito story and my connection to it.   But there is a larger awareness–all the women who came when I put out the call to support Jessie, the heroism and kindness I’ve seen in my own life and that I’ve read about, the people who fight, and those who love.  I put that with Mark Murabito getting custody of his daughter, with Ronald Reagan’s homophobia, with the cops with their hands on their billy clubs as they kicked my African-American friends out of my apartment in 1978.  I put it against the Holocaust, I put it against Rwanda and the Sudan, and then I grow bigger, bigger, bigger, in awareness, in the depth of my own heart.  I open.  It isn’t comfortable or easy–it’s a very painful stretching to just know and hold to knowing:  this is all of who we are, there isn’t anything else, the war and the palm against a cheek, the outstretched hand and the knife.  This is who we are.

I call this painful stretching spiritual fortitude.

In Stephen Cope’s book, The Wisdom of Yoga, he describes a character who he calls Rudy, a man who, Cope says, is the closest to enlightened of anyone he’s ever known.  Rudy is at peace, but it is a peace edged with sadness.  Rudy does not deny the world, or its terrible and beautiful reality.

Sometimes, these days, I approach that kind of peace.  For a minute, or an hour, or half a day, I know it.

I believe I am beginning to be able to hold the death of my friend Don, his tenderness and kindness that is not here any more, and yet is, if it lives in me, if I can find it in myself and give it away, over and over again, as he did.

Spiritual fortitude.

Metta for Bethany and Jessie Murabito, wherever they are.  May you be well, may you be happy, may you be safe and protected, may you be at peace with what is.

As hard a thing as that is to achieve, in the life you have been given.


If you’d like to read more about the Murabito trial, go to:,384372 (About the decision to let Bethany Murabito testify),5130150  (Other accusations against Mark Murabito.)  (Brief article about parents using the underground to protect their children)

There is also a TV movie, starring Meg Tilly, based on cases from the late 80’s, called In the Interest of the Child.


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