Sutra Studies: “The Locks & Keys,” Yoga Sutras 1.33

key-in-lock-2In our earlier articles on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we discussed its general background and some of its primary teachings.  In today’s article at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’re going to explore a specific sutra that addresses common social challenges and how to respond to them in a constructive way.

The passage (1.33) is known as the “Locks & Keys,” because it describes four difficult social circumstances (“the locks”) and the four responses (“the keys”) that can help us deal with them in a positive fashion – both for the other person and for ourselves.   We’ll look at each of these challenges and their solutions in detail, talk about why they are so helpful, and explore some practical examples of each so you can have a better awareness of how they might serve you in your work, with family, and in your relationships.

When Others Suffer…

The first social challenge is how we should respond when those around us are suffering, and Patanjali’s advice is that we should respond with compassion.  At first glance, this might seem obvious, but there are some nuances worth considering.  For example, what if a person’s suffering is self-inflicted – the result of poor choices?  Or what if the other person’s suffering is a result of behavior we would have, or perhaps actually did, encourage them to avoid?

Importantly, Patanjali’s advice remains the same: regardless of the cause of the suffering, our first response should always be one of compassion.  The reasons for this are both powerful and significant.  When someone is hurting, no matter the grounds, the first thing they need is empathy.  If we miss the opportunity to acknowledge their pain and jump immediately to criticism or blame, we are most likely to alienate the other person.  Even if our advice is wise, the fact that we are ignoring the pain of the other person naturally reduces our credibility in their eyes.  Moreover, as long as they are suffering, they are going to have a hard time taking in even the best of guidance.

By contrast, if we start by acknowledging their pain and expressing our concern, we show the other person that his or her feelings matter to us.  We also provide comfort, which in turn helps to bring the other person to the point where he or she will be better able to take in suggestions for wiser choices in the future.

A subtle but significant detail is worth mentioning before moving to our next lock.  It is important to understand that acknowledging another person’s suffering should not to be confused with perpetuating their identification with that pain.  In other words, while we want to honor the reality of their feelings, we do not want to encourage them to let that pain define them or to see that pain as inevitable.

To be of true help, we want to acknowledge and honor the reality of the other person’s feelings while also staying in touch with the mistaken nature of the grounds.  For example, if a friend or loved one is in pain because of financial issues, we want to show compassion for their feelings while also helping them remember that they are far more than their material situation.  Even in the hardest of situations – times of profound illness or bereavement, we want to honor their feelings while also helping them remember that they or their loved ones are far more than their bodies.  In this way, we validate their feelings without perpetuating or exacerbating them.

When Others Are Happy…

The second lock is perhaps a surprising one to see in a spiritual text, but it is an important reminder of a very real and very common human challenge, and that is how to respond when someone else is happy.  Simply put, this side of enlightenment, it is easy to begrudge others their happiness, especially if we ourselves are unhappy, or if we feel that, based on his or her behavior, the other person does not “deserve” to be happy.

At first glance, we might think we are above this, but on closer examination, most of us will find we have some version of it.  When you see someone driving an expensive car or wearing expensive clothing, is your first thought to be happy for them or to judge them?  When you see someone enjoying something you consider frivolous or even “wrong” – for example, unhealthy food or a decadent social event – do you respond by celebrating their enjoyment or condemning it?

Again, Patanjali’s advice might seem counter to traditional religious values, but on closer inspection, you will see how it ultimately extends a great deal further than traditional “proper responses.”  The first thing we should feel, according to Patanjali, is happiness for their happiness – even if we believe their grounds for happiness are not ideal.

Why is this both so important and so powerful?  The rationale is very similar to that of the first lock and key: by starting with an acknowledgement of the feelings of the other person, we validate them and show our connection with and respect for them.  If I respect you, I care about your happiness, just as I care about your pain.  This should be our first response.  If we start from this point, we show that we have compassion with and empathy for the other person, which increases our connection with the other, and also helps us maintain our own equanimity.

If we then have reservations about the grounds of their happiness, we can, if appropriate, go on to express it, but the results will be very different than if we had begun with criticism.  The fact that we have taken the time to connect with and acknowledge their happiness and have demonstrated that their happiness matters to us dramatically increases the likelihood that they will be able to hear our concerns.  And the fact that we have taken the time to connect with their feelings will also help us to stay more calm and happy, even if they are not able to welcome our thoughts.  Again, this doesn’t preclude us responding, but it increases the odds of success and assures our own peace.

When Others Are Virtuous…

The third lock is another that might surprise you, especially coming as it does from a work directed to spiritual practitioners.   However, on reflection, I believe you will find it to be another very powerful reminder and technique.

The third social challenge is how we respond when we meet someone who is behaving “virtuously.”  The Sanskrit term used here is punya, and it is a word with many meanings.  It can mean “holy” or “pious.”  However, if we consider the general tone and language of the Yoga Sutras, it becomes clear that a better translation for Patanjali’s purposes would be “appropriate.”  In other words, how should we respond when faced by a person who is “doing the right thing?”

Again, this may seem a strange item for our list, but on consideration, we can probably all think of times where we were critical of someone who was behaving responsibly – a friend at a holiday party who was sticking with his or her diet in spite of the season’s temptations, or a person driving the speed-limit when we are running late, or perhaps someone of whom we are not inclined to think well, leading us to suspect that his or her “virtuous” behavior was only to impress others.

Patanjali’s suggested response is once again unsurprising, but nonetheless it is very powerful in its full application, and that is to take “delight” in their behavior.  Again, the power of this becomes particularly evident when we consider the impact of the usual, alternative response.

Imagine a colleague with whom we have some tension coming up with a great idea or going the extra mile to bring in a valuable client.  Now imagine saying to ourselves: “He was just lucky…” or “He’s just trying to make an impression on the boss and edge me out….”  Think about the feelings those thoughts bring up in you.  Now reverse that: think what it might feel like to say to yourself: “Good for him – what a great job!  That’s awesome … and I’m going to do my best to follow his good example.”

Clearly, while the first approach brings us tension and bad feelings, the latter is going to bring us far more energy and far healthier focus.  And, on top of that, it’s also going to encourage and support the other person, and that means the cycle can continue to spiral upward in a positive direction.  In short, the more supported the other person feels, the more her or she will continue the positive behavior, and in turn the more this can provide motivation for us and others.

When Others Act Wrongly…

The last lock and key are arguably the most challenging – both the most difficult situation and also the response that is perhaps hardest to understand.  Once fully comprehended, however, they are also unquestionably the most powerful, and so very much worth the effort to understand and apply.

The fourth lock is how we respond when another person is acting “inappropriately” – that is, in a fashion that we feel is not right for a given situation.  The word used here is apunya, and, as a- is a negator in Sanskrit, it means “out of place” or “not to the point.” That is, how should we respond when someone else is doing something we consider “bad” or “wrong” or even “unjust?”

Surprisingly, Patanjali’s recommendation is that our first response should be “ignore” the behavior.  Again, this might seem to fly in the face of any ethical system, but deeper consideration will show that in fact it is the very opposite – that this is precisely the sort of initial response that is essential for any ethical system to truly function.  Again, we’ll use some examples to clarify this difficult but incredibly important point.

When you see someone behaving in a manner that you consider “wrong,” or “immoral,” what is your first response?  Obviously this will vary depending on the nature and degree of the behavior, but for most of us there will be feelings ranging from disappointment or irritation to anger or even outrage.  The Yogis realized this, and they also realized that these feelings have two very direct forms of impact on the situation: first, they cause us to lose our own peace, and second, they tend to put us in a position of enmity or antagonism with the other person.

This is a situation we see reflected time and again in the area of political debate, or even in exchanges on social media: one person sees a behavior that he or she considers “unjust,” becomes angry about the situation, and, as a result, expresses his or her feelings in an antagonistic way.  As a result, the other party most commonly gets offended at the unkind treatment and tends to respond in a similar fashion.

By the end, not only is neither party persuaded by the other, in fact usually the exact opposite takes place: each person finishes more certain that his or her position is “correct” and that people of the opposing view are not only mistaken but also are generally not very “good” or “just” people.  Further, both carry with them the added irritation and frustration over the exchange, on top of the tension of the original incident, leading both parties further away from peace or reconciliation.

Now take a moment to consider a different approach.  What if the very first thing we did was to pause and remind ourselves that we alone are responsible for our peace?  What if we took a few breaths, returned to that inner calm, and then took a moment to reflect on the fact that our view on the situation is just as conditioned as the behavior of the other person – that is, that we only consider it “inappropriate” because of our experience and upbringing, just as they consider it “appropriate” for the same reasons?  How would that feel?  Clearly, our internal state would be radically different, and in turn we’d go on to express ourselves in a radically different way.

Again, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that we can’t then go on to respond to the behavior – especially if it’s one that we believe might be harmful to either the person engaged in the activity or to another – it simply means that we will have far better results if we begin by centering ourselves and reestablishing our perspective before we go on to address the situation.  In other words, Patanjali isn’t encouraging inactivity, rather he is stressing the importance of beginning activity in such situations by first finding a place of inner balance – because it is only from such a state that we can act effectively.

If, when confronted by “wrong” actions, we start by noticing our tendency to judge or presume or to approach the other person from a critical perspective, and take the time to shift our mindset before commenting or acting, we will do so in a far more kind and constructive fashion.  As a result, just as we discussed in the case of those who are suffering as a result of their own choices, we’ll be far more likely to have success in communicating with them and perhaps even persuading them to change their behavior.  Even more importantly, even if we are unsuccessful in persuading them, we will have preserved our own peace, rather than losing it to anger or self-righteousness.

In Conclusion…

A final aspect of the locks and keys it can be helpful to bear in mind is the fact that we all generally have a tendency to be more challenged by one or two of these social situations.  For example, we might be relatively comfortable offering compassion for those in pain, but have a harder time when confronted by “inappropriate” behavior.  Being aware of our own particular challenges and making a special point of understanding their respective keys can help us be better prepared when these situations arise and, in turn, less likely to fall into old and unconstructive patterns.

As always, we hope this might give you some helpful insights on how to deal constructively with some of the more common challenges of daily life.  In future articles, we’ll explore more key passages from The Yoga Sutras, as well The Bhagavad-Gita, and other primary texts of the Yoga tradition.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….’

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