A well-travelled friend of mine told me that, in Thailand, they consider anger to be a childish emotion. When someone does get angry, the response isn’t to defend or get angry back but to feel sorry for the angry person. This same friend was dean a university program that led undergrads around the world, including to Thailand. Inevitably, there would be some low moments and anger would arise among the students in frustration of this or that cultural misunderstanding. He said, the Thai would just smile and feel a little embarrassed for them.
I have been thinking about this a lot in India, where cultural misunderstanding is lurking around every corner. For me, it is nowhere more in evidence than when walking down the street. I am sharing the road with cars, trucks, scooters, auto rickshaws, bicycles, cows, dogs, horse-drawn carts, and who knows what else. Oh, and lots and lots of men. Although I see huge changes in how women move about in public spaces since I was here in 1994, the fact remains that men control the street. Usually in groups. In any event, I often find myself in a kind of automatic protective mode when I walk down the street – ready in an instant to react forcefully…and angrily. At some point I noticed that, as far as I could tell, I was the only person who was getting angry at the rickshaw who sped by too close or the car that beeps loudly just behind me. No one else was scowling at the group of men who are standing there, chatting. Yet, to me, their very presence was an offense, a symbol of the patriarchy and oppression. My disapproval was not only written all over my face but I could feel it throughout my body. Walking down the street has been exhausting!
Here’s the thing. The very presence of those groups of men IS a sign of patriarchy and oppression. Rickshaws that buzz by too close are being reckless. Beeping a car horn loudly just behind someone walking is rude and dangerous. But, is anger the correct response? Who benefits? Who suffers?
There is a sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra that says:
It is loosely translated as, “future suffering is to be avoided.”
This one always makes me laugh a little. Like, duh! But…not so duh. What does that really mean?
I don’t think it means that we must run around avoiding anything and everything that we think might cause us suffering. Or stay home on the couch, for that matter. Even sitting on the couch will cause suffering sooner or later.
I think it means we have to look closely at suffering itself. We must get to know our own version(s) of it, very intimately. Take walking down the street in India. All of those things that I listed above are true – it’s crowded, people misbehave, and the patriarchy is alive and well. Still, I need to walk down the street. Where does my anger come from? The speeding rickshaw? The crowd of men? Or my mind creating a story about the rickshaw and/of the Patriarchy? To know and therefore avoid the causes of my suffering, I have to know my mind, which is a lot harder than shaking my fist at a passing car. A child might shake their fist or stamp their foot. Hmmmm.
Someone at KYM, where I did my yoga therapy internship, said to me that she believed that Indian people had a greater mental capacity than Westerners. It’s quite a statement! I also think it is a fairly common belief held among people here. While I am not sure that such a broad generalization is helpful to anyone, I am beginning to think that perhaps what she meant is that there is a kind of emotional maturity to the value system here that is lacking in the West. When I think about the current state of affairs in the US – the sense of entitlement that is so pervasive and the “snowflake” phenomena on the right and the left – it is hard not to see it as very immature and childish. What is actually valued? Where do we spend our time and money?
To be clear, it isn’t like: India = good, North America = bad. I have seen some pretty horrendous things going down here. But I think it is a good idea to examine what causes us to suffer and notice how different that is from other places in the world. Maybe we can learn something? Examining our suffering also can lead to a better ability to cultivate contentment that is genuine (not a kind of hopeless nihilism or simmering resentment). Being satisfied doesn’t have to mean accepting second best or reluctantly accepting your shitty place in life. Surely this isn’t what being satisfied means!
Future suffering is to be avoided.
Today, I will venture out to a textile museum where they only allow 20 people/day to enter and one must follow a guide, who, I have been told, is a bit…odd. Then I will go to the railway station to collect a refund that I am owed. Landmines of suffering everywhere! I’ll let you know how it goes.