Human beings are so constituted that we tend to become deeply attached to our opinions and points of view. Sometimes we can become so rigid and doctrinaire that not only do we refuse to learn from another perspective on an issue; the very fact that there might be another legitimate viewpoint is anathema to us! It seems doubtful that any one of us is completely immune to this human trait–although some certainly succumb to it more readily than others. Remaining habitually in this state of mind practically guarantees stagnation and rigidity; it’s a highly effective inoculation against spiritual growth. Much better to keep our minds flexible than to become mentally “arthritic!”
Most yoga practitioners are familiar with the well-known quote from an Indian sage, “You are as young as your spine is supple.” Just as yoga can keep our spines from growing rigid, an assiduous meditation practice can keep our minds supple. One of the suggestions the Buddha had for his followers was to practice non-attachment to views. This is very important to prevent suffering: countless millions have died violently in ideological clashes over the centuries. The Cold War and the Vietnam War were about a disagreement about how to arrange a nation’s economy! (Capitalist vs. Communist). The ripple effects of the Crusades—religious wars fought centuries ago—are still being felt today. Clearly, the Buddha was right about the importance of practicing non-attachment to views to reduce human suffering.
In an effort to become less dogmatic, we can actually devote part of our meditation time to “trying on” other points of view. It probably makes sense to start with something close to our ordinary views (after all, it’s a rare student who starts a yoga class and assumes the advanced asanas on the first day).
It might be helpful to use the same approach as in the Metta Prayer: begin with yourself, and then move out in ever-widening circles. You might start by considering a viewpoint you held in the past from which you have since evolved. We tend to assume a sense of superiority over our past perspectives; not necessarily because they were actually inferior to our current views, but simply because they are in the past. You can sit in awareness of your old views for a few minutes; opening to the possibility that there may be something valuable that you jettisoned—a “baby” to be reclaimed from the “bathwater.” This might be comparable to performing a very simple asana, such as sitting in a half-lotus position.
You might then proceed to “try on” the worldview of a close relative. Do you have a brother, sister, or in-law who’s a bit more conservative (or liberal) than you? Sit with their viewpoint for a few minutes to discover what parts of their conservatism/liberalism actually make sense. (You might be surprised to find that their perspectives aren’t any more monolithic than your own.) This might be somewhat like holding a Downward Facing Dog position for several breaths. (These references to asanas obviously refer to the level of difficulty I had in learning them; it may be quite different for others.)
You could then proceed to consider how someone you know in passing might see the world. Consider his or her circumstances and personality, such as you know them. Can you imagine a perspective (s)he might hold that could widen your view of the world? A slightly more advanced exercise—perhaps comparable standing balanced in Vrkasana for the first time—would be to try thinking like someone whose worldview conflicts in some obvious way with yours. If you’re a member of one political party, try thinking like a member of another. If you’re devoted to democracy, try thinking like an anarchist (but please don’t destroy anything!). If you’re an anarchist, try thinking like someone devoted to the rule of law. These exercises will stretch your mind just as a good yoga workout stretches your spine.
Finally, try thinking of those with whom you are in direct opposition, those who would qualify as opponents or perhaps even “enemies.” This would be analogous to achieving Tittibhasana— again, for me, because I can’t do it yet! If you can muster the courage to take these oppositional world views for a short “test drive,” it might provide the basis for empathy that could be literally life-saving in a contentious confrontation.
Keeping a supple mind and body brings great benefits to us and to those around us. It can reduce interpersonal conflict and help us to develop empathy. It’s definitely a goal worth pursuing, and a dedicated yoga and meditation practice can help us achieve it. And if someone thinks otherwise, let me know; I’d like to try on your views next time I meditate!