It’s a situation that God forbid should happen to you, though it certainly has happened to a lot of us. You’re in yoga class, holding a forward bend. The instructor comes over, puts a hand on your back and encourages you to sink deeper. As you follow her instructions, you feel a sharp twinge in the back of your leg. Later, it turns out that you’ve torn a hamstring.
Now, here’s the tough question. Who’s fault is it? Or, to put it in a milder way, who has responsibility in this situation? The way you answer this question is crucial. It’s also a pretty good predictor of your ability to move through tough situations, negotiate relationships, and initiate personal change.
In a situation like this – indeed, in dozens of situations, from the car accident to the fight with your boyfriend to your failure to get a foundation grant – a natural tendency is to find someone to blame. The “blame frame” has been our basic paradigm for centuries. In the blame frame, there’s an assumption that someone is wrong, and that the one who is wrong should be punished – in extreme cases, with a lawsuit, or the curtailing of any future relationship. The blame frame is inherently dualistic – if it’s not my fault, its yours. If it’s yours, it’s not mine. You’re the perpetrator, I’m the victim. Maybe I’ll accept a sincere apology, offered in a self-abasing tone, and accompanied by an offer of compensation. Maybe, if you’re humble enough, I’ll admit that maybe I had a little something to do with it.
In the last 50 years or so, at least in the more forward looking quarters of the western world, this centuries-old and deeply dualistic paradigm, has begun to be replaced with an idea that I’d characterize as “empowering self-responsibility”, or “radical responsibility.” In its most basic form, radical responsibility comes out of a recognition that if you are willing to accept responsibility for everything in your life, it gives you a leverage to change situations, instead of being their victim. One contemporary model for the radical responsibility position comes from the Landmark Forum workshops, in which you are encouraged to see yourself as the primary agent even in situations where by every law of reason and logic the primary agency was outside you. When you take radical responsibility, you supposedly stop blaming others – your parents, the traffic, the tax system, the Republicans, your ex-wife, your nasty boss – and instead look for how you created the situation, or at least, how you might have done things differently. That is to say, you’re never a victim, you always had a choice.
As a close adherent of the “change the inside and you’ll change the outside” school of life – I’ve always had a prejudice towards the radical responsibility position. Partly, I’ll admit, this comes from having been steeped in the doctrine of karma, especially the idea of subtle-body karma, in which tape loops programmed into your system from childhood and other lifetimes are seen as causal factors even in situations which were not of your conscious choosing. At the same time, it seems obvious that certain things just happen and that there are certain situations where it actually is Their Fault. (The mechanic who failed to replace a bolt on the airplane before OKing it for take-off did actually cause the accident. ) Besides, most texts on karma point out that not every one who gets caught in, say, a collective disaster like Hurricane Katrina, has direct karmic responsibility for it. All of us are, to one degree or another, influenced by the collective karmas of our society. And besides, there is such a thing as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My point is that just as the victim stance allows you to feel innocent but also makes you powerless, the radical responsibility position empowers you, but also give rise to an unrealistic and even hubristic sense of having control of circumstances which you actually don’t control at all. We violate the truth as much by assuming that we ‘chose’ to get cancer, as by assuming that cancerous tumors have no relationship to our diet, lifestyle, chemical exposures or other choices we’ve made.
In fact, as in most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Between the blame frame and the radical responsibility position is something we might call the “contribution system.” In the contribution system model, you actually get to see what you might have done differently, but you also take into account all the other factors involved.
Take the case of the hamstring injury. What part of the problem was the teacher’s responsibility? Well, she may have demanded too much from you due to her own inexperience as a teacher or her inability to see the true capability of your body. On the other hand if you look carefully at your own contribution, you might realize that you were distracted, following the instructions without fully being present in your body, or suffering from some form of show-offy yoga ego.
And there could also be hidden factors: Your hamstrings might have been overstretched from a previous class or weakened by an old accident, or genetics may have played a role. If you blame the injury on your instructor, you miss the chance to look at your own contributions, and you make it unlikely that you will learn anything useful from it, or be able to avoid similar injuries in the future. Worse, you’ll probably find yourself feeling victimized, powerless, angry or depressed. But if you take all the responsibility on yourself, you imply that you should be an expert on the body even though you may just be learning to practice yoga. You may find that taking total responsibility causes you to beat yourself up about your bad judgment and even to question your ability to do yoga.
So taking responsibility demands a certain sophistication and balance; it requires you to recognize that every situation has a contribution system, an interconnected web of shared responsibility. It is actually not useful to take on more or less of the responsibility than is yours.
At the same time, even if 95 percent of responsibility in a situation is not yours, the source of your power in any situation lies in identifying the 5 percent that is yours. That’s the part where you can bring change, where you can turn a mistake into a source of learning. It’s your ability to work with mistakes – your own and others’ – that makes the greatest difference in your ability to become a master not just of yoga, but of life. Being the change you want to see in the world starts with identifying your own part in the contribution system of any situation where you feel conflict or tension. All good yogis, and most successful creative people, are good at what they do precisely because they have learned the art of taking an injustice, a personal mistake or an injury and using it as a fulcrum for growth.
My teacher, Swami Muktananda, once described a yogi as a person who knows how to turn every circumstance of life to his advantage. Not, he hastened to add, because a yogi is an opportunist, at least not in the usual sense. A yogi turns everything to his advantage by turning every moment into yoga. He takes whatever happens, whatever materials life throws him, and works with it. He learns how to turn to his inner ground, his own being, and from there, to tune his inner state to meet the situation creatively.
So, for a yogi, responsibility is actually response-ability – the skill of responding spontaneously and naturally, from a core of inner stillness, in such a way as to take a situation to a higher level. I’ve always felt that this is what the Bhagavad Gita means by that beautiful verse, “Yoga is skill in action.” The skill in action is the skill of knowing how to respond to situations from that still center, where you stand your ground so firmly that nothing can knock you off track.
For the apprentice yogi – that is, the person on the path to mastery – response-ability starts with self-inquiry. Obviously, your capacity for response depends on your inner state at any given moment – if you’re tired, angry, or distracted, you won’t be able to respond to a challenge in the same way that you would if you were calmer or more energized. Most of our big mistakes happen because our state is somehow impaired or off. So a practice of self-recognition, self check-in, can make a big difference. The best way to do this is through self-inquiry. There’s something about the process of asking yourself key questions that seems to invoke the inner wise person, who in my experience is the part of me who has the best chance not only of acting like a responsible adult, but also of guiding me through tough moments. You – that is, the surface you, might be totally clueless in a situation. Your inner wise person knows exactly what to do – and when to do nothing.
In most situations, I work with three basic self-inquiry questions: “Who am I right now?” “Where am I right now?” and “What am I supposed to do right now?’
In classical Vedanta, these questions were designed to tease out life’s ultimate meaning. I’ve found, however, that with a few tweaks, they apply equally well to almost any challenging situation. If you make a point of working with them for a few months, you’ll discover that they will automatically come up when you need them.
Question I: Who am I?
In Response-ability Inquiry, “Who am I right now?” means not only “What is the ultimate truth of my being?”, but “What is my most genuine feeling in this moment?” In other words, how am I really feeling – physically, emotionally, energetically? Am I angry, scared, excited, tender? Is my mind full of thoughts? Do I feel stuck or flowing?
This is of course the primary question, because in order to touch your inner ground, you first need to recognize and be present with whatever is your authentic truth in this moment. I’ve learned through years of trial and error, that when I’m confused or uncertain, it’s because I’m out of touch not only with my deep Self, but also with my own emotional temperature. So I’ve trained myself to check in and notice when I’m emotionally distraught or mentally fogged, and, if at all possible, to put off taking action at such moments. This isn’t always possible, of course. But still, just questioning myself, and becoming aware of the state I’m in, even if the state is not optimal, often helps show me the steps to right action in the situation. Inserting a wedge of awareness through self-inquiry always makes us less reactive.
Question II: Where am I right now?
The second question, “Where am I right now?” allows us to suss out the different aspects of our external situation. Of course, at one level the answer to that question could be “In the now.” But functionally, in the now, asking “Where am I?” reminds us to use our skills at observation and empathy to be present to our surroundings, to notice what other people are up to, to gauge the temperature and the traffic flow (literally and metaphorically) so that we can navigate skillfully in a situation. This could mean seeing where you are in this moment – ie, I’m at home, I’m worrying about money but right now I’m physically safe, and the phone is ringing. Or it could mean looking at your overall situation: i.e., I’m working in a stressful job, I have college loans to pay off, and I’m in a relationship that requires constant management; these are rough waters that require vigilant navigation.
Question III: What am I supposed to do right now?
The third question is the action question. I know who I am, (how I feel),
I know where I am, (I understand the situation I’m in.) Now, what’s my next action? How do I participate? How involved do I get, and in what way?
I’ve been working with these three questions for years, so much so that I rarely have to ask them consciously. Last year, when I found myself in an unexpected accident, I discovered these questions coming up, and found that not only did they help guide me through a tough moment, they also taught me something real and valuable about levels of responsibility.
It was twilight in Berkeley, California where I’d come to teach a workshop. I was driving across a blind intersection behind a friend’s car, following her to my lodging for the night. There was a median strip between the lanes, no traffic lights, and no stop signs. My friend drove through the intersection. I followed her closely, not looking at the cross-traffic, feeling safe because there were pedestrians in the crosswalk to my right. But just as I passed the median strip, another car suddenly appeared from my right. The car’s headlights were off, and I caught a glimpse of the driver, who had his head turned towards his passenger, obviously in conversation. My car (at low speed, thank God) rammed into the side of his car.
Shaking, I pulled over to the curb, and automatically checked my inner state, asking the first question – “Who am I right now?” Fortunately, my body seemed to be completely unhurt. But my heart was trembling, and I could feel adrenaline racing through my system. I was in a state of anxiety and fear. My main fear was that I was at fault.
The second question: “Where am I right now?” revealed a fair amount of chaos. My right headlight was smashed, the fender was punched in, and the other car was smoking. The young couple in the other car was freaked. Their steering had been damaged, their car would require towing. The woman was screaming that the car had been ruined, and that she needed to get home to her baby.
When I asked myself the third question: “What am I supposed to do right now?” it was clear that the first thing I had to do was accept the situation, identify my part in the contribution system and take responsibility. The couple clearly expected me to defend myself, to argue about who was at fault. A passerby was saying, “I saw it all! She hit you!”
Mundane as it sounds, this was a pivotal yogic moment. When someone is scolding you about something that is clearly your mistake, there are three main ways you get lost. First, you can move into defensive hostility, and get angry at the other person or the situation. Second, you can collapse into guilt and self-recrimination, and get angry at yourself. Third, you can disassociate from your feelings, and just focus on getting through it. I could feel myself tending towards the disassociative response, putting up an inner defensive wall. I focused for a moment on correcting my inner stance – breathing, softening my eyes, looking for a balance between protecting my own energy and connecting to the angry couple. I noticed that part of my imbalance came from the fact that my mind was frantically searching for a way not to blame myself, and I made an internal decision to accept the fact that I was technically at fault.
One of the great laws of life immediately came into play: when I stopped resisting the situation, my shaky energy calmed down. (There’s a reason why spiritual teachers are always counseling non-resistance!) I met the eye of the driver and said, “You definitely had the right of way.”
As soon as he saw that I wasn’t going to argue with him, he nodded and calmed down. The next steps of “What am I supposed to do?” were calm and relatively easy. We exchanged information. A cop showed up, checked us out, said it was an issue for the insurance companies, and called a tow truck for their car.
Then I got in my car, drove to the place I was staying, and called the insurance company to report the accident.
At that point, I found myself asking the three questions again. “How am I?” My body was still shaky, and I was feeling anxious about whether the insurance company would cover the cost of repairs to the other person’s car.
Where am I? What’s the situation? I was hungry, I’d done everything I could do about the accident that evening. I had a workshop starting early the next morning, and needed to be able to show up for it in my best state.
What was I supposed to do?
This was another pivotal yogic moment. Again, there were three possible ways to get lost. One was to let myself pickle in worry and fear about worst-case scenarios. (“The insurance company won’t pay. They’ll pay and my insurance will go up. My car is going to lose all its resale value.”) Another was to beat myself up in recrimination (“How could you have failed to look where you were going?”) The third was to disassociate myself emotionally from the accident, and soldier on, doing what was needed, making the best of things, but repressing my worries, fears etcetera.
I knew from experience that any of these responses are sure ways to accumulate karmic baggage, since both resentment and repressing resentment insure that some level of trauma gets stuck in my energy body and become part of my self-description in the future (“I’m a person who has stupid accidents.” Or “Life is unfair.”)
So, what would help my inner state? What did I need to do?
But the first thing I did that night to calm my anxiety was to look at the contribution system for the accident. How much of it could I have controlled?
There definitely had been a luck and timing factor – how many times have we narrowly missed or been missed by a car coming through a blind intersection?
My friend could have slowed down at the median.
The driver hadn’t been paying attention.
But nonetheless, he had had the right of way.
So, basically, it was all about whether I was paying attention.
Then I asked the question that for me always lets me turn the situation to my advantage. I asked, “What did I learn here?”
The obvious answer was “Duh, look before you cross an intersection.” But there was more: I had not actually been taking responsibility for my own safety. Because I was following someone else, I had unconsciously put the responsibility for traffic safety in her hands. For me, this small insight turned out to be huge. Had there been other situations in which I’d been hurt by blindly following a leader? Had I ever made a mistake by following instructions without checking how they “felt” to my internal feeling sense? Had I ever assumed that because I was following a boss’s orders I would somehow be protected from negative personal karma?
In that moment, I realized that this event was the clue to an inner attitude that was asking to be changed. In other words, the learning here wasn’t just “Look before you enter an intersection.” It was, “Remember that you are always responsible for your own choices. You can’t rely solely on some supposed expert to insure your safety.”
So in the end, it is all about responsibility – or the recognition of our part in the contribution system.
The price of innocence is impotence. Our potency comes from our ability to take responsibility – responsibility for making choices based on our highest and best understanding in any given moment. So, as yogis, being responsible for our inner state doesn’t just mean doing our best to feel good. It means being conscious of our own part in the web of causation, and making our choices with full intent that our contribution be as clear, as positive, and as skillful as we can make it. For us, there is only the trying, as TS Eliot famously wrote. The rest is not our business.