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Ubuntu: I am, because we are

In South Africa there is a word Ubuntu which means “I am, because we are,” or “I am because of you.” It speaks of a “oneness” and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. People are people because of other human beings.

Ubuntu serves as a counterweight to the rampant individualism that’s so pervasive in the contemporary world. It is also a beautiful philosophy to turn to right now.

We are all bound together in ways that might be invisible to the naked eye. But those bonds are there; they are real and they are vital. We can only achieve things in life if we share and, crucially, care for those around us. When we try to do things on our own, life loses its purpose and richness.

Ubuntu means love, truth, peace, happiness, optimism, kindness. It is the essence of the human spirit. From the beginning of time the principles of Ubuntu have guided African societies: how one interacts with other human beings, nature and the divine and it continues to do so to this day.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, which helped South Africa reckon with its history of apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke of Ubuntu.

“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world,” he said. “When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity." 

This concept is intrinsically yogic. The very word 'yoga' means to yoke – to join. Usually people make reference to the uniting of the body and mind, or the body and the breath. But of course it also means the unity of us as people. No one is an island — every single thing that you do, good or bad, has an effect on your family, friends and society.

Recent events are an important wake up call reminding us that we need to think twice about the choices we want to make and the kind of impact they may have on others. We need to think about what kind of world we want for our children.

Home school for me this week has been about explaining the Black Lives Matter movement to my two white, male, half-South African children. Race and inequality are not new topics in our household. When we were in America last year, we took the boys to the Newseum in Washington DC and Sam, who was seven at the time, was particularly drawn to the section on the Civil Rights Movement. He spent ages reading all the boards and absorbing all the injustices laid bare. We also visited the Lincoln Memorial and taught the children about Martin Luther King, and the famous speech he made on those white marble stairs. After a lot of reading and contemplating Sam turned to us with tears in his eyes and said, “I wish I wasn’t white.”

It’s our responsibility as parents to take that beautiful, inherent empathy in our children and nurture it. To explain to our kids that it is up to us all to see the world with eyes wide open and to call out injustices when we see them. To be brave about making mistakes along the way but to stay true to our interconnectedness. No one is born with hate in their hearts.

As yogis we should know all this but how do you put it into practice? By exactly that. Practice. Karma yoga is yoga in action. Take all the work you’re doing on yourself and turn it into service for others. Be strong in your collective responsibility on calling out hate when you see it. Put people first, before any other agenda. Be kind. And make compassion and love a priority.

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So sad that Sam said that but I'm sure many white people can empathise with that feeling of collective guilt, I certainly have in the last few weeks. Hopefully we can let go of that (through aparigraha) but also use it to spark a better understanding and renewed focus on compassion and love that you so rightly suggest.

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