I’ve been mulling over this post for awhile, especially given the current protests throughout the United States and now around the world set against the backdrop of the ongoing global pandemic. I see the fear, the confusion, the hurt, and the pain throughout families, communities, nations, and societies. Like many, I ask myself, what can be done? Where do we start? When things are so crazy, and so uncertain, I often try to get back to basics – to recenter and pause to figure out the best first step. Today, I’m going back to namaste.
Namaste is a term that tends to be thrown around casually in the West, often in the context of yoga classes. At best, it’s used as a generic greeting or farewell, and at worst, merely a rote way of ending a fitness session. But in this one little word lies the key to understanding the deeper truth about the world we live in, and – if fully actualized – the key to healing it as well.
Etymology and Origins
Derived from Sanskrit, it is often viewed as bringing together two main components: namas and te. Namas was originally, itself, a combination word bringing together na meaning “not” and mamah meaning “I” or “mine.” Put together, namas can be read as “not I.” The word te means “to you.” In the current era, the root namah means “bow,” making the most literal modern translation “bowing to you.”
However, I think it’s telling that namas means both “not I” from the original etymology, and “bow,” in the current era and it’s also vitally important for understanding the simple truth this overused and underappreciated word can impart. If we combine both meanings we can interpret namaste as roughly saying “Not I bows to you.”
Not I? Why not I?
A core belief in Buddhism is the “absence of self” or “no self.” The full meaning or interpretation of this is complex and far beyond the scope of this post, but the general idea is that “I” have no individual, separate self (i.e. “no self”), but instead am interconnected with all existence and all beings. Taken this way, namaste includes the idea that “I” am not doing the bowing, but rather my “no self.” Since the idea of “no self” or “not I” is inherently true for all beings, it has sometimes been described as being the universal divine spark found within each of us. Thus, a fuller interpretation of namaste would be: “The Divine in me bows to (or honors) the Divine in you.”
“The Divine in me honors the Divine in you…”
“All…Are Created Equal”
This idea of inherent divinity is manifest in many religious traditions, and forms the basis of much of Western thought and beliefs. In the seventeenth century, two English philosophers – Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – asserted the natural equality of human beings. This concept was further expanded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, where he asserted that “all men are created equal.”
We cannot ignore the fact that this assertion was still limited by the thinking and culture of the times. Most glaringly within the text is the use of the word “men.” At that time, no thought was given to the equal treatment or status of women. Further, though “all men” were supposedly equal, true political power in the United States still belonged solely to white, property owning males. Most egregiously, after securing its independence, the United States continued to allow slavery, which clearly denoted certain people as not only “unequal” but also dehumanized them to the point of treating them as property.
While slavery in America was officially abolished following the Civil War and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, true equality was not realized for the newly freed slaves and black citizens of America at that time. The history of America is filled with cultural and structural ways in which blacks were continued to be treated as unequal both in the eyes of the law and culturally. Jim Crow laws allowed for racial segregation for years before the Supreme Court ruled it to be unconstitutional followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite these and other measures, inherently discriminatory practices such as redlining further compounded the de facto inequality in the United States. Certainly, some progress has been made, but it has often been slow, halting, and continually falling short.
Today’s societal structure and culture are built on the legacy of this struggle to move from slavery to full equality for all people, regardless of race. There are unhealed wounds that continue to strike painful chords even to this day, as we are seeing manifest in the protests going on now.
Simple, Not Easy
I believe namaste holds the key to our understanding of our world and the ability to heal it. It’s a simple concept, and resonates with the ideal within the intended promise that “all…are created equal.” It recognizes the inherent worth and equality of every human life. It recognizes that we all have within us this divine spark that connects us in our common humanity. Further, it honors this universal spark of divinity, by its very nature. “Not I” – this interconnected universal humanity – bows in awe of the interconnected universal humanity within you. One word. So simple.
AND YET, as we all know from our own daily lives, “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy.” There is so much pain here for so many people. There is so much fear here. There is no easy solution to these problems, and to truly move forward will require hard work, dedication, vigilance, and patience for all of us.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.Lao Tzu
But namaste is a good place to start. Begin by embracing and understanding what it truly means. Follow it up by using this full, rich, and deep practice in your daily life. Don’t just throw it out casually after a yoga class. When you say it aloud, wonder in awe at the truth it reveals. That within each of us is boundless potential. If you feel uncomfortable integrating this word into your daily life, apply it mentally. Before you begin talking with someone, mentally bow and internally whisper this word and feel the power of its truth. By beginning each interaction with this brief practice, how much more likely for kindness and understanding will you be, no matter where the conversation goes?
Once we have connected to this basic truth that everyone holds and contains this equal unbounded potential, we can look at and address the current situation with clear eyes. Let’s be clear: we should use all tools at our disposal to stand up to this injustice and to work toward the ultimate promise of all being truly equal. Peaceful protests have demonstrated their power to change the fates of nations and of millions. We need to let that divine spark burn brightly within us and to show those who would deny or ignore it that it burns brightly and needs to be honored within every human being. But we must do so from a place of clarity, from a place of stillness, from a place of “Not I.” This will let us choose right actions when working for change. This example will move people and change hearts and minds in a meaningful and lasting way.
Finally – and this is the hard one – apply this to those you feel in conflict with. I watch the news and I see people engaged in actions and activity that I not only don’t understand, but also rouse in me a sense of injustice and righteous anger. I feel the instinct to blame these people. To separate from these people. To hate these people. And even when seeing these hateful actions, I try to pause, breathe deeply, and whisper namaste to myself. Their actions may be misguided; they may be rooted in fear; they may be reprehensible. And yet, they, too, carry that divine spark within them, no matter how difficult it is to see through their hurtful actions and words.
We are so conditioned to break into “us” and “them” – to have our “team” win. Especially with something this momentous and so emotionally charged, namaste helps us to remember we’re not fighting for change. We’re building change. We’re not there to crush or destroy an enemy, but to guide people who have lost their way to see the ultimate truth – that all are created equal.
Only by first showing them that we honor the divine in them can we hope to show them how to honor the divine in us.