Your Big Toe

by Jen Whinnen

My older son recently spent a day touring his brother’s art based school to see if he liked it better that his current school. He’s never been that into the arts but his interests have changed this year so we asked him to check it out just to be sure. Throughout his day at art school he was surly, sullen and bossy. He was mean to his brother and blatantly rude to the teachers. Half way through the day he texted his dad, asking to go home. When we tried to talk to him about it his only response was that he hated it, that it wasn’t what he wanted.

We’ve moved a lot in the last six years and he’s been to several different schools. Each time he’s moved to a new school he’s approached it with gusto and optimism. He had the faith of a child; he was going to be accepted and liked because this is a well ordered universe and that’s how things work. But, he’s older now. He’s entering into the world of  “tween-dom” and the resilience of “just wait until they see how slick I am at Minecraft!” is waning. He’s becoming self consciousness. The idea of starting all over again was too stressful. It was clear that no matter how great the school may be for him, we needed to respect his wishes.

This is an important distinction, one that is often hard as a parent to make. Parents are supposed to make decisions for their children. We are supposed to figure out what is best for them, tell them what to do. However, as they mature, we also have to take into consideration their burgeoning sense of self. We have to allow them to make their own decisions and respect that they may actually know their own minds.

As a teacher however, I do not have to toe this line. As a teacher I have to do the opposite. I must accept that my students are fully in charge of their own experience. And believe it or not, this is often hard to do. In fact, one of the most common thoughts my student teachers begin their training with is “I am going to teach the yoga that transformed me so that others will be transformed the way I have been.” On the surface this sounds like a lovely, well intentioned idea. However, it is terribly misguided. A belief rooted in the assumption that everyone wants what we want, or conversely, if they don’t want what we want they are wrong, is a recipe for conflict and disappointment. 

Like a specialized school designed to address the talents of specific children, yoga isn’t meant to convert or change others. It is meant to clear the lens to whatever degree that lens wants to be cleaned. Yoga will absolutely allow one to expand one’s consciousness beyond the mundane experience of being in a body, but yoga’s validity is not hinging upon that happening to every student of yoga. 

The teacher’s role is not to save. It is to facilitate. The teacher provides guideposts and opportunity, but the experience, whatever it is, depends entirely upon the student. Understanding, transformation, if it takes place at all, arises from one’s own effort and will. 

B.K.S. Iyengar once said “How can you know god if you don’t even know your big toe?” What a great question this is! How can we know anything about anything when we don’t even know our own minds? To presuppose that you know what someone’s motivations are, is to grant yourself an omniscience you do not have. We teach our children to share and tell them not to bite because they literally do not know any better. But when it comes to the motivations of adults, we have no real way of knowing what’s going on. Any time we step into the arena of deciding the emotionality of “why” someone is doing something, it’s a distraction. We’ve stepped out of the arena of our knowing our own big toe. 

So, how can you know god when you can’t even keep yourself focused on knowing your own big toe? How can you say what is good or right for someone else? 

You can’t.

When we sit as judge and jury on anyone, even if we are literally being called to serve on a jury of our peers, we don’t actually get to define their experience. We can cast a judgment on someone’s life, prescribe a punishment for a crime, we can look at the physical body and make suggestions based on what we see, but the internal life of that person will always be in their hands. What they choose to do with their punishment, what they do with our instructions, where they go in their mind, is up to them.

“Why would someone do that!?” Oh how I regularly find myself asking this question! And each time I do I take myself away from the work of finding right action. 

If you are called to teach, do it. You don’t need a reason to do any more than you need a justification for learning or loving.  That pendulum swings both ways – you can’t know what motivates others and they don’t get to dictate what motivates you. 

Work to understand your big toe.

That my friends, is a full time job.