lōkah samastah sukhinō bhavantu
– From a stone inscription from the Rulers of the Sangama Dynasty (1336-1485 C.E.)
May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some small way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.
– Interpretation by Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga
I have always been a little jaded when it comes to the winter season’s holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Where I grew up in the deep south in the late 1970s, commercialization of Christmas was already in full swing, and New Year’s Eve always reminded me that I wished to be somewhere else – anywhere else rather than rural Alabama. The holiday spirit seemed to be forced upon us, mass-manufactured by the American Greeting Card Company and the Wish Book from a Sears catalogue; that catalogue built anticipation for Christmas gifts with page after page of dolls, trucks, and other toys that trained children to become the next generation of American consumers in an unending cycle of needless consumption.
Little did I realize that in my life was a bright shining star in the bleak winter night, a light that I didn’t recognize at the time. That bright star was my grandfather, R. T. Sanderson, a Methodist minister who truly loved the Christmas holidays not for the gifting and feasting but for what he saw as a time to check in with the human heart. My grandfather loved to write music, and one of his passions was writing Christmas songs. He would write lyrics about family reunification, unconditional love, outward expression of compassion, and a longing for peace, not only on earth but a peace that was rooted in spirituality. One of the songs he was most pleased with was a tune called, “Keep Christmas in Your Heart”: the song asks the listener to let go of fear-based emotions and keep the unconditional love of Christ in their heart all year long, not just while the artificial evergreen tree covered with colored lights and silver tinsel was up for the month of celebration. My grandfather’s song implied that if we can show loving kindness to others, others will show us loving kindness in return. As a teen I thought the songs were hokey; at the time, I was too naive to understand the message. Gradually I came to realize that my grandfather was my first guru, or spiritual teacher.
It took me many years to come to a full understanding of what my grandfather was trying to express in his Christmas music: it would take the practice of yoga for me to get it – my yoga teacher Sharon Gannon explained that our thoughts, words, and actions are the key to creating the world around us. If we think thoughts that are uplifting, use words that express love, and practice actions that are compassionate, we will have those gifts given back to us. If we keep this in mind, the Christmas holidays can become a time to check in and realign with our core values as yogis. By rejecting the materialism that has taken over the holiday season and instead embracing the season as a time for spiritual renewal and reflection, we can open up our hearts and create a world where all can be happy and free, and where the abundance of love we have in our hearts can be shared with all beings. Some people, like my grandfather, are going to call it Christmas; others, like Sharon Gannon, will call it a bhava (a divine energetic) – an unconditional willingness to uplift the lives of others. At the top of her yoga classes Sharon would always chant lōkah samastah sukhinō bhavantu three times; then she would ask all the students to raise their arms toward the sky and continue to chant ...“make me an instrument for Thy Will, not mine but Thine be done, free me from anger, jealousy, and fear, fill my heart with joy and compassion. Om, shantih, shantih, shantih.” This was a way of creating an intention for a heart-centered practice that was to last beyond our yoga mat.
Ram Dass once said, “The kind of love that Christ gives is conscious, unconditional love; he just is love. And ultimately you become that kind of love.” This is the centerpiece of the Christmas season and of the mantra lōkah samastah sukhinō bhavantu. If we can keep that conscious, unconditional love in our hearts no matter what the season is, it can be the gift that keeps giving throughout the years.