Cockroaches and Felons

By Maya Jones

(editor note: Maya is a long-time employee and co-creator at Inner Vision Yoga)

The practice of yoga invites us to recognize the divinity in all life. Each time we place our hands together at our heart center, bow our heads, and speak the word Namaste, we remind ourselves to honor the Divine within as well as the Divine in all life.

It is fairly easy to accept the Divinity of a newborn baby, a spectacular sunrise or sunset, a majestic eagle, or a wise elder. However, there are times when it is much more difficult to accept the idea that everything, everything is sacred. People we dislike for various reasons: those who are unpleasant or just annoying, as well as murderers, rapists, child molesters and thieves; pesty life forms like cockroaches, rattlesnakes, scorpions, flies, ants, mosquitoes, fungi, bacteria, viruses; debilitating disease; raging, murderous storms, forest fires, earthquakes, nuclear disasters, our dying ecosystems. But indeed, each of these is an aspect of the Divine. It is to them I dedicate this story.

Divine Genius
Portent of the gods
Masters at living
Elders in our midst

I wrote this Ode to Cockroaches when my older son, D, was in jail, awaiting sentencing. By then we knew he was facing a 10-17 year prison term. As I wrote, rage and grief filled my body. “NO! This can’t be happening! This can’t be his life! It can’t be my life! My work is to encourage people to honor and cherish our living earth and all her beings! I don’t want to be involved with the darkness of the prison industrial complex! NO!” I fell sobbing onto the floor.

After several minutes, the sobs began to subside. From the depths of my pain, a deep knowing filled my body – you know, there’s not much difference between the attitude people have toward cockroaches and how they feel about felons. Both come from the same mindset – that we are separate from others. Your work is to tell stories that help people come back into communion, to lift the illusory veil of separateness, to recognize that everything, without exception, is sacred.

Oldest of the living insects
Unchanged over time
400 million years you’ve thrived
Ancient, elder, wise
Evolutionary success
Great adaptive skill
Resilient, intelligent
Flexible as well
Approaching life’s eternal presence.

Learning to respect cockroaches has been deep yogic work for me. It started when I shared an apartment with thousands of them. Every time I switched on the light and the little cowards ran for cover, my body cringed in disgust. One night, one of them had the audacity to scurry across the floor, stop in the middle of the room, and look right at me. I picked up my shoe and started after it. But it held its ground. It seemed to say, “Come on down. I have something to tell you.” With its gaze, that cockroach held me within its powerful energy field and I felt compelled to get down onto the floor. My skin crawled as I came to sit within inches of this despicable creature. It took all my yogic skill to hold my seat. I breathed deeply. The words of several teachers resounded in my ears: Hold the pose, relax into the edgy places.

It seemed as if this lowly creature spoke to me. “Hi! I am one of your planetmates. Yep. It’s true. Me and all the other lowly creatures you humans find so disgusting. You know, we cockroaches have been around for 400 million years. We’ve seen Mother Earth through all her crises and know how to adapt to every adversity. You humans – you are newly arrived on Earth. You have so many capacities others of us do not have – like your big, complex brains that allow you to be creative and self-reflective, your ability to walk on two legs, which frees your hands to manipulate the world to your desire, your facility for language. Those skills make you seem powerful and invincible. But you have brought yourselves to a knife-edge. It is likely you will annihilate yourselves, maybe all complex life, if you don’t soon wake up to the truth that there is no separation between you and the rest of us, no ‘other’ outside yourselves.”

I noticed that my breath had softened, and my body had relaxed.
Cedar colored body and wings
Vigorously groomed
No sting, no bite; you’re disease free
Posing us no threat
Loving places dark and warm
Clean up all our waste
Pollinators and recyclers
Food for many too
Benign planetmates, misunderstood

As I sat on the floor with that cockroach, I noticed how beautiful it was. – rich, reddish brown color. And look at your wings – so delicate and transparent, with a lovely, intricate design on them. I didn’t know you could fly? As if in response, it gave me an aerial demonstration of its talents. As I watched it fly around the room, I began to wonder: Is there something beautiful to be found in everything I hate and fear?

A scene from the Bhagavad Gita came to mind – the one where Krishna reveals to Arjuna his fearful, mighty forms – raging fires, roaring torrents of water, the flames of his mouth devouring all the worlds – those forms of Krishna that strike terror in our hearts and compel us to try to control the world to make it seem safer.

As I sat in the presence of this wise elder, I thought of all the people and situations I have turned my back on with my harsh judgments. Could it be? Could it really be that they are all Krishna in disguise?

Most maligned and hated insect
Early we are taught
Filthy, smelly, carry disease
Hard and crunchy too
Lurking, hiding, invading space
Sneak out after dark
You move too fast and fly, ye gods!
We project our fears
Learned aversion feeds hostility

When I shared this ode with one audience, a man said, “I reserve the right to continue hating them.” I can relate. It seems as if I get some perverse pleasure out of holding on to my judgments and hatreds. It’s a curious habit that keeps me feeling superior to others, while at the same time increasing my sense of loneliness and isolation. Deep listening to stories is helping that destructive habit to loosen its grip on me and unlock my hardened heart.

Over the last two years, I have run a correspondence program that works with incarcerated people to develop a mindfulness-based meditation practice. Several of the men in our program have gifted me with stories about their painful lives. Each time one of them does that, the hard, protective shell I have spent a lifetime constructing around myself cracks open a little further – kind of like what happened with that cockroach a few years earlier.
Initiators disrupting
Stable status quo
Messengers of boundary spirit
Driving us to change
Nudging us toward edge of chaos
Where all life begins
Leaving imagined safety zones
Finding peace within
Elegant expressions of Divine

Bearing witness to stories of childhood abuse, ongoing torture, senseless violence, and devastation of our life support systems can seem unbearable. Sometimes I want to scream. “Stop! Don’t tell me another painful story!” At those times the words of storyteller Elizabeth Ellis come to mind. She tells of visiting Geronimo’s gravesite and the tiny cage where he had been held captive for years. He had worn a path in the stone floor from his constant pacing, like the caged animal he was. Her heart broke open that day and she knew she would never again turn away from suffering.

On the way home, she saw a man holding a sign, “Will work for food.” Instead of averting her eyes as she usually did, she looked right at him. Oh my gosh! That is my dear colleague from 15 years ago! How did he end up on the street? She stopped the car and opened the door.

“Get in.”

“Oh, no. I’m too smelly. You’ll never get the stench out of your car.”

“Get in, she said.”

She took him home, gave him a shower, a clean set of clothes, and a meal. Then she heard his story. Together they began to investigate why suddenly all employment doors were closed to him. It took them months to unravel what had happened. Finally they discovered that his downward spiral had begun when he was mistakenly identified as a felon.

Elizabeth acknowledges that stories like this can be painful to hear and we may want to turn our backs on them. But, she says, “If he can live it, I can look at it.” Her words have embedded themselves deep into my heart. Each time I think I can’t bear to hear yet another painful story, they arise like a mantra – “If he can live this, I can look at it.”

These words give me strength and courage to allow my heart to break open again and again and again, each time expanding my capacity to hold deep compassion for the challenge of life. After all, it is not easy to be human on this planet, especially as we learn that we are not, as we thought, the final aim of creation, put here on Earth to use its resources in whatever way suits us. We are discovering that we are not standing outside the rest of life; we are integral members of the earth community, interdependent with all life. This new awareness is causing a shift in our entire way of being on this Earth. A big task indeed – one that both humbles and inspires me.

Urging us to threshold crossings
Into mystery
Evoking aspects of ourselves
Unknown and despised
The shadow elements of life
Rejected, demonized
Provoking transformation
Giving up control
Co-creative partners in disguise.

Opening myself to deep listening of painful stories provides endless opportunities to engage in the practice of tapas, a Sanskrit word that means to blaze, burn, suffer pain or consume by heat. In this practice, we go into the scary, painful places where we learn to embrace the dark, thus coming to experience life in all its fullness.

Agonizing stories hold my feet to the transformational fire. They burn away the jagged, rough edges of my being, and melt and purify my heart as they move me toward deeper union with the Divine. It may very well be that these difficult stories are sending us a vital message – that in order to find our rightful place within the earth community, we must break down barriers we have erected – boundaries that give us the illusion of safety and stability; boundaries that keep us separate from those we deem as “other;” boundaries that isolate us.

Like cockroaches, people labeled felons and other “untouchable” ones have become my greatest teachers. They bring me face to face with those parts of myself I despise and repress, reject and demonize, and then project onto others. As I practice giving up control in partnership with these beautiful expressions of the Divine, I come into deep communion with the Oneness of all life. I am grateful for their teachings. To them, to you, to myself, to all life, I say Namaste.

Divine genius
Portent of the gods
Masters at living
Elders in our midst