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Man’s mind, stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

A while back, I wrote “Broken wings and bystander yogis,” a post on the responsibility we hold to act in crises—to avoid perpetuating the phenomenon of bystander apathy. In the Yoga Journal Community, a member named lighthasmass (LHM) posted a comment (login needed) about a personal incident:

While driving to teach a yoga class, LHM was running late. A dog suddenly appeared along the 55mph highway and jumped in front of the car behind LHM. The car hit it. LHM faced a dilemma: rush to class (be a bystander) versus helping an injured animal (take responsibility).

Ultimately the car behind LHM stopped to help, so LHM was spared the choice. But LHM recalled the post and wrote, “the lesson has stuck with me.”

This anecdote vividly illustrates a few important points:

  • There is a big difference between hypothesis and reality. We cannot predict our behavior in a situation until that situation actually happens. The archetypal conjecture: What would you do if given only a year (six months? two weeks?) to live?
  • An idea can take root and color our thought processes, perhaps for life. Once, I took a Zen Buddhism meditation course and the instructor gave a dharma talk on non-stealing, stating that even seemingly innocuous freebies (like an unnoticed undercharge from a big chain store or mooching off a neighbor’s wi-fi) still constitute taking what is not yours. After that talk, I found myself compelled to reject such unwarranted freebies.
  • Once someone points out the bright line between good and bad behavior, it’s hard not to do the right thing. If not … The guilt! The sheepishness! The unforgiving conscience! And you need not read Dostoyevsky or Poe to understand this. (Note: Being good has nothing to do with being nice. People tend to confuse the two.)

l_center_bird_rescueIn the September 2009 issue of Yoga Journal, Kaitlin Quistgaard, Editor-in-Chief, writes about finding an injured bird while she was driving. She stopped, although she had no idea what to do. When another car passed, she flagged it down. That driver did have a plan, tucking the bird in her coat and taking it to medical care. Quistgaard’s point: We can help even when we are unsure what to do.

Would you stop for an injured bird? What about a deer hit by a car? A dog? A human?

Even in non-emergency situations, do people go out of their way to help others? My friend NC, a yoga teacher, once attended a packed workshop taught by guest teacher Sarah Powers. Coming from a class, she was slightly late and the glass door into the studio were locked. A suntanned blonde quick to smile, NC stood at the entrance in clear view of the students seated inside. But no one stood to let her in. People actually tried to avoid eye contact. Eventually the director of the studio, who knew NC, had to walk all the way from the opposite side of the studio to unlock the door.

Yoga students nod with earnest conviction when taught about the yamas and niyamas. But in real life, do they act properly?

Not opening a door is inexplicable, but relatively benign. (The story gave NC and me a good chuckle, as we wondered, “Who are these people?”) But it illustrates the psychological phenomenon of “bystander apathy” (also called “bystander effect”). People tend to avoid acting in emergencies when others are around. The more people present, the less likely they intervene to help.

Psychologists have conjectured reasons for this phenomenon. People tend to reinforce one another’s behavior: No one else is standing to open the door for NC, so staying put and pretending she’s not there is socially acceptable. In a large group, there is also “diffusion of responsibility,” with people counting on others to intervene: I’m comfortable sitting here, part of the crowd; another person will surely get up and open the door.

People unfamiliar with yoga often comment on its challenges: It takes a limber body. It takes a quiet mind. But the hardest tests might be the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path, the yamas and niyamas, which govern the hurly-burly of daily life.

Note: Thanks for Yoga Journal Community blogger calvino1976 for his post (login required), which inspired mine.