This past Sunday Jayne and I carved out an hour to go walking around the old village of Amherst. The weather was perfect for a Sunday walk – light rain wanted to fall, but never did. During the trek we passed by Wilkins Elementary School, where all of our children grew and learned. I’ve a lot of fond memories of my and other children singing and dancing and sharing their poems there. From those memories I can still feel a sense of community.

And there is another memory from Wilkins. Shortly after moving to Amherst, it was back-to-school night for parents and kids. We enjoyed meeting the teachers and the parents of other students. Amidst the friendly banter one gentleman suddenly and seriously looked me in the eye and asked: “Yankees or Red Sox?” It didn’t compute for me at first. “Come again?” I replied. “Are you a Yankees or a Red Sox fan?” came the clarification. I explained I didn’t really follow baseball and so had no opinion on the matter. I assumed this would land as non perturbing to my new friend – but I was wrong. He was clearly displeased with my unwillingness to take a side and broke off our conversation abruptly with mild disgust. I had provided him neither a fight nor a bash session. And so I was of no use.

That was 20 years ago and while rooting for a sports team is benign fun, the lesson has stuck with me and seems to grow more poignant as societal friction increases. Always there will be those in our life path that imbibe heavily the energy of contention. In fact to some degree we all do. But this is the beverage of suffering. I’m trying to sip lighter and less these days.

Perhaps the most fundamental teaching of yoga is that the root of all suffering is the misunderstanding that we are separate. I believe this. I believe this based on my personal experience with contention, which has never failed to feed my feelings of separateness – and fuel personal suffering. Of late, it has become helpful to use this question as I choose what to put my energy into: “Is this an action that is unifying or separating?” I invite you to ask the same of yourself as you create each day.

It has been said that Yoga is the art of listening. Listening, really listening, seems to always fall on the side of unifying; of holding neutral space; of bringing a spirit of peace. That is true whether we are listening to our bodies and backing out of wheel pose, listening to our hearts and backing out of a social invitation that will overload us that day, or listening to another person express fears and frustrations.

The next time you are asked to take a side in some conflict, as noble as a given cause may appear, consider instead bringing your practice to a new level. It may take the courage to be disliked – but see what happens if you refuse the bait to engage in separating conflict and in exchange offer the peaceful gift of simply listening.

The only thing a spiritual warrior fights is suffering.