Photo: "Before the Storm" by Dana Wyss
‘‘Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.’’
- Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
In the United States, today is a federal holiday dedicated to celebrating the birth, the efforts, the presence, and the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of Dr. King and his extraordinary efforts to wake up this nation to injustice and oppression through non-violent action, my class at Dharma Yoga Austin focused on the yogic practice of Ahimsa, non-violence. In the 8-fold path of yogic discipline, Ahimsa is the very first practice we are called to make. It sits as the first guideline within the first limb (the Yamas or restraints), coming long before asana, before pranayama, before meditation. Ahimsa can be seen as a foundation of all of the other practices in the discipline of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Most of us could agree that murder, war, police brutality, rape, physical assault, kidnapping, bullying, road rage and fist fights all constitute violent behaviors. Most of us abhor these things, seek to minimize our risks of encountering them, and hope to protect others from encountering them, at least at some level. But violence does not only exist in these grosser forms, and many of the more subtle forms of violence are also socially sanctioned. How deeply does violence pervade our own thinking, our own actions, our own worldview? How commonly are we contributing to a more violent world, without even acknowledging it? And, are we willing to look, to acknowledge our own complicity? Are we willing to see where we perpetuate suffering for ourselves and others?
When we are unwilling
to look deeply and
our own lives, we can
easily violate others in
many subtle ways that
we may not even be
aware of, thinking
that we are actually
- Deborah Adele
It's a tall task, an enormous endeavor, and one that promises to be uncomfortable. Why engage in such a practice, why enter such discomfort in the first place? Because the violence within us - our violence - is the one that we have the ability to work with, it is the violence that we can change. It is not my intention to define these more subtle forms of violence for anyone else. This inquiry, in order to create an effective foundation for you, is deeply personal and must be so. However, since the more subtle forms of violence in our lives can be slippery and difficult to detect, I would like to offer some questions and quotes below for your reflection. Before entering into this inquiry, I invite you to commit to non-violence toward yourself, regardless of what you discover. Commit to offering compassion to yourself as you endeavor to see yourself more clearly:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
― Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
How does it affect me to overfill my schedule? How does it affect my family when I do so? My friends?
Is there any violence in my efforts to achieve, or to meet my goals?
Is verbally attacking another (online or in person) whose views differ from my own a form of violence? How does it make me feel to do so? How does it make me feel to receive such an attack?
"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too." - Henry David Thoreau, from Civil Disobedience
How do I engage in violence through the decisions I make in how I spend my resources?
Is purchasing clothing and equipment I know to be made by people who are oppressed, enslaved, or treated deplorably making a contribution to the violence in our world?
Am I willing to change my purchasing habits in order to reduce suffering in this world? My traveling habits? My diet? What alterations or sacrifices am I willing to make?
"The service that springs from peace is the idiosyncratic, particular fruition of a seed that has found its nourishing soil. It is the overflow of a well that has struck the underground source. It has its own interior origin, and its own rhythm of growth or dormancy. It is independent of someone else's measurable accomplishment, since its origins and intentions are in eternity...It kindles motion that fills us like sap, and our leaves open, and the sky comes nearer, and the winds of life turn what had been personal gyrations into the rustle and music of foliage in the canopy of life."
- Paul Fleischman, M.D., from Cultivating Inner Peace
Is comparing my offerings to those of others a way of extending subtle violence to myself, or to them? Am I commonly seeking the approval or interest of others towards the gifts I have offered the world? How does it feel to be in that place? Does it honor my own creative inspiration to do so? Is it damaging to put others in that position?
Can offering assistance to others ever be a form of violence? Do I ever force my ideas, plans or morals upon others under the cloak of helping them? Do I try to control people and situations through giving? How does it make me feel to do so? How does it make me feel when others do this to me?
Is it violent to feed hateful thoughts toward others - to allow myself to fantasize about revenge, or to wish harm upon those who've wronged me? If I knew there was a physical or emotional impact beyond my own mind in response to my hateful or violent thoughts, would I change my answer? How does it make me feel to spend time creating and nurturing such thoughts? How would it make me feel if I discovered their subject - my enemy - could feel them?
"Ghandi once said that nothing we do as individuals matters but that it's vitally important to do it anyway. This touches on a powerful paradox in the relationship between society and individuals. Imagine, for example, that social systems are trees and we are the leaves. No individual leaf on the tree matters; whether it lives or dies has no effect on much of anything. But collectively, the leaves are essential to the whole tree because they photosynthesize the sugar that feeds it. Without leaves, the tree dies. So leaves matter and they don't, just as we matter and we don't. What each of us does may not seem like much, because in important ways, it isn't much. But when many people do this work together they can form a critical mass that is anything but insignificant, especially in the long run. If we're going to be a part of a larger change process, we have to learn to live with this sometimes uncomfortable paradox."
- Allan Johnson, from Privilege, Power and Difference.
How important is intention in my assessment of violent behavior? Can an action be violent, even when it's acknowledged intention was positive? Can an outwardly kind action actually be violent if it's underlying intention is manipulative, dishonest, or cruel? Am I disciplined in seeking to understand my own intentions to speak, act, or engage? Or do I tend to assume that whatever I do, I'm doing for the good of self and/or others?
Certainly, I've left many topics untouched here. These few queries and reflections are meant simply to open the process for you, if indeed you choose to engage with it. What I love about this practice is that it's both challenging and empowering. Even when it's sticky, icky and difficult, we ultimately leave lighter, clearer and more aware. This is an ongoing practice, and one that can deepen and expand through our observations of self, others and our world. As we continue our looking, perhaps we can remember these words of Dr. King, that we don't add suffering to what we find:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.’’
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go From Here
Wishing you strength and depth in your practice, and even joy in the doing.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.