Practicing nonviolence in a fractured world
This breathtaking image of the Earth is a compilation of photographs taken by NASA satellites over several cloudless nights. Looking upon what NASA calls the “Black Marble Earth” one is awestruck by the immense beauty of the planet. We instantly see our collective wholeness and interrelatedness. In moments of such great immensity and beauty we find ourselves with a paradoxical response. In Black Marble Earth, we are awed by its beauty, but terrified by our affect upon the fragile planet, evident by the massive amount of electricity and light that consumes our natural resources. Where are we headed as a species and as a planet? This visual paradox shows both life and death.
From afar, we realize how poignant our human condition is as we attempt to hold a delicate balance between our individuality and the needs of the whole of our planetary existence. We fight wars with each other and wreak havoc on the planet in an attempt to preserve what we call peace and stability, but peace is far from our reach. Often we sacrifice the needs of many for the privileges of a few. Looking at the Earth from the vantage point of the witness we see and feel the immediacy of our situation. Caught between alternate extremes of our own human dichotomy, we wonder: Where is the missing peace?
Mohandas K. Gandhi said that nonviolence “is not a coat you can wear today and take off tomorrow,” suggesting that ahimsa, or non-harming, isn’t a guise or a mask to be worn when in certain company—it is an integral part of our yogic discipline that should be practiced inwardly towards ourselves and outwardly in the world. Similarly, ahimsa isn’t something to be practiced with selfish intent or out of convenience. First of the five yama, or ethical restraints, in the Yoga Sutra, ahmisa is the foundation for the other disciplines of truthfulness, non-stealing, non-covetousness, and abstinence. Ahimsa is said to be the soil from which the eight-limbed path of yoga grows from.
Interestingly, Patanjali opted to use the negation of a word — it’s a-himsa, non-violence, not shanti, not “peace.” Why did he choose the negation rather than the absolute? My sense is that embedded in the choice of syntax is the reality of our current state of being — we are violent at times, yet we strive for peace. We are desirous, and in seeing that we aim for equanimity. Likewise, an authentic contemplative practice brings us to grips with the reality of our being — we are a violent, desirous, and fractured species that has been gifted with the potential for real intelligence, compassion, and objective love.
It is important to keep in mind at every turn that we are microcosms of the larger universe. Everything we observe in the world, everything we react to, and everything we see externally also exists within us—our culture is nothing more than a reflection of our collective state of being. And everything we observe in ourselves, our contradictions as well as our potential unity, is manifested in the world itself. If we wish to affect a change in the world, to make sense out of the fractured conditions of our collective existence, we must begin with ourselves. If we wish to awaken from the dream that we are, we must refine and transform our experience, and strive toward a state of inner unity and wholeness of being.
If our age is to be healed, we must heal ourselves. It is not enough to simply work through our residual problems, what our mothers or fathers may or may not have done to us when we were young. We must come to know ourselves fully: our strengths, weaknesses, potentials, and our life’s purpose. And we must know ourselves in context, with others, in a culture, and on earth with six billion other beings. In short, the search for consciousness forms the foundation of our discovery of the role we are called to play in the drama of life and guides our enactment of it.
We have within us an inner measure of integrity. When we step off the bridge of alignment with our true Selves and enter into a situation not becoming, in the words of the I Ching, of a “superior” man or woman, we feel remorse of conscience. And this sorrow, this care for ourselves, can eventually create an inner fusion, a solidifying that leads toward a wholeness of being containing hints of the joy and liberation of consciousness. When we see and feel that we are not whole and indivisible, we are on the path of becoming. Like a clay pot, we are fired in the kiln of suffering our inconsistencies and our many conflicting selves into a new level of integration.
Please join me this coming Sunday at 5:00 PM for our monthly satsang at Purple Yoga. This month, we open our discussion on the eight limbs of yoga, beginning with the topic of ahimsa. Attendance is by donation.
Adapted in part from The Slender Thread