Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance by Michael Stone
Chapter 5: Ahimsa: Nonviolence.
Chapter 5 opens with the bleak observation that our world is filled with violence. Even a cursory glance at the newspaper headlines confirms this. At the time of the book’s writing, there were more than three dozen active military conflicts taking place around the world. The U.S. was embroiled in one of the largest of these conflicts, namely, our invasion and occupation of Iraq.
According to Michael Stone, these conflicts arise as a result of fear and hatred. Fear and hatred, in turn, arise from egoistic thinking – i.e., that mode of thinking in which I view myself as an atomistic self that stands in opposition to some “other” that threatens to take away that which I desire or possess as “mine.” This is delusive thinking, since it imagines a separateness of beings that is false.
Stone argues for and relies upon two important metaphysical ideas throughout this chapter. First, he believes that the notion of “I” as a stable, unified, and persistent entity is false. In other words, there is no atomistic “I” that stands separately and distinct from everything else. Second, he believes in the interconnectedness of all things. This interconnectedness is not (just) mystical or spiritual in nature; it is a literal interconnectedness that manifests socially, economically, ecologically, and psychologically.
So how do these insights move us from violence to nonviolence? According to Stone, nonviolence begins with an all-important shift or realignment of attitude in which we “come to understand the basic unity of all things.” This will rid the mind of “the delusion of rightness” – i.e., the idea that there is a rigid binary of right and wrong, and that our viewpoint is always and necessarily right. Violence and conflict will seem almost silly, then, since we will no longer feel the need to prevail over competing views, beliefs, or interests.
This shift of attitude is not easy to accomplish. In fact, it requires ongoing and dedicated practice of all eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. In the previous chapter, Stone presents a helpful diagram of Ashtanga that arranges the limbs in a circular fashion, as opposed to a linear or hierarchical manner. What this means, ultimately, is that the “higher” limbs of Ashtanga – i.e., Dhyana and Samadhi – feed directly back into the first limb, Yama. So Samadhi is not a far-off goal attainable only by the most extreme ascetic; it is a part of the practice of yoga for everyone, and can be directly expressed in our ethics (yama).
Michael Stone’s discussion of ahimsa is necessarily abstract and highly conceptual. So it may not be immediately evident how his ideas can be implemented on a day to day basis. He addresses this problem in the final section of the chapter, offering some very practical advice for how people can initiate this shift away from egoistic thinking. His proposal is simple: learn to listen.
Listening to another person is not simply hearing their words, nor is it simply paying close attention. It is “listening without knowing,” as Stone puts it. This is very similar to the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind” or “empty mind.” We truly listen only when we are aware and attentive without filtering what we hear through the lens of what we already know or believe. The “knowing mind” listens by finishing the other person’s sentence before she’s done speaking. The “don’t-know mind,” by contrast, is open and receptive. When we learn to listen in this latter mode, we take a step towards understanding and compassion. By truly listening, we embody the non-dualistic nature of reality, instead of falling into the trap of a rigid me-against-other view of the world. This may not guarantee nonviolence, but violence becomes much more difficult to justify when we extend our notion of self to everything and everyone around us.
As Stone points out in the introduction, the Sanskrit word ahimsa can be translated not only as “nonviolence,” but also “not harming” and “not intending injury.” So ahimsa is not just about war and physical violence among humans; it also concerns the psychological, economic, social, and ecological aspects of our world.
So how should the ethical principle of ahimsa figure into our conduct towards, say, the environment? According to Stone’s reasoning, if we can learn to see ourselves as part of nature, not as exploiters or masters of nature, then we will assume a new stance that requires us to think more deeply about the consequences of our actions. Consider, for instance, that 99-cent yoga mat I posted about recently. If I think from an egoistic perspective, then I am thinking only about fulfilling my desire or want for a new yoga mat, and doing so at a cost that has the least impact on my bank account. So, from this perspective, a 99-cent yoga mat seems like a no-brainer — of course, I’ll get it! All else being equal, I’d rather pay $0.99 at Menards than $7.99 or $19.99 for the same mat somewhere else.
If I see myself as part of a larger community, however, and if I view this community as including not only other people, but the entire planet, then my thinking changes dramatically. My primary concern is not whether I can get my yoga mat as cheaply as possible. My thinking goes more like this: “Where did this yoga mat come from? What is it made out of? Who made it, and under what working conditions? Were they paid a fair wage? Did they work voluntarily, or were they coerced in some way? What will become of this mat when I’m done with it? How will the mat impact the earth once it ends up in a landfill?”
This shift in perspective, then, results in quite a dramatic change in what we value, and how we assesses value. What’s good for “me” is no longer good enough. In fact, the whole notion of “me” is turned upside-down, so that I begin to think of my own interests as being connected to, intertwined with, and ultimately inseparable from, the interests of others and the world around me.
So this shift in attitude is really a shift in being. This is important, because it means that the ethical principles of yama are not a list of rules for us to follow. Rather, they constitute a mode of being that gives rise to new ways of engaging with the world. This allows for, and requires, the individual to exercise discernment and discrimination in each and every one of her own choices. So, for instance, the principle of ahimsa does not say that killing animals for food is absolutely and always wrong. Rather, it demands that if and when we do choose to eat animals, we understand this action through the lens of a much larger conception of self — Self with a capital “S”, if you will — instead of viewing the action from the perspective of my own personal, egoistic desires and tastes.
Michael Stone provides an excellent example to illustrate the flexibility that this mode of thinking/being provides. Stone lives in an area that has become overrun with bears. This is due, in large part, to an ecological imbalance that has been caused by human activity. One day, a bear entered the property of one of his neighbors, and the neighbor proceeded to shoot and kill the bear. At first glance, this seems to be totally out of line with ahimsa. After all, what could be more violent than shooting a living being with a shotgun?
Upon closer inspection, however, this action could be perfectly consistent with yoga principles. As it turns out, the neighbor shared the bear meat with several families, and used the fur to make mittens. Not a bone or hair was wasted. Furthermore, the bear had presented an ongoing threat to the neighbor’s livestock, so killing it actually spared the lives of other animals. Does this mean that what the neighbor did was good, or right? In some sense, it doesn’t matter. What Stone proposes is that when we act, we act from a perspective that takes into account our imbeddedness in a vast network of beings. Right and wrong are labels we apply to individual actions, but when we exist in a more holistic mode, these labels lose their grip, if not their entire meaning.
So the lesson I would draw from Stone’s chapter is not that we should never eat animals, or drive cars, or make money, or kill. These are rigid absolutes that do not make sense in a world that is ever-changing and fluid. The lesson, rather, seems to be that we should focus on how we orient ourselves towards the world — i.e., how we understand the self in relation to everything else. Actions that flow from an ego-less way of being will be far more in balance with the world.