Hey there everyone,
I’ve just started a long yoga course and it’s pretty intensive, so it may take me some time to get into a rhythm with these but I intend to make a little bit of time everyday to write. Going forward these will likely begin to hone in on matters directly relating to yoga, spirituality and philosophy as that has become the focus of my day to day existence. I must state at this point the obvious fact that I am no expert in either dialectic or priestcraft. I am not even an expert at downward facing dog, as the first few days of this course have proven. I am a student of dharmic matters and a spiritual dilettante at best. However I’ve found the process of writing helpful in bringing these concepts into focus in my own mind and perhaps others may find them valuable. Your kind attention, in any case, is always appreciated.
I’d like to start by focusing my attention on what is really Page 1, Paragraph 1, Sub-Section 1 of yoga, a concept called Ahimsa, most commonly translated as non-violence. I would say that it feels pertinent to the political landscape at the moment, but it always is and always has been. It’s no revelation that war, injustice and abuse have proven to be a consistent theme throughout human civilization. Yet throughout the peregrinations of history there is evidence that this has always felt against not only our better judgment, but our very nature at the deepest level. This is why most religions have felt the need to enshrine it so prominently in their various doctrines, commandments and precepts. In every cultural context, whenever people look deep enough inside themselves, they invariably discover that violence is simply missing the point of what our mysterious incarnation as human beings is all about. But it’s in the details where things quickly get murky. The specific rules of conduct intended to achieve non-violence, who they apply to, and in what situations it is appropriate to disregard them; these form a patchwork of cultural practices, philosophies of living, restrictions and taboos whose development over time and in different geographical contexts have coalesced into the superficial aesthetic and practical differences of the worlds religions, and, in a particularly human stroke of irony, has itself become a source of enmity, distrust and violence.
The concept of Ahimsa is the framework of non-violence espoused by Buddhism, Jainism and most forms of Hinduism, particularly those influenced by the philosophical schools of Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga.
I have mentioned before that yoga is far more then a practice of physical exercise. Of the 8 limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, the first two are a series of ethical precepts known as the Yamas and Niyamas of which there are 5 each. The Yamas are intended to govern your outward behaviour, in contrast to the Niyamas which tend to focus on the treatment of oneself. The 5 Yamas are as follows: Ahimsa; non-violence, Satya; truthfulness, Asteya; non-stealing, Brahmacharya; normally translated as chastity, though its meaning is far more complicated, and Aparigraha; non-possessiveness, essentially an injunction against greed and material acquisiton. Ahimsa is always mentioned first and is generally said to supercede the others. In other words if following the other Yamas, or Niyamas, would somehow violate Ahimsa, then Ahimsa must take precedence.
Non-violence is the most common translation given, but it’s meaning is far broader then mere physical violence. Violence in this sense would mean anything that harms another living being whether physically or emotionally, directly or through negligence. It includes both specific acts of force and more abstract patterns of injustice. Though intended to be a prescription for an individuals personal conduct, it would also take into account that persons influence on other individuals and larger social groups, as well as the negative ramifications of his habits and modes of consumption. It is also intended to apply to ones conduct towards oneself as well as to society as a whole and the world at large. Following Ahimsa is not simply a matter of being vegetarian and refusing to join the military. It is the lifelong project of living in harmony with the world around you, of cultivating love for yourself and learning to see yourself in other people. When taken in it’s true depth Ahimsa is not just the first of the Yamas, it is the goal of them all. And it’s not just the goal of the Yamas. It’s the goal of the Niyamas, of all of the physical postures and practices, of meditation, of philosophy. It is in fact the goal of the whole yogic project.
The final limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Samadhi, or enlightenment. When one leaves thought forms and personal identification behind and unites with the absolute. Isn’t this the goal of yoga? Yes. But what I’m trying to get across is that in their purest, most refined sense Samadhi and Ahimsa are the same thing. Perfect enlightenment is simple non-violence at its most essential, and every seemingly insignificant act of selflessness and love is ones innate enlightenment poking through the veil of illusion. So, in Patanjali’s 8 limbs we see, once again, things ending where they begin. The gestation and the conclusion spiral into one another and, finally, are indistinguishable.
The practical trouble is that when we consider a doctrinal position to be this broad, this abstract and this open to personal interpretation the issue of how to follow it becomes far more complicated then simply following a rule by rote. Every action we take has consequences both positive and negative, and every attempt to relieve suffering will invariably cause some suffering somewhere down the line. There are no spiritual points to be earned simply by the fact of being vegan or attending anti-war protests or denouncing problematic political positions on facebook. These may very well be highly moral acts but the impact they have is always situational and it is very possible for these actions to have harmful repercussions if they are done out of dogmatic obligation and without sensitivity to the context in which they occur. Additionally, even if these acts seem unimpeachably noble in a material sense, they have very little usefulness to ones yogic or dharmic path if they are carried out with agitation, bitterness or contempt, however well hidden.
There is a term used in Mahayana Buddhism called “Upaya,” which is normally translated as “skillful means”. It is at its core an incitement to pragmatism and an injunction against dogmatic rule following. If someone is truly selfless in their intentions, then it follows that they will have no problem bringing all of their resources of creativity, analysis and insight to bear when attempting to solve a problem, since none of that energy is wasted on any kind of self-aggrandizement. This means seeing the nuance in every narrative and reserving the right to have a complicated opinion or to acknowledge that multiple sides of an issue may each contain truths. It acknowledges that the precepts we follow as spiritual, or simply ethical people may sometimes contradict or conflict with one another and so it is up to us as individuals to use our practical wisdom to decide how best to proceed.
At the end of the day the goal of yoga remains the same, Satchitananda; the state of Being, Consciousness and Bliss that attends union with the absolute. But if what we’re after is our own private joy how can we work to end suffering in the world? Because from the dharmic point of view if someone is truly joyful, they literally cannot do otherwise. Selflessness and joy, like Ahimsa and Samadhi, are the same exact thing.