Monday, November 22, 2010

Ahimsa & Judgments

There was a children's book my kids loved when they were little that was set up so that each page offered a “that’s bad” or a “that’s good” set of conditions. Each set of pages illustrated the same situation from a different point of view. Sometimes it was hard for my children to figure out at first why it was good, or why it was bad… and they delighted in turning the page to discover the instant reversal of fortune. There are many jokes and riddles like this as well. The biggest is the one we present to ourselves daily, reacting constantly to the conditions around us.

Seasonal change, holidays, markers like New Year’s or birthdays often seem to bring out the “that’s good – that’s bad” in us as we project and remember. We look ahead and say, “Oh no, this is going to be …” or perhaps “Phew, now we will be able to ….,” as if the mere fact that there is a next moment offers us a “good” or “bad” set of conditions. Of course some of the conditions we project or remember are related to economic hardships and climate, to physical conditions and types of community in which we live. Yet even with these conditions there are those whose basic approach is “now I can change everything from what it was,” while there are those whose attitude is “look how this will limit me.” We do not control conditions of the sun and seasons, the wind or the age of our bones, yet we do live with those conditions and have choices how and whether we react.

Here, where I live in the Northern Hemisphere, East Coast of the not-quite-New England United States, we leave behind the summer warmth, as we watch the vegetation lose its green vitality, drying through the phases of colors and textures until all becomes more starkly browns and russets against evergreens and stone. Days shorten, nights lengthen and the air cools, beginning to require layers of protection on our subtle, fragile flesh. Animals living outside in this changing world grow thicker coats of fur, fluff their feathers for insulation, bed down in nests and burrows, sometimes even turning down their own biological thermostats to better match the outside world. They do not judge the harshness or the coldness, the darkness or the lack of fresh greens. The adaptation to the physical world is as natural as the breath itself, and some do not survive the shifting seasons, either by design or by circumstance. We humans uniquely assign values.

It is deer hunting season in upstate New York, suddenly as of yesterday morning. The sounds of gunshots reverberate in the hills. I associate this sonorous punctuation with death and destruction. By late afternoon, driving to or from anywhere there are carcasses hanging from trees. It is a horrifying time for me from one point of view, yet the deer laying dead by the side of the road is also done with this life due to human behaviors, and the deer bones found in the field after the coyotes have finished with it is done with this life as well. It is my own mind, my own judgment that attaches the sense of horror, assigns attributes to the people who roam the hills with their powerful rifles aimed at another species. It seems different if they aim at our own species yet we, humans, do that too and assign a different value to that based on context and intention. We make rules about shooting deer, which some hunters keep and some do not, just as in the context of armed conflicts among ourselves. Some feel the rules are arbitrary, restrict their freedoms to act as they choose, or pin them down in situations where there is ambiguity of choice.

So as I approach Thanksgiving, I turn my own pages, “this is good” and “this is bad.” I watch my own predisposition to say “This is harm” and “This is natural,” and I find myself exploring the world of human intentions.

Do no harm, Ahimsa, is a basic fundamental part of yoga awareness and practice. It begins towards the self, towards other living beings, and in the way we offer our teachings, making all efforts to leave space for others to find themselves. How to apply Ahimsa to the porcupine chewing on my front porch, to the hunter from next door shooting off into the woods, to the broken hearted driver who realizes they have run over a darting squirrel? How to offer Ahimsa in a room full of older people who suffer from attachment to the memories of what they used to be able to do in bodies that no longer do those things? How to practice Ahimsa towards myself as I see my judgmental nature turning and twisting at the toll booth, the body of a dead deer strapped to the SUV roof next to my car?

The hunter from the hungry family who will hunt and shoot the deer, bringing home meat for the freezer to feed them all winter is not killing any differently than the sporting hunter seeking the 5th set of antlers to adorn the wall in their home. The death of the deer is not different. The intention is different. Why does this matter to me? Who am I to sit in judgment of the one or the other?

We make choices about what we do or we fall into patterns of habitual action. We can make choices about whether we judge something or not, and recognize the values we assign to our judgment. I do not foresee a time when I cease judging others or myself. Yet I come closer and closer to practicing Ahimsa in my judgments, leaving just a little more space for myself to choose right action, right speech. Perhaps this also makes a little more space for others to do that too.

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