Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Off the Mat -- Ahimsa

(Another "installment" in my continuing series of dharma talks with my yoga students)

The first of the yamas (or self-restraints/self-disciplines) to discuss is ahimsa—non-harming. My students have heard me say lots and lots of times, “If I ask you to try something on your mat that hurts or that you know won’t work for your body, then don’t do it.” Following that instruction is applying ahimsa to ourselves. But as useful as it may be when applied to ourselves, ahimsa is mostly a practice that addresses our relationships with other beings. It poses the basic challenge: can we interact with others without causing harm?

Every person – surely including each of us – has lots and lots of stories about the ways that other people have harmed us, hurt us, offended us, caused us in one manner or another to suffer. Most of us could probably come up with a quite a list of those offenses. Some of us have become extraordinarily good at cataloging such events in our lives, cross-indexing each item, running statistical models and probability studies about future events, etc. We are minutely aware of the harms others do to us. That can be a good thing, so long as we don’t freeze the awareness at that stage. Ahimsa challenges us to become aware not only of how we are harmed, but how we harm others. Then, it goes one step further, and asks us to see what the nature of harm is, and how it affects the way we interact with the world.

So during the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to be, literally, “non-harming” in my relationships with others, so I could properly tell you something about the practice from my own recent experience. As you probably noticed from my last post, it proved harder than I expected.

I think I’ve figured out why.

Despite my efforts, so far as I can tell, I did not do appreciably less harm to others during the times that I was actively trying to practice non-harming than I did before. I might have withheld a snide reply or two that came to my tongue in response to a son who was acting badly, but that’s about all I can point to in terms of changes to my conduct.

And I had such noble ideas about it! But as things turned out, I got frustrated. I got annoyed. I sat in meditation, noticing only my mind churning, my muscles aching, and I got more annoyed.

But a couple of nights ago, it occurred to me that even though my actions didn’t show much, there was at least one real difference that resulted from actively focusing on and practicing ahimsa: I noticed the times when I caused harm a lot more than I’d noticed them before. I usually didn’t notice them until after the actions were all done and over, but I noticed nonetheless.

Seeing a more clearly the harm I was doing to others made me uncomfortable – especially given how miserable I proved to be at actually changing my actions. Maybe so uncomfortable that my mind tries to find ways not to notice or see those things in ordinary life.

And that thought plopped me right back on my mat. My mat has already taught me what to do when my brain wants to avoid thinking about something – pay really close attention. The most interesting things I can observe about my mind occur when it starts to get weirdly evasive. When I paid attention, I saw two different, but related patterns: they would both start with something happening that didn’t fit what I wanted. Then, I would either react immediately out of unhappiness, and say or do something that – at least in a little way – retaliated against the person I perceived to be causing the situation, or I would let the situation settle in, putting me in a contracted, constricted kind of mood. In the cases where I reacted immediately, I often found that my reaction was both unjustified and ill-designed. Unjustified, because in many of the situations, I was simply taking offense where none was intended – I’d just misunderstood the other’s actions or statements. Those situations made my knee-jerk reactions look pretty bad. Ill-designed, because often the reaction just made the situation worse – it not only didn’t solve the first problem, but it also created a second one that needed to be solved. In the cases where I didn’t react immediately, but let the situation put me in a bad mood, that mind condition then led to me inflicting my bad mood on others who were totally unrelated to the situation.

Grimmer and grimmer. So is there an upside?

Perhaps this: what I found while trying to practice ahimsa was that prior to trying, I was largely oblivious of situations in which I was causing harm. I won’t say totally oblivious because always tugging at the very edges of my heart-consciousness was the suspicion that my actions were causing harm, even when I didn’t allow my mind to acknowledge it directly. And those heart-consciousness perceptions are exactly the sorts of things that yoga makes easier to perceive, as we open and connect our hearts and minds. There is a kind of emotional and intuitive intelligence that is available to us when our hearts and minds are open and connected. I’ve come to think that maintaining a separation between those two – by avoiding letting my mind know what my heart was telling me – made me a bit more emotionally ignorant, a bit less intuitively intelligent.

And this: the first step to change is perceiving the need for change. “…[O]ne must first know one is in prison in order to work intelligently to escape.” Even if all I can do today is notice my own reactions to my own reactions, it’s still a place to start.

Failures are often our best teachers on the mat. I don’t learn much from standing comfortably in tadasana/Mountain pose, but I learn something every time I fall out of the balance pose I’m currently working on. I know many, many ways not to do it successfully. So starting from the fall out of the pose, I bring my attention to what was going on immediately before I fell, to see if I can change something there. And the next time I go into the pose, I try to focus on that stage, and I work my way back until I find something that needs fixing, something that if I change it just a little, lets me balance where before I’d fall.

What I’ve found in working the ahimsa “pose” is this: I fall out of it a lot. The few occasions when I’ve managed to stay in it, I’ve found my heart and my mind more open to one another, and that connection has changed quite markedly the way that I interact with others in life. Those experiences have given me confidence to keep working on the parts of the “pose” that I’m still not particularly good at.

The Yoga-Sutra includes this statement: Yoga ends the patterning of consciousness. In this context, for me, the “patterning of consciousness” includes the automatic knee-jerk responses I make to situations that “get” to me. My yoga, today, is to see those patterns a little more clearly, even if I can only see them, today, after the harm is already done. Tomorrow, I’ll work to see the patterning of consciousness a little bit earlier in the pattern, perhaps seeing it at a point when I can actively choose to follow or to change the pattern.

Mindfulness, one step at a time.

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Questions for discussion or further thought:

1. Are there things that you intentionally avoid knowing? Does avoiding knowing something affect different parts of your life?
2. How does harming someone affect you? How does it affect your relationship to the other person?
3. Do you think it is really possible to live without harming some sentient being?