Meditations: Is it possible to do no harm?
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published by News Press on September 9, 2014. Posted with permission.
A yoga friend told me about his beloved teacher. This teacher’s motto for living is après vous, putting others first.
Sounds good, I thought.
My friend told me how his teacher would sit in traffic and allow drivers in other lanes to get in front of him.
The teacher smiles while car after car advances. He sings, and drivers behind him sit on their horns.
“Wait,” I interrupt the story. “What about the people behind him?”
Yoga has rules.
The central yama is ahimsa: non-violence. Ahimsa doesn’t just apply to hitting people. One can be violent in words, thought and deed. Not only do you refuse to shoot; you refuse to hate.
As you walk on your life path, fulfilling your purpose, you are going to create an impact. Destruction is embedded in all creation. Is adhering to the principle of non-violence in words, thought and deed possible when navigating a world that pulses with competing interests?
A yoga practice begins with a vigilant awareness of this question.
Veganism is the elephant in the yoga living room.
I recently attended a weekend workshop where, upon arrival, the first required activity was to watch the 2005 documentary “Earthlings.” Its 95 minutes of brutal and bloody footage depict how animals are used for pets, food, clothes, entertainment and scientific experiments.
It’s simply not possible to look at a strip of bacon and not recall the screams of pigs that echo in this film, and I recall those screams even when I’m not looking at a strip of bacon. For good reason, “Earthlings” is called The Vegan Maker.
After the film, one student said she felt like (expletive deleted). It was apropos given the instructor said the goal of showing the film was to stir up (expletive deleted).
Yes, if slaughterhouses had glass walls possibly everyone would be vegetarians or maybe just traumatized carnivores. “Earthlings” is Tough Love. It intentionally inflicts distress and even grief, pain and fear for the viewer’s own good.
Ahimsa was in paradoxical play that night.
In 1978 cockroaches infested Karmapa’s KTD Monastery in Woodstock, NY. The problem was so severe that students did not want to visit the monastery, and the potential for a health department shut-down was real.
What to do? The Buddhist faith, among others, has a strict rule: Killing is wrong.
There were deliberations and phone calls to Nepal and Sikkim before the decision. While monks bowed their heads and prayed, the exterminator’s truck rolled up the drive.
Lama Surya Das tells this story in his book “Awakening the Buddha Within” to illustrate the difficulty in navigating life and death matters. True compassion recognizes that all beings, all, have needs equal to your own.
Calling an exterminator is not a small thing. Ahimsa applies even to the roach.
A sound transcendentalist yardstick would be to ask, “What would nature do?”
Rain does not discriminate between the holy and the criminal. If it rains, it rains on everyone.
Walt Whitman, at least in his poetry, did not consider himself superior to anyone, not to a Common Prostitute nor to Felons on Trial in Courts.
He was Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature. Not until the sun excluded the prostitute would he exclude the prostitute. He was Walt Whitman, ruthless and devilish as any. Who was he that he should call felons more obscene than himself?
As Michael Connelly’s fictional crime fighter Harry Bosch says, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” And that gets sticky.
Will veganism offer the ahimsa you seek? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Michael Pollan noted in a 2003 essay that, on farms that grow the vegetarians’ food, combines shred field mice, tractors crush woodchucks in their burrows and pesticides drop songbirds from the sky.
Okay, so you’ll only buy organic, pesticide-free veggies from that local farmer who’s so low-volume she doesn’t use big equipment. You’ll grow your own, too.
Have you now achieved spiritual and moral purity? Not by a long shot.
Did any of your vegetables come from GMO seeds? Your car may be a hybrid, but what about the chemicals in the paint, upholstery and tires? Is your AC turned off? Did you rip out your lawn in favor of indigenous vegetation? Do you have a water-efficient toilet, or do you at least put a brick in the tank? Are you using those curly light bulbs? You may have solar panels, but did the trucks that delivered them burn fossil fuels? Have you declined to take the kids to a zoo or aquarium? Your clothes may be organic, but how about the store where you bought them? Were the workers treated well? You shopped online? There’s that fossil fuel again. The list is infinite.
Your virtue is not and never will be secured. You can be a vegan, but you’ll just be an (expletive deleted) who doesn’t eat meat.
Consumer choices do not buy spirituality.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes “spiritual materialism” as the desire to turn spirituality into something you can possess and the tendency to see spirituality as a thing outside of yourself. He says that everyone is a vessel, and everyone has a leak. Trying to fill the vessel with moral and upstanding goodies and political correctness of any stripe does not plug the leak.
Going to yoga class three times a week is not a yoga practice. It’s going to class.
Swami Parthasarathy, also known as Swamiji, acknowledges the role of the physical practice to keep the body toned, flexible and strong. However, you live off the mat.
A true yoga student works to ensure that all actions are done in a spirit of service. A true yoga student works to see the love, the wonder and the divine in all things. A true yoga student works to fill the mind with the higher principles of living by engaging in daily study. That’s work.
According to Swamiji, these practices of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana Yogas help the student to control the senses and ultimately the desires that grow from them. You then cultivate focus and stillness of mind, the power to move inward. Then, all perceived barriers between you and the world are erased. Enlightenment awaits, perhaps.
Enlightenment is a process not a product. Your food, your hybrid, your curly light bulbs are good reminders that you are on a path, but that path leads inward. The path is not about changing the world. It’s about changing how you relate to the world.
By the way, according to my yoga friend, Swamiji was the teacher who let others drive in front of him.