October 6, 2011

Ahimsa for Dudes.

I do my best not to hurt people, I really do. I don’t kick dogs, I usually don’t eat meat unconsciously; I try not to harm the environment… ( OK, OK.  There isn’t a North American living who doesn’t harm the environment, but my heart is in the right place.)   People meeting me for the first time often describe me as gentle and calm.

So I thought I had ahimsa pretty much under my belt.  Ahimsa is yoga-speak for not being violent.

But last week my yoga teacher gave us a homework assignment that knocked me off my pedestal.  She asked us to meditate for a few minutes each day on the quality of ahimsa.  Today, a week into the assignment, I realize that I’ve been missing the point of ahimsa all along.  And I think it may be a guy thing.

Here’s the guy part.  Like most men I was raised on a steady diet of action.  I did things as a kid –built forts, formed clubs, joined glee clubs and played sports. This continued through my adulthood:  I have delivered project after project to benefit my companies, doing things for a living. For decades; the list of “done” items from my to-do lists would probably circle the globe by now.  I have been rewarded for this, thousands upon thousands of times.

Scene from Homer's Illiad

I believe this primary orientation toward action is a guy thing.  In our culture, boys play with trucks; girls like dolls. Guys pump iron, chicks do yoga.  What’s the opposite of a chick flick? An action film.  Sure, this is changing.  And it’s an oversimplification, which I use to make a point. (And I do this with tremendous respect for the multitudes of action-oriented women in the world.)

But let’s face it, there has always been a gender divide in our Western culture, and it’s probably as ancient as Homer and Sappho.   On average, guys do; gals feel. I’m not promoting or explaining; I’m just saying…

Back to ahimsa.  Given our cultural divide, it is no surprise that an American guy yogi like me has always understood ahimsa to be a quality of right action.  For us guys, who are mainly action figures, ahimsa means don’t do anything that causes harm.

This is a great principle as far as it goes.  It feels better when we don’t harm anyone with our actions or action-proxies (words and thoughts).  Non-harming is a policy that de-escalates interpersonal conflicts.  As a modus operandi  it is wise, very effective, and sometimes challenging to implement.

So far, so good.

But I began to see non-harming from a different perspective when I meditated on the quality of ahimsa for my homework.  In my particular meditations, I chose to focus on the physical feeling of ahimsa in my body; to try to understand it with my breath; to feel it as a sensation it in my upper chest.

The effect was striking.  If I have been primarily an action figure, meditating this way gave me a heart transplant – it put an organic center in the plastic chest of GI Joe.  I was struck by how unfamiliar this physical feeling of ahimsa is to me.  It’s like the feeling that animates me when I behave lovingly or with compassion or forgiveness.  The sensation is unusual and sweet.  It feels like grace.

And it is very different from the feeling I have when I avoid harmful action. Imagine the difference between listening to your lover’s voice whispering in your ear, and hearing a drill sergeant berate at you. It’s like that for me. Miraculously, under the influence of ahimsa’s soothing voice my brain begins to produce new insights.

For example since childhood I have been riding shotgun with a vicious inner critic. This is the high-principled drill-sergeant who ruthlessly challenges and demeans me.  His demanding voice has driven me to some noteworthy achievements, as well as to numerous self-injuries.  I have long known him to be a flagrant violator of ahimsa’s injunction against harming oneself.

In my meditation I observed for the first time the difference between the bitterness of his voice and the quality of ahimsa.  He commands me to not harm, sometimes harshly; the voice of ahimsa speaks quietly of kindness.  Its sound issues from a far deeper place.

I have never been able to silence my critic by willing him to stop criticizing.  But this past week, as I have filled my body with the sensations of ahimsa,  he has definitely grown quieter.  It is as though I have tossed a canister of tear-gas into his sniper’s nest. Detonating, it suffuses the nest not with tears, but with kindness.

This is a lesson I hope to engrave in my body and mind.  I offer it for anyone else who like me, has a nasty drill sergeant in their barracks:  entrain your heart and body to the quality ahimsa, and he may soften up.

And here’s a final word about action-oriented ahimsa being a guy thing, assuming for a moment that it contains a wisp of truth. I’d like to tip my helmet with great respect to women.  Many of you have intuitively known all along what it has taken me a lifetime to discover: that the deepest ahimsa arises from our cells and our  hearts.


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