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This week begins our exploration of the yama-s (the ethical underpinning of yoga).
We begin with ahimsā, which is most often translated as non-violence, but is so much more than the suppression of violence. Ahimsā is an inner attitude of reverence for all beings that simply doesn’t allow space for violence to arise.
This sermon explores possibility and limitation. It explores violence and love. It includes the wisdom of Pandit Rajmani, Ravi Ravindra, and bell hooks. It dives deep into the klesha-s (the afflictions that cause us trouble everyday). And it ends with a prayerful outline of practice.
Yoga Sutra 2.35 Ahimsā (& Love)
HOW TO APPROACH THE YAMA-S
This practice is based on Yoga Sutra-s 2.33 & 34, which outline the practice of pratipaksa-bhavanam. We’re told that when negative feelings/thoughts (anything counter to the yama-s) restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated. This is done through the practice of meditative awareness.
When negative feelings/thoughts are present meditate on the following questions (through sitting meditation or journaling):
- Am I acting on this negativity? Causing (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else to act on this negativity? Or condoning (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else who’s acting on this negativity?
- Can I identify the underlying cause of the negative feeling/thought?
- Greed, anger, delusion, ignorance of True Self, ego, attachment, aversion, fear?
- Is the negative feeling/thought slight, moderate, or intense?
- What fruit will come from this feeling/thought? Or from any actions arising from it?
- Does it support clarity or ignorance?
- Does it lead to joy or suffering?
This reflection is the practice of Cultivating the Opposite (pratipaksa bhavanam).
I’d like to start with a question. What do you believe is possible? In the Yoga Sutra-s we’re given a list of profound statements that describe what’s possible when we are established in our true humanity.
The list begins like this: ahimsā pratisthāyām tat sannidhau vaira tyāgah. This sutra tells us that in the company of someone established in non-violence, animosity vanishes.
In the company of someone established in non-violence, animosity vanishes.
Please notice the structure of this sutra. It’s doesn’t say “you must not be violent.” This sutra isn’t pronouncing a rule that we must follow. It’s describing the fruit of inner transformation.
Ahimsā, which is most often translated as non-violence, is so much more than the suppression of violence. Ahimsā is an inner attitude of reverence for all beings that simply doesn’t allow space for violence to arise.
This sutra is describing an amazing possibility. It describes a potential that’s inherent within each one of us. And while I believe in this potential, I can also admit that most of us haven’t reached it yet. Which leaves me asking: why? What’s stopping us from establishing ourselves in non-violence?
Let me read you something from the Himalayan master Pandit Rajmani. He said:
“The problem we face is that at this stage in our evolution…our mind and core being are enveloped in numberless layers of limitations, such as doubt, fear, and most important, the subtle impressions of our past experiences.”
In other words, we are filled up with past experiences and impulses and habits and thoughts and feelings that keep our core being hidden from view—that keep the stillness of our mind utterly overshadowed. We are limited by our conditioning.
Pandit Rajmani continues by saying that:
“These limitations are outgrowths of avidyā, our long-cherished conditioning of self-forgetfulness. In yogic terminology, avidyā and its immediate manifestations—distorted sense of self-identity, attachment, aversion, and fear—are known as kleshas [or] afflictions. These afflictions churn our deepest mental tendencies, which, in turn, influence the course of our actions.”
We forget our core being and so we create a false sense of self. And from this false sense of self—this ego—deeply ingrained habits of attachment and aversion are formed. We decide what we like and what we don’t like. We become addicted to what feels comfortable and we work really hard to avoid any form of discomfort or pain. And the more invested we become in our egoistic understanding of ourselves, the more fearful and protective we become, which has a huge impact on how we act in the world. When our actions are based in ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, fear, greed, or anger, it becomes utterly impossible to establish ourselves in ahimsā—in non-violence.
In his commentary on these sutra-s, Ravi Ravindra says that: “Egotistic intent and motivation, however placid, peaceful, and non-harming the external behavior may be, always carry seeds of violence in their very core.” He expands on this point, and links ahimsā—which he translates as non-violation—with love. He says: “As long as the ego is in charge, which is to say as long as there is selfishness, all our actions are without love. If we act without love, there is a violation of the spirit.”
Phew… This teaching is kind of a big deal. So let’s take a moment and let it settle in the body… Notice your breath… Listen to the voice of your body and search out any tension that’s building up… Feel free to wiggle or stretch… If you can, find a sense of ease in the body and open up your heart to listen to these teachings, these teachings of the kleshas (or afflictions) again:
We forget our core being and so we create a false sense of self. And from this false sense of self—this ego—deeply ingrained habits of attachment and aversion are formed. We decide what we like and what we don’t like. We become addicted to what feels comfortable and we work really hard to avoid any form of discomfort or pain. And the more invested we become in our egoistic understanding of ourselves, the more fearful and protective we become, which has a huge impact on how we act in the world. When our actions are based in ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, fear, greed, or anger, it becomes utterly impossible to establish ourselves in ahimsā.
As we study ahimsā at a deep level, we’re called to deepen our understanding of love, which is one of those words that we throw around with abandon. That we use in both casual and profound ways. And that we all agree is important, but somehow don’t ever fully define. In her book all about love, bell hooks shares that she spent years searching for a meaningful definition of love and finally found one in psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled.
Peck defined love as: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” He explained further by saying that “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
Relying on this definition hooks makes the claim that “love and abuse cannot coexist.” She says that: “thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.”
I’m struck by the similarity between hook’s assertion that “love and abuse cannot coexist” and Ravindra’s statement that “as long as the ego is in charge…all our actions are without love.” These ideas have profound implications for every aspect of our life and call us to deep self-examination.
The 8-limbed path of yoga practice begins with ahimsā. As yogi’s we’re called to search out the seeds that lie within our thoughts, speech, and behavior. If our actions are rooted in ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear, we’re unable to fully love.
And just in case you’re tempted to move toward self-judgment or overwhelm right now, let’s remember that yoga is a practice of uncovering. We’re not trying to force ourselves into some idea of “goodness.” We’re working to surface the conditioning that has separated us from the reality of who we are so that we can root our identity in the core of our being.
Remember, ahimsā is a potential that’s inherent within each one of us. Ravi Ravindra tells us that “ahimsā is not accomplished once forever…we need to continually search for its dynamic source. Only at the highest level of being can someone naturally manifest ahimsā; below that we can only approach it.”
So here’s my prayer:
Let us stand on the earth and feel support beneath our feet. Let us reach our hands toward the sky and feel into the spaciousness of possibility. Let us take refuge in the Cave of the Heart and find courage to search out the seeds of our thoughts, speech, and behavior. When we find ego, attachment, aversion, and fear, may we commit to approaching ahimsā by cultivating something different. May we actively replace, over and over and over again, thoughts based in greed, delusion, and anger with a remembrance that love is only possible in the measure that we’re able to move from selfishness to reverence. May we continue to unravel the conditioning that keeps us trapped in cycles of violence and work to dispel the myth of separation. May it be so.
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?
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