Ahimsa

Cruikshank_-_The_Radical's_ArmsFourteen years ago my mind broke, though I prefer to say it broke open. In my nearly five hundred WillSpirit essays, I’ve often discussed that mental shattering. As its fourteenth anniversary approaches, I find myself living the consequences in the best way. To make this clear, let me review the basic history of what happened.

In my so-called psychotic mania back in 2000, my mind expanded but so did my ego. Unfamiliar with transcendent states, part of me believed the opening a sign of worthiness. It felt chosen for a salvational mission: to combine my long education in the sciences with my newfound awareness of spiritual realms, and thus return sanity to the world. Odd as it sounds, I believed myself a prophet. In the mental hospital, thankfully, a dietician granted me a key insight that tempered my grandiosity. In the midst of a lecture about the nervous system’s nutritional needs, she turned toward me in my radiant madness and said: “the brain can communicate with God, but it is not God.” That rebuke to my egotism may have saved me. How she knew to challenge me, and why the warning popped up in the middle of an otherwise mundane talk, remains a mystery.

It’s been a long time since I felt more special than anyone else. On the other hand, I do believe myself possessed of a unique constellation of abilities, as we all should in our own ways. Thus, I still feel myself called to use science as a lens to magnify the subtle (‘spiritual’) fabric of eternity. My work teaching anatomy and physiology at Niroga Yoga Institute is a direct consequence of this leading. After decades of struggle, I now apply myself to work that fits both my skill set and my values.

This comes up because today I’m writing this WillSpirit post for two reasons. First, to get something new on the site; second, to satisfy a requirement for the yoga therapy training that I am involved in as both faculty member and student. As a teacher I deliver slide presentations that explain human biology with an eye toward the mystical, or (when that seems too far afield) toward mapping Western biomedicine into Eastern practices. As a student, I simply fulfill the requirements, one of which is to spell out my thoughts about ahimsa.

What is ahimsa? It can be translated as ‘non-harming.’ It’s one of the yamas, or ethical precepts, that guide yogis toward liberation. For example, many Eastern traditions discourage eating meat on the reasonable assumption that killing animals constitutes harming them. While such a mindset is quite supportable, there are many complicating factors in this and every choice meant to avoid injury to other beings.

Problems begin to arise as soon as we realize the highest goal of meditative practice and directly apprehend the unitary nature of reality. Although Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta and others differ in their characterization of this ‘ground of being,’ all traditions developed in the East see divisions in Creation as superficial and illusory. Separation is only partial and is not reflective of the actual Nature of the world.

We look around and seem to see distinct entities interacting: people, animals, plants, rocks, machinery, etc. But Eastern paths encourage us to recognize that all of these spring from a single unnameable source. In Western religions the same principle is often called the Godhead. Science upholds this view in the fields of ecology, evolution, cosmology, and so on (though conventional researchers decry the use of empirical findings of interdependence to bolster spiritual beliefs). Whatever the terminology, with such holistic sensibility we comprehend that all ‘entities’ are merely transient processes in a vast whole: like eddies in an ocean, they are ever forming and fading, combining and parting. Always changing, they are at once generated by and expressive of the ground of reality itself.

What does this mean in terms of ahimsa? Well, it complicates things.

If I see myself as separate from other beings, then ‘harming’ is easy to define. It means hurting one of those distinct creatures beyond the boundaries of myself. And although ahimsa  would stay my hand from hurting my own body, we generally agree that harming one’s own self is less serious an offense than harming another’s.

But what if there is nothing truly separate and distinct from my own process? What if the cosmos is a seamless whole that only appears fragmented? Wouldn’t harming another always mean Self injuring Self? Furthermore, since change and transience are built in, does ending a single life alter anything? Why should prematurely stopping a temporary process concern us at all? Why worry about disrupting a tiny whirlpool in a vast sea?

The ‘non dual’ perspective, which sees all as One, cannot provide moral guidance for those hoping to live by ahimsa because it makes no distinctions and establishes no hierarchies. The murderer is no less a part of the Whole than the saint. Killing is just another event that arises as time and space evolve. We cannot find fixed and reliable rules of action when we see everything as inseparably interwoven and ultimately uniform.

So where does this leave us with regard to ahimsa? Do we give up on it? Do we refuse to believe in universal standards of right and wrong? Do we become moral relativists and deny that some behaviors can be viewed as less worthy than others?

Yes and no. There are no universal standards of right and wrong, but we can choose to pursue ahimsa in order to engage the world in as compassionate way, which begins to feel more and more vital as we increasingly recognize our essential unity with everyone and everything around us. Once we make a choice to care for others (and the world at large) as we would wish to be cared for, we can come up with workable strategies that keep us in line with ahimsa. But these tactics won’t (and can’t) depend on predefined moral standards. Rather, we must find a more reliable guide.

To begin to see how this works, it’s necessary to recognize that harming is impossible to avoid. Unlike plants, animals must eat other organisms. We could, I suppose, chose to live only as scavengers, eating what has already died by other causes. There isn’t nearly enough spontaneously dead material to support seven billion people, however, so this is not only a distasteful solution, but an impractical one. And it overlooks the countless bacteria and other microbes that would still perish in our stomachs.

We could be vegetarians, but that requires either that we eat only what plants produce as enticements (i.e., fruits) or else disregard whatever discomfort vegetation might feel when cut and harvested as leaf crops, roots, and grains. People comfort themselves by believing that plants lack feelings, but that seems like a copout to me. As a series of WillSpirit posts outlined not long ago, matter may well have sentience built in from the very start, at the level of subatomic particles. And complex assemblies of matter, such as lifeforms, are even more aware. So while plants don’t suffer in the same way as animals, it seems to me they may well experience distress when their lives are cut short. The many defenses plants have evolved (thorns, toxins, and the like) tell us plants do not live to freely give their hard-earned resources to animals. They struggle to survive and reproduce, just like us. On some level, they may well experience harvests as holocausts.

So is ahimsa-motivated vegetarianism merely a form of harm reduction? Killing plants gets deemed permissible because (we hope) they feel less pain than we do? I think this is an inescapable conclusion, but the problems don’t stop here.

Things get even more complicated, because in modern society nearly everything we do degrades the biosphere. Agriculture rips up vegetation we don’t like and replaces it with crops we do. Very often insects and other so-called pests are killed to protect yields (even organic farmers destroy caterpillars). Every time we flush a toilet we discharge waste into a nearby ecosystem that we can assume is overburdened by human effluent. Even the simple act of breathing adds molecules of carbon dioxide to an atmosphere already destabilized by too much of it. If we buy food from a store, we end up discarding packaging that requires resources for its production and leads to problems in its disposal. We drive on roads that were paved on top of habitats. Every plane flight chews up the ozone layer. And on, and on, and on.

In our social interactions, we seek success but very often this demands someone else’s failure. If we choose to spend time with one acquaintance, we may hurt the feelings of another. And on, and on, and on.

So if harming is inevitable, do we become nihilists? Do we simply quit caring?

No. And this brings me to the key point: ahimsa is best understood not as a principle about harming, but about caring. If we know that living demands hurting other life forms, then we can at least choose to be careful about how much and in what spirit we harm. We can decide to be mindful, in other words.

With that shift in perspective, the task become easier. Now we can pick out a behavioral hierarchy that isn’t built on universal moral standards, which non dual awareness makes impossible. Instead, we use degree and intent as our guides.

At the most corrosive end of the spectrum is deliberate injury inflicted for the pleasure that comes from tormenting innocents. That an awful glee arises when people abandon empathy and behave cruelly is known to all, though few feel comfortable speaking of it. But sadists can be found throughout human history, and there seems little doubt that they enjoy torturing children and other blameless souls unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp.

Only slightly less repugnant is the pleasure that comes from hurting someone hated. Think of patriots cheering as bombs fall on enemy cities.

Related to applauding the suffering of rivals is revenge and retributive punishment. Retribution feels satisfying because we believe the harm a criminal caused has now come home to roost. Pain inflicted on a wrongdoer seems just. But the principle is hardly different from the one that drives pure sadism: we feel pleasure at another’s pain. And there are both hazards and consequences. What if we accuse wrongly? What if one vengeful act leads to another delivered in return?

Considerably less ugly, but still troubling, is harm that results as a byproduct of seeking personal pleasure. The tycoon who spends a hundred million dollars on a gigantic yacht probably thinks only of the fun life such a craft permits: cruising from one exotic port to the next. But those dollars would feed millions of starving children, or build thousands of homes, or fund dozens of schools. This is the harm that flows from selfishness. Of course, recognizing such quasi-passive injury raises questions we might prefer to avoid. For instance, can we feel innocent driving through the countryside, enjoying the scenery, knowing we’re burning fuel and increasing our carbon footprint?

Next comes harm that is necessary, but excessive. Do we eat more than we need to survive? Do we buy new clothing (which might have been sewn by children in some desperate land) when we are already clothed? If we were honest, we would have to admit that much of what we do undermines the world’s wellbeing in exactly this way.

Although I have skipped a number of levels in the hierarchy of injury, I’ll end by pointing out that even when harm is essential for survival, and we are careful to consume or destroy no more than absolutely necessary, we still need to ask why our lives should take precedence over those of other beings. Do humans truly deserve existence more than schools of tuna surging through the sea? Does our survival warrant leveling forests to create agricultural land? In the end, we must admit that even when we harm in order to survive, we do so not because it’s morally justifiable, but because we can.

So what’s the answer? To minimize harming and to remain mindful of what we’re doing. Thus, we reject seeking pleasure in another’s pain. Hopefully we aren’t frankly sadistic, but perhaps we should check ourselves before rejoicing when a criminal gets sent to some desolate prison where he is likely to get beaten and sexually assaulted, or (if he is strong enough) feel compelled to brutalize others. Maybe we should even question the excitement that arises when our favored team soundly defeats our rivals.

We should be aware when we’re causing harm merely for moments of pleasure. I’m not saying we shouldn’t savor drives to the country, but perhaps we should feel more grateful. And we should notice when we’re consuming more than is vital to our basic needs, and in that noticing we should honor the fact that we are fortunate to enjoy such surplus.

Once in a while, perhaps, we should even consider the circumstances under which we’d be willing to sacrifice our own wellbeing, or even our own lives, in favor of other life forms, including nonhuman ones.

Long ago, before my mental explosion, I put this bumper sticker on my car:

No one is free when others are oppressed.

I thought of it then in terms of political oppression, but now I see it as a statement of cosmic unity. We share our pleasures and pains with the entire universe. When we act sadistically, or vindictively, or wastefully, or selfishly, we are instilling those negative qualities into the entire world, and sooner or later the toxicity flows back into our own lives.

Wouldn’t we rather do the opposite? Wouldn’t we rather pour gentleness, forgiveness, conservation, and generosity into this infinite sea of experience? This, to me, is the gist of ahimsa.


ANNOUNCEMENT: Recently a young woman named Chelsea emailed me with a request. She is building a resource to collect artwork and writing done by those with unstable moods and other so-called mental illnesses. I sent her a poem and promised to plug her site: Brain Lengths. Check it out and submit some work!

     

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