G20 Dharma: a Yoga & Buddhist teacher & psychotherapist on nonviolence & engaged living.

When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the other narratives of my life is this one: June 26, 2010, carrying my six year old son away from a burning police car in front of a bank tower on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Three young protesters using “black block tactics” jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and walked towards the empty street behind us to make our way home.

I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto. Our community formed five years ago with the intention of integrating Yoga and Buddhist practice, everyday urban life and social action. When I first read the teachings of the Buddha, I connected with his full engagement in life – not just with internal states of mind, but how he taught that our actions sculpt who we are. Karma is not something that happens to you, it’s the ongoing choices and effects that determine who and what we actually are. We must cultivate an awareness of and responsibility for our actions and their consequences. This is the lived experience of karma. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali (the seminal author of the Yoga-Sutra) as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.

If learning to work with anger and greed can teach us how to respond creatively to our inner struggles, can this same skillfulness help us interact with institutional greed and imbalance and global forms of suffering?

All week leading up to the G8 and G20 summits in downtown Toronto, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to chart the course of global economic development, security forces were fortifying the urban core: two enormous fences were built around the meeting areas, trees were uprooted (the city claimed they could be used as weapons), garbage cans and bus shelters were removed, and military boats cruised the Toronto harbor. Every morning members of our sangha gathered at the fence, surrounded by police, and sat in meditation, following the breath and bearing witness to the vast range of feelings and observations that arose in the face of police presence and military build-up. Early in the week, it was easy to feel fear or anger soften to compassion when policemen would come and ask if we could teach them some meditation because, as one officer from Huntsville said, “these are long days on my feet away from family, eating garbage food.” As the weekend approached and 10,000 police filled the downtown core, sitting meditation became unsafe. Though I wanted to sit with others I decided to spend time researching the issues and biking the city bearing witness.

Although my background is in psychology (I am a psychotherapist in private practice), I always thought of non-violence as a way of using meditation and bodily awareness to stay disciplined during times of turbulence. In my life as a father in the relatively peaceful city of Toronto, most of the violence I have encountered is in my own heart and mind: a temper, old emotions rooted in my childhood, and irritation when my son takes an hour to put on his snowpants. I’ve never had to respond to a group of young people burning a police car in front of a bank, with military helicopters circling overhead, and a son in my arms asking for an explanation.

When the young group of activists broke away from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines, my first feeling was fear that they would get hurt. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons, one of whom lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. The streets looked like a war zone and I realized it was time for my son and I to leave, even though I was also appalled by the countless instances of police aggression against protesters and wanted to somehow reach the police and the protesters alike and ask everyone to stop. It was too late. And with all my Buddhist training and years of psychological practice, I recognize that some other voice inside me wanted to see the protesters tear the fence down and disrupt the closed-door meetings that $1.2 billion had been spent to “secure.”

Watching the young protesters split from the peaceful march of 20,000 concerned citizens, I couldn’t tell where my allegiances lay. Such a massive gathering of citizens in the face of widespread police repression and hysteria was in itself a victory. But when the peaceful protesters were pushed far away from the fenced-in meetings, it was also clear that there could be no relationship or communication with those inside the meeting, who collectively held the fate of millions in their hands. There was no place for voices calling for justice. We were barred from expressing discontent. Or, as my son asked, “how can you protest a meeting when you aren’t allowed to know what they are meeting about?”

If my commitment to the dharma demands that I place non-harm in body, speech and mind at the core of my actions, then what is my stance on protesters venting their anger at shop windows and police vehicles? When the media jumped on the images of burning police cars, our collective attention was, once again, drawn away from political, social and ecological issues and into the fetishization of violence. But where is the real violence? Do Buddhists turn away from the issues at stake when the G8 and G20 meet, or do we embrace those issues and stand up for what we believe in? There is no overall Buddhist social theory. We can gather that a Buddhist vision of is not about Left or Right but about waking up to all forms of suffering and the interdependence of all things. If we value interdependence, then what is the appropriate response when uranium is mined from native land and sold to India to run Canadian-built nuclear reactors, or depleted uranium from spent fuel rods being turned into weapons and dropped on the people of Iraq and Kosovo, with disastrous long-term health consequences.

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most peaceful and engaged Buddhist teachers I know, writes:

“If nonviolence is a stand, then it would be an attack on violence. But the most visible form of violence is revolutionary and liberational violence. So if you stand for nonviolence, you automatically stand against actual revolution and liberation. Quite distressing! ‘No! We are not against revolution or liberation. We are against the other side, the side of the institutions, the side of the oppressors. The violence of the system is much more destructive, much more harmful, although it is well hidden. We call it institutional violence. By calling ourselves nonviolent we are against all violence, but we are first against institutional violence.’”

Both Patanjali and the Buddha taught a path of compassionate action rooted in interdependence and respect for all creatures. Though a commitment to non-violence has helped me find resilience, generosity and equanimity in my inner life, the protests in Toronto challenge my definitions of non-harm in a profound way because if people simply marched in the way they were told, we’d be guilty of indifference or even complicity in deep and widespread institutional violence. With media attention focused overwhelmingly on the violence of the protesters and the police, it become more and more difficult to have meaningful conversations about the politics of the G8 and G20 and the deals being signed behind closed doors. Today when I ask my well informed friends about those meetings, very few can name the agenda or the outcome of those G20 meetings.

Outside of Dharmasala, India, the home of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Toronto is the largest community of exiled Tibetans. When you ask young Tibetans what they think of H.H. the Dalai Lama they will speak with great reverence, and most of the store windows in the west end of the city have photos of His Holiness smiling. But off the record, many of the young people questions whether strict non-violence can really bring about change in Tibet. A culture is slowly being extinguished, and while it’s true that hatred is not settled with hatred, we are justified in asking, as one Tibetan asked me rhetorically, “when is it time to take a stand and make sure nobody takes away your home or ruins your land?”

Throughout history, when people are silenced or denied the means of genuine dialogue or participation, anger arises. If we can understand anger as a natural response to imbalance and oppression, we can see how anger is healthy. It is only when actions taken out of anger have the intention to cause harm that anger becomes unhealthy. If a marginalized group uses violence to bring attention to a cause, and if that cause confronts institutional violence, then what? As the rain clouds grew heavy over the clashes that June afternoon, and as over 1,000 protesters were arbitrarily rounded up and arrested as my son and I made our way home, I wondered what I could do and where I stood. My son wanted to dress up as a fish.

My son wanted to come to the protests because he heard that water privatization was on the table and he wanted to do what he could to learn about the issue and speak up for the fish. He loves fish. When he saw rows upon rows of police and hovering military helicopters he realized that there was no way of protesting or even learning about issues. (He did think the helicopters were really cool, especially Obama’s green chopper, which landed in a tight corridor between two tall buildings.) When our friend, journalist Naomi Klein, brought him out to a talk on G20 issues on the first day of the summit, he took it as a chance to tell people that water and fish need help.

What action was skillful that day? Writer Pasha Malla speaks about the sheer number of people who protested that day: “Simply to isolate and punish the violence of G20 protests in this way is to deny the unpunished violence done in our name to the natural environment, to the poor, to people affected by our military and corporate excursions all over the world.”

If we value the interdependence of all life, and if we see that our body is dependent on the health of our rivers and ecosystems, then we must recognize that to be silent and indifferent is to be complicit with corporate violence. Even if corporations or countries have laudable ideals, often their accountability to ecological well-being does not come into play. There is no ledger sheet for ecological debt in our economic calculations.

After the protests I went to see Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy to talk about what happened. He reminded me that it’s not enough to focus on our inner greed, anger and ill-will; we also need to uproot the institutionalized forms of the three poisons. Meditation, he said, helps take care of the inner anger and hatred. But then what? We need to take action when we see that values ingrained in our institutions give rise to greed and delusion as well. Days later, at the first annual symposium for socially engaged Buddhism, held in Montague, Mass., Zen practitioner Bernie Glassman described the whole universe as one body where if the left hand gets cut, the right hand comes in to serve. We all have a natural inclination to take action. If non-attachment boils down to not clinging to self-centered views, and if this applies equally to individuals and nations, we can see how serving others becomes the primary intent of spiritual practice.

If we are all interdependent (Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “interbeing”), then what we think, say and do has an effect in every sphere. Interdependence is thick. Our actions matter. If we vow to serve all creatures, then we also vow to take an active stance in the face of injustice and exploitation.

No stance is perfect. With every step of that afternoon G20 March, my viewpoint changed. Bearing witness to the invisible effects of industry and inequality is painful and sometimes overwhelming. When my son learns about polluted rivers, he wants to do something. Doing something was a core value of the Buddha, who continually crisscrossed India, teaching in every emerging city in the Indo-Gangetic plain. What did he teach about politics? In his sermon called “The City,” he taught that every action has an effect and that each moment we engage the body, mind and heart in an effort to serve, we cultivate a flourishing city. Craving and self-centeredness obstruct the Buddhist path of service and engagement.

When tens of thousands of people march in the streets and create a wave of media attention, it’s not the event on that specific day that makes a difference. No one unique event makes a difference. It’s the organizing, the discussions, the education, and the unrehearsed ripples of that event that begin creating change. When the Buddha created a politically involved community he did so by turning his politic inwardly. It’s not that there is suffering “out there,” he taught, but “I am suffering.” When I begin taking care of how I suffer – how I too am greedy and angry – then I begin to understand same energies in others, even those patterns in institutions. When I marched on the streets of Toronto, I didn’t think I was making a difference but rather that I was actively participating in one part of a much larger movement that was waking up our society and also helping me realize where my values lie. I need the reminder.

The yoga practices of waking up the intelligence and sensitivity of the body and breath are, Patanjali suggests in his Yoga-Sutra, designed “to allow one to see that the body and the universe are indivisible.” If I vow to serve every corner of life, I begin to see that service begins in this body and spreads out from my kidneys to my family, neighborhood and the earth at large. Yoga is about waking up not just the body, but the body politic as well.

Though my primary responsibility as a father that day was to support and foster my son’s curiosity, I also had to step in when things got dangerous, and take him away from the burning police car, the tear gas, and the broken glass. The car-burners are expressing their passion — and how do I do the same, where are my boundaries, how aggressively will I sacrifice peace for spectacle and resist aggression given my training and disposition?

I have been shaken to the core by the images of rows and rows of aggressive police and silenced protesters staring one another down. And behind those police, the tall banking towers and behind those towers the gleaming Lake Ontario, where my son and I would swim at the end of the day, thinking of the fish that called it home.

About Michael Stone (Centre of Gravity)

Centre of Gravity is a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners integrating committed formal practice and modern urban life. We offer weekly sits, text studies, yoga practice and dharma talks. Retreats, guest speakers, online courses and audio talks deepen the feel. Each week Michael Stone dishes a talk, often on primary texts by Dogen, Patanjali, and the Buddha, that are collaged with today's headlines and psychological insights to produce an engaged shape shifting dharma, at once historical, personal and political. Notes on these talks by Mike Hoolboom form the heart of this blog. Michael Stone is a yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He travels internationally teaching about the intersection of Yoga, Buddhism and mental health. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on ethics, yoga's subtle body, inner/outer pilgrimmages, and the sometimes uneasy blend of social engagement and Buddhism. Please check out the website at www.centreofgravity.org .

2,452 views

Appreciate this article? Support indie media!

(We use super-secure PayPal—but don't worry—you don't need an account with PayPal.)

Elephriends - Mindful Affiliates

14 Responses to “G20 Dharma: a Yoga & Buddhist teacher & psychotherapist on nonviolence & engaged living.”

  1. Barbara M. Kitzis says:

    It reminds me that my question of where to begin.. takes place each and every new day…Now, today, I have more questions than yesterday… some answers, and an obligation to be allert and pay more attention to the effect that I have on others and the world as I continue to live and breath…. we seem to find answers, one at a time..and then they change if we remain awake… While this is not much to offer, I want to thank you for the gift of your confusion and the love you shared today….

  2. Brooks Hall says:

    “The car-burners are expressing their passion — and how do I do the same, where are my boundaries, how aggressively will I sacrifice peace for spectacle and resist aggression given my training and disposition?”

    Thanks! This article outlined great questions! If we remain quiet and non-confrontational about institutionalized injustice, we might be complicit with it. What do we do with our passion? Where are the appropriate boundaries? What can we do about it? What are we willing to do?

  3. integralhack says:

    This is a wonderful and thoughtful article. This statement resonated: "We can gather that a Buddhist vision of is not about Left or Right but about waking up to all forms of suffering and the interdependence of all things. If we value interdependence, then what is the appropriate response when uranium is mined from native land and sold to India to run Canadian-built nuclear reactors, or depleted uranium from spent fuel rods being turned into weapons and dropped on the people of Iraq and Kosovo, with disastrous long-term health consequences."

    Likewise, on the American side of the imaginal fence, our political leaders started a war in Iraq based on falsehoods. Couldn't we apply dharma to investigate and debunk the falsehoods and the ignorance of our leaders in addition to our own? How many lives could we have saved? How many lives can we still save?

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    Integralhack, I agree with most of what you say and what I agree with does not negate my point. As Buddhists we can do whatever we like and still call ourselves Buddhist. Afterall, labeling ourselves this or that really does not do anything and it certainly does not make one a Buddhist. I cannot speak for Christians but they seem to be concerned mostly with "outer" phenomena. As Buddhists we are taught to go inward. We are given methods to deconstruct our minds which inturn creates freedom and virtue , Love and Compassion. I think it is great that people, whether Buddhist or not, show their concerns politically and otherwise. I do find it interesting that "Buddhists" are acting as Buddhists in what is being termed "Engaged Buddhism" and suggesting that as Buddhists this is a method which we have some responsibilty. What is Buddhism? If we are reifying outer pheneomena with what we think is "Buddhist Engagement" then are we really on the Buddhist path?

    • Padma Kadag says:

      Do not mistake what I am saying as turning a blind eye and not experiencing the world as it is. The Buddhist path is all about "As it is". I do not think, as Buddhists and practicing to attain the attainment of the Buddha, that reifying phenomena in the name of Buddhism will give us the result of Buddhahood

  5. Barbara M. Kitzis says:

    As Michael witnessed the violence in the streets of Toronto, with child in hand, I saw this as being more closely related to the violence that our brothers and sisters in Tibet must endure on a regular basis. Then wonder, what would the Buddha do if he were there to share his wisdom?…. What does one do on the spot when confronted with force and violence while family members stand by in the face of danger? I somehow do not think answers are as simple as those I have read in these comments… I do respect those involved in Engaged Buddhism, since sitting on the cushion is not the only way to grasp the truth of how mankind and womankind operate and the role we must play to save all sentient beings. I will continue to question my responsibilities and motives one day at a time..

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Integralhack…Buddhists are in every human form. Activists or not. But if Buddhism is used as a political rallying cry then to me, it is no longer Buddhism. Buddhism is the most profound practice and the most personal as it is meant only for the deconstructing of the individual's mind/ ego/phenomena. We are not missionaries. The Buddha did not employ the help from others to liberate all others. The Buddha saw the reality of the world arises in the mind of individuals and is therefore the responsibility of the individual to liberate their own mind which instantaneously will liberate the minds of all beings. If we are doing anything other than that then we are not Buddhist

    • integralhack says:

      Padma,

      Fair enough. I think we see Buddhism differently, but I respect your practice and see it as completely valid–not that you need my validation! :) Although I think engagement is admirable, I think the deconstructive practice you refer to is also admirable.

      Best wishes,

      Matt

  7. I really enjoyed this deeply personal and thoughtful article. Thanks, Michael.

    (See Nathan Smith's related article and my comment at http://bit.ly/icPrKb.)

    Bob W.

  8. Joe Sparks says:

    People can only be effectively organized to participate in liberation on an individual basis. Calling mass meetings, protests, distributing leaflets, e-mails, and other "mass" activities are an almost complete wate of time unless they are peripheral to a systematic making of individual friends, who will consider a liberation program if YOU offer it because they trust you.

  9. [...] 20. Watch what you say and think. Practice being more compassionate and positive both when it comes to communicating with others and paying attention to the thoughts associated with these interactions. Remember, thoughts count! Check out a great article about Michael Stone and engaged living. [...]

  10. Throughout the grand scheme of things you secure an A for effort and hard work. Exactly where you lost me personally ended up being on the specifics. As as the maxim goes, the devil is in the details… And it could not be much more correct appropriate here. Having said that, permit me inform you what did do the job. Your text is pretty engaging and that is possibly the reason why I am making the effort so that you can comment. I do not make it a regular habit of performing that. Second, although I can undoubtedly notice the jumps in reason you make, I’m not genuinely confident of how you appear to unite your ideas that help to make the actual final result. For the moment I will yield to your position but trust within the future you link your dots far better.

Leave a Reply