by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie
This post is number three on the subject of “Eight Limbs in the 2.0 Age”. Number one gives an outline of our general inspiration and approach. Number 2 lays out some of the theoretical complexities of ahimsa in postmodernity. This post is an expansion of the second, and adds a personal angle.
We want to demonstrate the performance of philosophy through as many voices and flavours as possible. As always, feedback is at the heart of the 2.0 project. Please share what you feel and think.
I was ten. I was in the schoolyard after lunch, suffering the insults and the physical intimidation of a tormentor. It had gone on for weeks, and was finally intolerable. I stopped thinking. I finally stopped thinking.
I swung hard with my right fist, which melted perfectly into his left eye socket and upper cheek. The hit was so clean I didn’t even feel it – like a perfectly struck baseball. My hand seemed to both crush him and pass through him at the same time. He crumpled to the pavement, and I knew the power dynamic was over. But more than that I felt the full presence of my body for perhaps the first time, radiant, electric, throbbing, and immense. As though it were yesterday, I remember that rush of blood, the exhilaration of breath, and a deafening internal howl of awakeness.
I sat in the vice principal’s office for an hour every day for a week. I spent every minute of my punishment reliving the sublime moment of contact, happy to be in detention. Happy, even, to be strapped.
Because I have cultivated a pacifist life, I have rarely felt that kind of aliveness since. True – it is rare that my body is directly tormented these days. But torments continue throughout this world, my world. My spiritual training sometimes seems to have disconnected most physically reactive impulses – to the extent that sometimes I wonder what my body wants, and then wonder if I’m here at all.
Is violence not inherent to life? If so, has the pacifist ideal distanced me from life?
One of the strongest worldview crises in my post-streetfighting life erupted when I picked up Endgame by Derrick Jensen. If you have also been trying to cultivate a pacifist posture through yoga and meditation, but you feel uneasy about the disparity between your relative calm and the chaos of Darfur, or the fact that the only audible sound throughout a majority of the Amazon is the scream of chainsaws, Jensen was born to amplify your dilemma. And he’s not apologizing.
I went to see him speak to a crowd of activists one deep-winter night in Toronto. There were a lot of ponchos and dreadlocks, and desperate eyes. Everybody was handing out outraged and dog-eared leaflets. (I only recognized few yogis there in the crowd of several hundred – and I invited them. I think we’ve forgotten that Siva used to be known as Rudra: howling protector of the wilderness. But this is for a future post.) Jensen spoke about his general feeling of paralysis in the shadow of ecological tragedy: “When I wake up every morning, I don’t know whether to continue writing or to go out and blow up dams.” When I heard this I realized I have developed the same confusion between pacification and agitation, in all things. I hadn’t ever distilled it down to the Jensenesque choice between two such dramatically opposed actions, but I did begin to wonder whether this was a sign of some kind of existential denial on my part. I started tracking my own early-morning confusions very carefully. And it became somewhat clearer why at times my predawn meditation and asana and study felt empty and cold. I was taking care of myself all right – generating an attitude, exploring my inner world, locating the peace of the observer, deconstructing the illusory needs of my personality – all while the bulldozers roared and children were kidnapped into war.
Jensen insists that at the heart of any modern discourse on violence lies the question: who does pacifism serve? He’s not talking generally: little-to-no violence is ideal for everyone, obviously. He’s addressing the blind habit of making pacifism a transcendent imperative which we modern yogis will tremble to question. But if we tremble, perhaps it is because we have a one-sided view.
There are two historical streams of ahisma – currently translated as “non-violence”. One is Jainist and idealistic. Its influence can be traced into Patanjali and through all ascetic traditions, until it reaches its zenith of iconic expression in the example of Gandhi, and its smooth naturalization into the culture of modern pacifist, post-60s, transnational, and now corporatized yoga. This ahimsa has also become a keynote of the squeaky-clean and non-confrontational vibe that allows our modern yoga brand to proliferate so quickly as a cultural and consumer meme. Authoritarian power structures might be quite pleased that we’re so interested in peaceful meditation – all the less resistance to each wave of shock doctrine. Non-violence that does not challenge oppression is good marketing. And from the user’s end, absolute non-violence is simple – like all dogma. Simple is emotionally compelling, and sellable – like all dogma. Simple is safe, and we need safe spaces in a confusing world. But in the end, dogma fails to nourish, and protect.
The other stream of non-violent sentiment is Tantric. It flourishes in the existential embrace of our predator-prey relationship within the web of life. While it doesn’t choose violence, it doesn’t metaphysically reject it, but rather appreciates its catabolic, embodying, and transformational power. It’s a Saivite thing (read: a Rudra thing). I don’t think we’re generally feeling this stream these days, except in the field of ecological crisis – which in modern yoga we limply address through more eco-friendly mats, while we fly in planes to Costa Rica to do tree pose beside waterfalls.
Yoga 2.0 always seeks to narrow the gap between the ideal and the real.
The Jains seem less interested in the welfare of the Other than they are in reducing their karmic contact with life down to the vanishing-point of moksha. This form of ahimsa might be better translated as non-contact, rooted in the belief that to limit dynamic relationship with fellow beings is mandatory for extracting oneself from the cycle of life. Leaving aside the dissociative personal psychology of the self-extractive ideal, the relationship results are clear. The non-contact-inspired yogi must withdraw and attempt to make his presence undetectable to the matrix of the corrupt nature he wants to quit. He must strain microorganisms from his water and breath. Certain sects will only eat windfall fruit (but only before it ferments, because then they would be knowingly consuming bacteria). Lineages engage in never-ending battles of purification one-upmanship. One tribe goes naked because they are unwilling to be responsible for the lives of insects that harvesting cotton will sacrifice. They accuse those who wear white robes of selling out, of mixing themselves too perilously with life. Make no mark upon this world, say the radical ascetics – for you’re not really here. You’re Spirit, after all. They seem to want to reduce their footprint by cutting off their feet.
Who exactly can such a worldview help?
Then again, who among us in the heart of confusion and fatigue has not fantasized about such perfect cleanliness? (Sauca will be #6 in this series, by the way.) Who has not been drawn to this absolute of good behaviour? This meekness-unto-death? Modern yogis can be extremely well-behaved. Who has not been in love with the idea that you could be blameless, above the battleground, basking in the validation of something even more perfect, more eternal? Who has not sought the unwavering approval of the perfect parent? Is this not one of the attractions of the modern studio, and of modern kirtan? Do we not very often use yoga to disconnect from our inherent conflicts, and to hide in the pleasure of the abstract self?
At the heart of the Jain-Patanjali-ascetic-yoga project is the drive to avoid and eliminate karmic deficits. But its logical conclusion tends to the Bubble Boy Fallacy that ascetics seem to live in: the wish that you can exist without cost to the planet or others. It can even serve to obscure the fact that the very body is a battleground of competing flora and parasites, that the mind is a steel cage where memes slug it out to the death. Or worse – it obsesses over these flaws of materiality, and chants even faster.
The 2.0 project, which I believe is more relevant to our time and circumstance, is to recognize interdependence: its richness, ambiguity, friction, and sublime bondage. These days I’m drawn to actually increase my karmic bonds with others. Because I need all the help I can get in staying connected.
Part of this for me means learning to hunt deer, especially where they overrun my land on Cortes Island and destroy all of the gardening they get close to. Because to continue to import my pacifist-yogi-lentils from the drought-stricken and over-fertilized Midwest is more actually violent and dissociative than killing a fellow dear-being and holding him in my arms while he dies, and promising to make his prana and rich protein part of my body. And really participating in the cycle. Because I will kill him, I know I must give myself back to him over time.
It is worth noting that the spirituality of non-violence as it applies to diet emerges in India through Brahminical culture. It depends upon a strong accumulation economy that can store grain and pulses primarily for the benefit of priestly-royal hierarchies. And it is mirrored by a generally hygienic attitude towards the human body, which is a most effective means of social control in the emerging city-states. Human flesh becomes problematized by its flagrant desires and perpetual lack of hygiene. And if the human body is so flawed – how much more so the animal body! Vegetarianism may not have begun with the kind of empathy that governs its discourse today. It may have begun with penitence, and disgust for all things of the flesh.
As Jensen points out, the heart of the predator-prey relationship is responsibility. As a human you will kill things by being here, period. Veganism to omnivorism is a just a sliding scale of predation. The call is to accept sacred and open-eyed responsibility for the killer within, and therefore deepen relationship with those who will eventually kill and absorb you.
My yoga mat sometimes smells like gunpowder. I look down at my forearm in downward dog: it is lashed with welts from my bowstring. Authentic peace seems to thrive on the juice of authentic violence.
Because provocation is his job, Jensen goes way too far for most. He says that dogmatic pacificism of the Gandhian variety allows people to tacitly support the status quo while taking a vapid moral high ground over the spiritual riff-raff who burn police cars in the street. This was difficult for me to read, but I’m grateful whenever a taboo of mine is stretched to the breaking-point, because it generally releases a flood of unexamined beliefs. It is bloody but pleasurable, and I know I’m growing.
Part of pacifism is aesthetic. I see Gandhi’s army in their white homespun cotton. They are uniform, united in an abstract ideal. There is no democratic raggedness in their expression of the absolute: “We are all together. We are all the same. We have all equally conquered our passion to react. We are all committed to something total.” This brand of nonviolence subjects the chaos of personal emotion to rational communal hygiene.
Part of pacifism is gendered. The male body of modern yoga is soft, receptive, and structurally aligned and therefore restful, but generally drained of the explosive and aggressive power that is its evolutionary training. (This is a big big post for later. No pun intended.)
A much larger part of pacifism is faith-based. It depends on an intractable feeling that everything will be just fine in the end. Keep your ideals and your pride, says the belief, and while you may lose this battle, you will win The War. Pacifism depends on the metaphysical conviction that something persists beyond the life you know you have. The trouble is: modern warfare demands the same belief. That’s why existentialism exploded from trenches of France.
We can even consider the famous Gandhi line: “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body. But not my obedience!” What does obedience actually mean here? Where is it? Where does it live? It sounds as if it would be left over after his murder, hovering above his projected corpse, ungraspable by the brutish soldier who stands above him, clutching at the air. The oppressor will be bereft, suggests Gandhi, because he doesn’t in the end really desire the resistor’s land or resources, but something immaterial. The oppressor will have Gandhi’s carcass, but that is worthless, because his soul will be inviolate. Gandhi is saying that his body doesn’t matter. He will live forever, bodiless and translucent, up on the radiant and windswept plain above the battlefield.
We know that part of this stirring sentiment is governed by the astute tactical recognition that the British were outnumbered by hundreds of thousands to one and literally incapable of extracting Indian resources without Indian cooperation – thus, obedience must simply be withheld. And surely this was effective. But the Gandhian vibe is consistently lifted out of such contexts, scrubbed of its complex politics (such as his admiration for his non-pacifist mentor Tilak), and woven as clean and bright as his cotton thread. What worked politically in a very particular circumstance has been elevated to a universal ideal.
But what I hear in the shadow of this hovering ideal, and what I suspect what many others hear, are words that push very old, Aristotelian, Christian, and Cartesian body-hatred buttons. Gandhi’s line speaks to that part of me that still agrees that because my body will die it is ultimately worthless, and can therefore be meaningfully sacrificed to an ideal, as was Our Lord’s. I can hear the teeth gnash when he spits the words “my body” – likely with the same spite that governed his obsessions with hygiene and abstinence. Gandhian language seems to distrust the body, except in its value as an object of idealistic sacrifice.
It is quite arresting to consider that the body-transcendent worldview embedded in this sentiment may be similar to that which inspires a young man to run into a hail of bullets because America is Great. Gandhian language and Uncle Sam are both pointing at your atman – they want You. And your body is the vehicle by which you will deliver You to them. Have we had enough of this yet?
If I take faithfulness to a transcendent ideal, commitment to ideological homogeneity, the aesthetics of cohesive community, and roll them all together, I wind up with a set of feelings that abstract me from lived experience, from instinct, from the raw, from everything that actually feels alive and embodied and aware. I become a citizen of our dreamy, seemingly post-conflict world, which just happens to be supported by the infinite conflicts I am choosing to turn away from. Pacifism becomes one of the value-added aspects of my excellent and self-soothing yoga studio consumer experience.
Yogis used to have guns. They needed them to fight the British, who were taking their land. To the old-timey tantrikas, land is the source of life and the home of spirit. It must not be disturbed. It is worth fighting to the death for, because without it, the being perishes. How far we have strayed from this vital intimacy with our soil! Corralling ourselves like sheep into whatever urban holding-pens our strip-mining culture can spare us! How easy it has become for me not to take a physical stand against the violent oppression I see everywhere. I try to evoke a stand through asana, but when it comes to ecology, my warrior poses seem to be just for pretend.
In November of 1878, the English passed the Indian Arms Act, which expressly forbade yogis and tantrikas from carrying rifles. Roving bands of Hatha yogis constituted the only organized guerilla forces that were successfully ambushing the Brits and holding the wealthy tourists hostage (and occasionally eating the fat ones). As Mark Singleton reports, the warrior-yogis who were successfully disarmed (for many were simply shot) became hobos, and drifted into the cities, where they made meager livings as street buskers, performing the asanas that they used to practice to prepare themselves for battle for a few paisa, or little rice. For several decades, this became the public face of yoga, recorded by Victorian photographers and travel writers: disarmed, broken and filthy warriors doing street magic at the margins of a culture hurtling on into colonial industrialism.
This utter humiliation of Indian physical culture was a central provocation to the rise of the neo-Hatha movement, which sought to reclaim the dignity of these now degraded postures, and position them at the centre of a national uprising and reclamation of the enslaved body politic. Krishnamacharya inherited the frustrated passions of a disarmed lineage. His contortions and exertions project the writhing of the colonial body remembering its own strength, and ready to drive the enemy out. (Some us still feel that way in asana – though that enemy be ourselves… subject for another post.) He didn’t resonate with Gandhi at all. Nor did any of his fellow RSS members, who viewed dogmatic pacificism as an ignoble concession to the power of oppressors.
Scott and I have a joke: we should make a t-shirt that says: I’m a yogi and I want my gun back. We wonder how it would sell. Especially amongst women and minorities.
Patanjali promises the practitioner of ahimsa that his opponents will renounce their hostility. (II.35) How astonishing! I remember the cognitive relief that washed over me when I first came across this verse. So simple and elegant – an ideal balm for an exhausted mind. He’s saying that peace starts – and ends – with me. That my superego alone might control the ids of others. How powerful, and soothing. I imagine that my relief was a similar to that evoked by The Secret amongst the postmodern alienated: “as you think, so you create the world”, and so on.
But is Patanjali telling the truth? Is it a verifiable fact? Has this ever been true? I’ve seen it be true in close interpersonal contact, one to one, in which my attitude of calm non-aggression has been disarming to an attacker. But I’ve also had my humanness disparaged by authorities, and watched riot police beat protesters bloody, and logging trucks pour into old-growth forests, and felt my non-violent body go limp with despair and invisibility. The Yoga Sutras seems to be speaking always about subtle internal revelations, won in secret. Personal revelations that cannot touch the brutal facts of the relational world. Or maybe they could, if they were shared by all, which seems very unlikely.
An aggressor threatens my land or drinking water or air quality, or announces that he will be clear-cutting the land I depend on. If I am embodied, I will realize that he has declared war upon my flesh, its resources, and its very meaning – my connections to the earth, although it is legal and no one will call it war. It is as if he has entered my home and threatened me physically, or my partner, or my child. My question is this: where will my training in metaphysical pacifist ahimsa break down, because the violence against me or someone defenseless is intolerable? How long can I hold the intention to not fight fire with fire? When will I let my body and its existential needs override my ideal? When will I listen to my flesh, and like a mother seeing her child attacked, act without hesitation?
But the situation is not hypothetical, unfortunately. Aggression abounds, both material and abstract. And the dogmatic interpretation of ahimsa will confuse the impulse of intimacy, the impulse to strike, the impulse to use the body as if it were actually the centre of our present experience. Ahimsa can become a virus of disembodiment, if we’re not flexible with its meaning. If we fail to acknowledge it must be interpreted anew for every circumstance. If we fail to acknowledge that it is a hope, and not a law.
I’ve been spending a lot of time feeling the layered agony of my own bodily suppression. My fear of my rage. Rage that comes with injustice, or because I’m running a loop of Good Citizen Software that makes me crazy, or when I remember that I was circumcised. There’s something in that rage that my metaphysics has taught me to devalue. There’s something in there that I’ve been told not to trust. Something that tells me to wait, pause, breathe deeply, and soothe the primal emotion, because Love will return to make things right. I value this metaphysic insofar as it makes me socially functional and highly self-aware. But I suspect I’m too well-trained.
I’m not spiking any trees yet, or sugaring the fuel tanks of logging trucks. But I have started going to boxing classes in an old sweaty gym in the west end of Toronto. It’s open 24 hours for shift workers. A yoga buddy invited me along. He’s breaking out of his pacifist shell as well. The showers are disgusting, but I feel like I’m coming clean there.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.