January 11, 2012

How to Think About War if you’re a Yogi.

I have experienced many practitioners of yoga to have systematically divorced their theoretical approach of matters pertaining to war and violence with actual application, instead holding certain principals of Indian philosophy as an abstraction for some remote time in the future versus the extremely dangerous situation we find ourself in today as a planetary culture.  This pertains primarily to the political choices and social affiliations that seem to be popular and in agreement with the yoga community. I found it quite disturbing in 2008 to see the yoga community (I leave myself open to critique by making such a sweeping generalization) and its unabashed support and admiration for the Obama ascent into the American presidency. The completely justified disgust of the deplorable and dangerous actions of the Bush administration left the consciousness of many yogi’s vulnerable to a perceived representation of an opposite symbol to Bush’s “freedom.” Although Obama certainly embodied the perception of the “anti-Bush” through background, race, and alleged philosophical and political ideologies, those with the willingness to confront the actions and associations of this man were quickly disabused of this manufactured dialectic.


The past 4 years have been nothing short of horrific. The American military machine has continued to unleash unmitigated violence throughout the Middle East and covert hostile actions in other parts of the world. And if this was not enough, the recent signing of HR 1540, which now legalizes and institutionalizes the detainment and imprisonment of American citizens without trial. This bill that Obama signed “despite having serious reservations”  was almost entirely authored by agents of the military industrial complex, the same agents we hoped Obama would vehemently oppose.

These actions -by an administration that was perceived not only to embody the classical liberal values of the West but even a loose association with Eastern systems of philosophy- have inspired an inquiry for myself into how to view war and violence in the modern context.  I honestly wondered how a community that beautifully practices and teaches the virtues of non violence could support a man not that not only systematically uses the violence of the state and associates with individuals deeply connected to the military industrial complex, but then in the most dishonest way claims to be a man of peace.

We are rapidly approaching a situation in which various factors; ecological, economic, cultural, and social are under tremendous stress and could potentially disintegrate into something that not many people could easily confront. In short, we stand as a society on the brink of a possibly disastrous fall into something yet not fully known and grasped due to the sheer scope of its potential. And since we are part of an incredibly violent and suppressive society, we can readily assume that when this deterioration begins to accelerate the use of institutionalized violence will also rise exponentially.  This is an actual danger we face not in the far off future but far far closer than we care to imagine.

We should then explore how a yoga practitioner could evolve a practical theory on how to think about war so as to bring about a higher level of awareness that could potentially lead to a shift in the choices we make in regards to the current situation of the American political drama. Who do we support as a community that best embodies a philosophy that fosters a non violent society?  Beyond the mainstream media interpretive lens and various PR machines, how do we know if a person’s words regarding war and violence match their actions?

A potentially rational justification for violence and war that has its roots in both Natural Law could be the following statement:  It is legitimate to use violence only in defense of direct or threatened aggression of one’s person or property; it is totally and completely impermissible to commit or threaten violence against  innocent people when in the act of retribution against the initial aggressor. War, then, only becomes a justifiable exercise when violence is limited to the individual aggressors. 

Let us perhaps simplify this just for a moment independent of any interference from the current State institutions that dominate warfare just to grasp the essence of this theory:   Let us imagine a remote island in the Pacific with three individual’s. For simplicity purpose let us call them Mr. X, Mr. Y., and Mr. Z.  We will say that each of these individual’s perform different functions on the island as well each having their own personal property that they “own” only through their own personal effort. (i.e. they each have their own hut that they built with resources they created through “sweat mixed with soil”)  Mr. X suddenly decides in order to further his own existence he must attack the property of Mr. Y to steal and plunder Mr. Y’s goods. If we are to be fair, we must concede that Mr. Y has the right to employ violence against Mr. X to protect his property and defend himself from Mr. X’s aggression. Yet we must also say unequivocally say that Mr. Y has absolutely no right to commit violence against Mr. Z because he is friends with Mr. X.   His retribution against Mr. X must be limited to Mr. X and Mr. X alone.

The various champions of pacifism in recent history, Tolstoy and Gandhi are memorable examples, have encouraged the symbolic Mr. Y (those individual’s that have experienced violence) even in the face of the aggression and violence from the Mr. X’s of the world to not respond in kind. This is certainly enlightened and inspiring advice. If Mr. Y were to be such a man and not retaliate against X for his aggression that we can look at Mr. Y as either a man of deep and profound wisdom or potentially a coward.  In either case, there must be an acknowledgement that Mr. Y does not have to respond to violence with violence if so inclined. Yet, if Mr. Y were to respond with violence of his own directed solely at X for his initial act against of aggression against his person or property we must honor the right Mr. Y to do so. However, we must also hold Mr. Y accountable that his retribution must not extend beyond the person or property of X.  That is to say, he can only “get even” with Mr. X.  Mr. Y does have the right to use violence against anyone else.

Now, this sounds all well and good and may even be considered basic common sense and logic, however this theory seems not only sounds ridiculous but nearly impossible to apply in the modem context of geopolitical warfare.

Let us now put this further into application so we can perhaps see the absurdity of our various military theaters and the current “use” of this basic theory of justified war:   Sgt. Jackson grew up 50 miles north of Atlanta. He was part of a middle class family where he excelled in football and basketball. Although receiving minor interest from various colleges for his jump shot he decided instead against the wishes of his overbearing mother to join the Marines. Sgt. Jackson, after a rigorous basic training, was sent to the Afghan theater to participate in a variety of military exercises against the Taliban.  Growing up in Georgia, Sgt. Jackson had never once met a single Taliban member and it is without any question or doubt that not once has a Taliban member has ever committed violence against Sgt. Jackson at his home in Georgia or aggressed his personal property. Yet, St. Jackson goes on order to commit open violence against the Taliban member he has never met in the name of liberty and freedom.

How can we as a planetary society ever expect real and lasting peace when 99% of the violence in the world is committed by the “Sgt Jackson’s” of each and every country that employs institutional violence?

Many people will immediately react negatively to my portrayal of Sgt. Jackson as a violent mercenary.  To be fair, although everyone is ultimately responsible for their own existence and actions, I can easily sympathize with Sgt. Jackson and his reasoning for the employment of violence. His entire mental structure has been conditioned from various educational and cultural institutions to both overtly and covertly support state directed violence.  I can not blame him for his willingness to participate in “defending freedom” no matter how illogical it may be.

Some will argue that Sgt. Jackson is needed to protect the world from the new Hitler that could emerge at any moment. I will the concede that there is no question to the complexity we face as a planet and the various potentials of destructive leadership emerging. However, the basic point I make is that if every person was to follow this basic policy above in reference to violence, we would have an immediate end to open, state violence and instead be replaced by individual or potentially small group conflict which would be far more manageable and authentic in its scope.

We live in an age of mass violence and a country that specializes in its justification in the name of “freedom.”  It is systematically supported by both the mainstream left and right no matter the PR that says otherwise. Our own sensibilities that gravitate towards a peaceful and just world are being rapidly overtaken by  evil, impersonal forces of great magnitude. The seriousness of the problem can not be overstated and as the economic health of the world will be put in serious jeopardy in 2012 this issue presses even more.  The most dangerous theme facing our world today is not the use of violence itself but the passive acceptance of institutionalized violence by a population that ignorantly recognizes war as indispensable to the health of the state.

The art of mindful leadership in the 21st century on the global level should be entirely concerned with both the immediate cessation of institutionalized warfare, the reduction of the various supply chains that support the military industrial complex and the exponential increase in awareness that could inspire each and every individual to exist higher state of understanding in which peace and well being could be a living experience rather than theoretical construction.

I have no strict affiliation to any particular philosophy. I see good points expressed in the theory of perceived opposites such as Libertarianism and Socialism. For me, it is way beyond party affiliation and philosophy at this crucial time in our development. I would support just as easily a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican that I felt was not bought and sold by the corporations that have seized control of our country. The issue of non violence is the issue that matters most in this election.  Not only because of the obvious implications but because of all the connected issues that extend from this industry: economics, social programs, jobs, environmental health, inner peace, and countless others.

The Yoga community will hopefully will take this into consideration in 2012.

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