On the retreat with Amma in Detroit this past November, there was a Question and Answer session. A woman asked her, “What guidance can you give us to stop the violence in the world and to make the world more peaceful?” She asked because there had recently been some kind of gun violence in her city that had emotionally shaken her greatly. She said she prayed every day as I wrote about last month and did selfless service in her community, but she wanted more.
Part of Amma’s (long) answer, the first part of it, was, “In fact it is because of people like you who cooperate and try to help others every day that the world has some degree of peace.” That part of the answer really stuck with me and has been on my mind a lot since then and has helped me be more committed to being my best and helping others and doing good in the world.
Even before hearing that comment, I had some feeling for this truth already. Back in April 2007, some of you may remember the shooting at VA Tech. That really struck home for me and shook me internally not only because it was the deadliest shooting by a single person in US history but also because I graduated from VA Tech AND spent most of my college class time in Norris Hall and took classes in the rooms where most of the people where shot. Talking with my dad later about it, I confided that I couldn’t say I was completely innocent in the situation since I certainly did not really add any peaceful energy to that building during my time there, and actually probably added a bit of the opposite. He said something like, “you can’t blame yourself for it,” or something like that, essentially trying to free me from any contribution for it, but I really thought (and still do) that I was not innocent in it. I take it as inspiration for myself, not as a taking on of unnecessary guilt. Certainly toward the end of my college career, when my engineering classes were done, I found the joy of service and had committed myself consciously to a Path of Awakening and to endeavoring “to be fully human,” as I described it at the time.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (2.35) tell us that when one is totally established in ahimsa, non-harming, then harming cannot occur in one’s presence. In this powerful and challenging verse, I see not only the tremendous potential of the practice of ahimsa but also on a smaller scale, the gentle encouragement of Amma above, as well as the flip side, of me feeling partly (though arguably infinitesimally) responsible for the VA Tech shooting.
If we take Amma’s words at face value and as true, which I strongly encourage that we DO, people like us who endeavor to cooperate with each other, to work together, to help and serve selflessly when we have the chance, who pray but also work for peace and harmony in our families, at work, in our communities and/or in the larger world, are actually making it so that there is SOME peace in the world. That idea seems plausible to me. And it is true that in our country, it’s not all bad news and though clearly we have a gun violence problem (as well as a war-loving/making problem and greed problem, and other problems), we still do walk down the street not worrying about being shot or bombed. On one level then, we can shift our perspective from what’s NOT working to what IS, which helps inspire me, as I mentioned above, to do even better, to hold myself to a higher standard than I had been. If and when I focus on what’s WRONG, then I, as most people I think, get overwhelmed, not knowing where to start or what TO do, so end up doing nothing which only plays into those who are committed to destruction, chaos, selfishness and death.
When I focus on what I CAN DO, that also helps me feel some ownership of the world, which most people seem to lack, and thus feel some sense of personal responsibility for it. As I’ve mentioned before, I pick up trash in my walks around the neighborhood, or in the parking lot when walking to a store, or… I often ponder how people could so casually and carelessly discard their own waste. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I paradoxically feel a kind of ownership of my community and of the Earth on which it rests while I also even more strongly feel that in truth there is no way that I can ever really own ANYTHING. First and foremost I can never own LAND! This ridiculous idea I consider to be a sickness endemic in the world, and in our culture especially, and the source of much of our problems! (If you feel that you really own land, then when you are buried in it, get back to me and tell me if you still feel that way.) I imagine that most people feel that they own, truly, some little part of land or space on the Earth or people or animals, while they feel no ownership of the rest of it. That small view only serves to perpetuate the violence we do live with. If “my” right hand felt itself separate from “my” left hand, then if the left hand was injured, the right hand could aloofly and callously say that it wouldn’t help bandage and treat the left. It could even tell the left hand that it was just being selfish and needy! That’s the situation we see in the world today.
If we think of ourselves as innocents, as my dad was encouraging me, as powerless victims, then we have abdicated our power, power that we TRULY need to claim if we are going to make the world a more peaceful place and go beyond a culture of violence and war and greed. But we do have a choice, every day and every moment. Toward the end of Amma’s answer to that woman, she said, “Deep inside, some part knows what is right and what is wrong.” On one level, the solution to the world’s problems rests simply in us, on our own, getting in touch with that place and acting from it. It will spread naturally. It just takes some degree of introspection and commitment to it. One day at a time; one breath at a time; one yoga or meditation practice at a time; one loving, helpful act at a time; we can do it. We are doing it.
May you, your family and all beings have a happy, healthy new year!