Ahimsa. First, Ethics.

(more for the body, mind, feeling, world workshop coming up Sunday December 30th.  Come!) Ahimsa.  First, Ethic.ahimsa

Karin L Burke


My practice began with asana.  It began in the body.  Words and understanding, all this ethics and philosophy, came later. I felt a strange, deep stirring when I practiced.  I chairdidn’t know a thing about yoga philosophy; it would be a stretch to say I ‘understood’ it.  Yet I intend to say exactly that:  I think that strange and deep physical stirring was ethical, what the body said and the mind heard was the beginning of understanding.  This is who you are, body said; why can’t you remember?


First, the body.  Later, the words. Like life its own self.


What I thought, at that point in life, was that philosophies and religions fail when you try to use them as actual tools to open jars with, relieve headache, or cope with a difficult human being.  They are pretty.  Pretty like a dress you wear on banner days when you yourself feel gorgeous and all the world is right.  But most of our lives – my life, anyway – didn’t happen in the way of lace and poetry and kid gloves.  It happened with bitten nails and chapped lips, screaming alarm clocks, and much weariness.  Makeup, and make believe, church and ethics, all amounted to the same thing.  Fairy tales and palliatives.


Yoga’s ethics are different.  They are not an excuse or escape from the body, but an expression of the body.  They are part of the human, as skeleton is.


Harm none, honesty, purity, ahimsa are words written on and of bodies.  They are as much a part of us as is skin.  As is bicep, bone matter.  The smoke and heat of blood.


When I was a girl, I wrote poems.  Sometimes, lacking a notebook or simply trying to catch the moment of clarity, I wrote on the inside of my forearm.  But I don’t think convenience was the whole reason I wrote there; I think it was a part of what the words were, a piece of their meaning.  It was important to have the ink there, on my flesh like that; a constant flicker of ink in corner of eye reminder.


Like a branding.


Words for the sake of argument are sterile.  Words in a book may or may not be read.  Words around ideas are just words.  As marking, though, as witness, words take on gravity and dimension.  They are a manifesto taken to bodily extremes; a manifesto of the body and for it.

One of these poems little girl me wrote described a storm and a lost man.  It got cold.  The sky poured.  The man was alone, had nothing, and there was darkness.  Over and again the poem said naked, damp, and hungry.  Every human being of us knows what that means.  All the saints and native gods of all the corners of the world have known it.  We know.


As in, This is my flesh.  Our veins are veins of compassion, not of blood.


When I was a young woman, I still had poems inside me, but my lifestyle ricocheted from safety and fairy tales to darker, harder places.  New Orleans Parish Prison, for one.


I thought, while sitting there one day, that I was now qualified to write folk songs.


I have a tattoo, now, woman grown, on the pale and thin flesh on the inside of that left forearm.


Yes: the place I used to scribble and ink on day after day.  It is my handwriting, this tattoo; the needle traced over what I myself had written and made it stay.  Naked, it says.  Damp.  And hungry.


When people ask, I say it’s just a prison tattoo.  This makes them laugh and the conversation stray.  But it is exactly true: I laid my forearm across another woman’s lap and she patiently, slowly, branded me.


When people ask about the words, all that nakedness, they usually think it’s some innuendo.  All is sex.  I don’t correct them.  But the words are not about lusty, satisfied desire so much as they are a description of need.  These are the words we know.


Is it strange, I wonder, or delightful, that the most rigorous intellectual exercises and sublime metaphysical contortions of yogic science echo what I’ve felt and tried to express my whole life:


We know what the words are.  We ought to know our veins as compassion.  We ought – because we do, in a sense – have first words branded into our arms and the palms of our hands.

To have the words bless and sanctify everything we touch, mark everything we do, witness our hours; we ought to be reminded of ethics as soon as we are reminded of body.


First, ethic; first.


All two year olds know what generosity is.  And every two year old knows selfishness.  We stay infants all our lives.  Unless we decide to grow up.


You stand, you breath: the whole body trembles.  The nerves flash.  The breath roils.  It all says yes: yes, this has been true, all along.  This is who you are.  You were born to love, and yet you are alone.


Figure this out.  Go slowly.


Nonviolence is not a discrepancy or diversion of the body.  It is the logical outcome of having one.  Do this, and remember.


Still, I am a wordy, philosophical kinda gal.  It tickled me no end when I found the philosophy.  I found the philosophy to be a pure distillation of what I felt on the mat, knew with my hands and my eyes.  The point of practice is not physical contortion and heavy breathing; it is a question of aliveness, is sensitivity.  Yoga is ethics, first.  If it begins as a flash of physical knowing, it holds true all the way to the most rigorous of intellectual understandings.  Compassion is a truth we know across all the different fields of knowledge.


The logic of yamas and niyamas appeals to our highest level of intelligence.  At first glance smarts isolate us, put the smart one on a different level and lead to accolades, cloisters, academia. Intelligence separates us from the fold. But this isn’t the whole thing; intelligence taken to its conclusion resolves to withness and leveling. Full expression of genius lies in relation, not isolation.  I don’t say easy, I just say genius.


The fully developed human being knows his own self, and where he stands.  He knows everything amounts to this: either he sees the body of every other as equal in importance to his own, or he does not.


Compassion, ahimsa, is inborn and instinctual.  But it is also – and this makes it rare – a truth the mind can find no shortness with.  Any shortness found is with the self, and not compassion.


Like god, I suppose: bigger than mind, it contradicts the mind.  This doesn’t prove the smallness of god. It proves the smallness of self.


Ahimsa is historical. Hippocrates, father of medicine and citizen of ancient Greece, is credited with the healer’s code to ‘first, do no harm’.  He understood medicine holistically and humanely; illness is not the concern of wellbeing, wellbeing is.  When healers act out of their own diagnostics of what is ‘wrong’, they may injure the person while treating the limb.  To ‘fix’ a disease or wound at the cost of harming the person in some way is worthless, even if the disease is ‘cured’.  To not harm, then, takes precedence over the healer’s own accomplishment and the treatment of disease.


A doctor is concerned with physical pulp and tissue.  Oxygen, the grey matter of the brain, depression and anxiety and the muscle fisted heart.  From there, directly, a doctor is concerned with the soul and the being.  With communities.  With the bodies of history and the eyes of the not yet born.  Compassion, ahimsa, is the only way such disparate bodies of knowledge form a whole.


The body is knowledge, see?  To feel is to sense one’s humanity, however jaded and limping.  To sense is to know.  To know one’s own senses is to realize the mirror and shadow and echo of oneself in everyone else’s body.  It feeds directly into using one’s wisdom as a means of connection.  One’s history and secrets and accomplishments as communication.  One’s fear as the impetus to love.


The body is wild, and messy, and discordant.  There are reasons we prefer to live in our heads.  And yet to feel what one feels, moment by moment, is ultimately the kindness of telling the truth.  It demands bravery; it is frightful to see not with our expectations and ideals and shoulds and oughts and musts but with what is.


The word courage translates, in latin and old french, ‘with heart’.  Compassion, as translated as the greek of the new testament, means to feel ‘from the bowels and gut’.  It is not easy, no.  To face reality.  To stop living in the boundaries of our heads and enter the field of the body, where things are not so orderly and are, quite frankly, terrifying and hard to understand.


It is large and expansive, that land of what we do not understand.  To ground ourselves there we ourselves must grow huge.  We must, sooner or later, realize that courage, bravery, ethics, true self, are not things without fear.  But a place where the fear doesn’t matter any longer, where fear can be felt without leaving us paralyzed.


Our eyes grow gentle to see this way.


This is what eyes were capable of, all along.


You were born to love, and yet you feel alone.  Figure this out.  Go slowly.


If you pay attention to the breath, eventually you realize it is not you, breathing.  It is your body responding to the universe.  It is atmospheric pressure, breathing you.  The breath is, with out you.  When you end, there will still be others breathing.


This is a primordial, gut wrought, deep stirring experience.  It starts in the privacy of the body.  From there, it softens the eyes and reveals a universe, an atmosphere, a word.  It speaks. We develop like children: first in body, later in language and its brainy knowings.  If you allow yourself to feel what you feel, see what you actually do see, you resolve to fierce compassion.


Ethics are visceral.


Every human being is marked, branded.  We all have these tattoos across our foreheads, written into the lines of our hands, but the things are mostly invisible and private.  I am born to love, built of it, it says; and yet I feel alone.


We know the words by heart.


Witness. Mindfulness.

Written for the upcoming Body, Mind, Feeling, and World workshop.  If you're interested, sign up. “The empty sky is my witness.” – Jack Kerouacnationalgeographicphoto

We want peace.  We want relief.  We want a sense of calm and a broader opening to joy.  These are universals, although they come to us in very particular and personal ways.  And they are things that are promised us, in yoga, in meditation, in spiritual paths of any shape or origin.

The way in is paradoxical, and has more to do with not doing and not reacting than with a ‘practice’.  It comes in stepping back and witnessing who you are.

The irony is of course that we think we know.  We think we know better than anyone else does, certainly.  There is a sense in which this is true: no one else knows our secrets, or is as preoccupied with our thoughts and feelings and beliefs as we are.

But there is also a larger sense in which this isn’t true at all.  We don’t know who we are.  We don’t have the foggiest.  We have a tendency to become attached to our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and confuse them for ourselves.  And we have a tendency to stay so close we can no longer see the big picture.

Once upon a time, someone told me “your thoughts aren’t true, you know.  You don’t have to believe them.”  This was a revelation.  It continues to be a revelation.  This was the beginning of many deep changes in me, starting with a yoga practice, an exploration of mindfulness and meditation, and not a little soul searching.  In any journey of healing or self work, honest appraisal of our thoughts and beliefs has to come in to play.  This causes a minor eruption.  A revolution, complete with burned citadels and blazing flags, from the heart outward.  It results in clarity, centeredness, and purpose.  It creates a sound refuge.

And it’s tremendously hard to explain, as it’s a thing of experience.  Of show, don’t tell.

Sakshin, the Witness, is the you of you that is larger than your conscious thoughts or fleeting emotions.

The human animal is a thinking and reflective animal.  Not only do we think, but we have the capacity to watch ourselves think.  We have the gift of self awareness.  The easiest way to envision this is to call up in your mind a picture of yourself, where ever you are right now.  Watch as this character of your mind stands and leaves the room.  You can do this whether you actually leave the room or simply use your imagination.  This quality is what allows us to remember, to learn from what we remember, to ruminate and change our minds, and to create or plan.

But the camera can pan back even further, to where we see the thoughts, can start to question where the thoughts are coming from, ask who the thinker is.

Sakshin, the seeing witnessshakshin

Sakshin, the Witness, becomes our closest ally in our daily practice.  We are ambitious, judgemental, competitive, and want to change.  But we cannot create any substantive change until we know and accept what is.

Sakshin is the quiet water beneath the constant chatter and fluctuations of our everyday consciousness (citta).  It is those fluctuations Patanjali wanted to quell with the practice of yoga.  The fluctuations are caused by perception, thought, emotion, memory.  Because of avidya – our inability to see, our mistaken ideas about dualities, our ignorance – we imagine that these fluctuations define and limit who we are. Our ignorance hurts. We suffer.

All our life, and much of our strength, is spent is assigning values to people and things. We analyze, we criticized, we compare.  We feel envy.  We feel lack. Or we feel pride, ambition, dedication. But we are rarely taught to accept and simply mirror what is.  Sakshin engages both the outer and inner worlds on their own terms and lets them speak in their own words. It is  present-centered, with no memories of the past or concerns for the future. Sakshin is self-reliant, independent of approval or disapproval, self-accepting, and big enough to hold both success and failure.

Mindfulness, buddhist Practice

In meditation we learn to be non-reactive.  There’s a thought, we let it pass without judgment or any need to follow; there’s an itch, we let it be without moving; there’s a sound, you notice and refocus on your breath; there is a surge of emotion, you feel it fully without turning it into a command or a story.

The practice is simple.  Not doing.  Not attaching.  But it has never been ‘easy’.  It teaches the  vast difference between what’s actually happening and what the mind is making up.   Oddly, this practice allowed me to be more engaged with ‘what’s really happening’ and with the processes of my mind.  It has allowed me greater spontaneity, a relief of grief or doubt or regret, and a full appreciation of my strengths and limitations.

The paradox is that being attached to a thing – emotion, say – I neither get myself or the benefit of the emotion.  Anger is a prime example: if I follow the anger, believe it as ‘truth’, I set off a chain reaction of further emotions, hormones, chemicals, and neurotransmitters. I engage my whole fight or flight response.  Typically, I also recall other incidents of anger, or reflect on neutral events in the past, and suddenly ‘understand’ them in terms of this anger.   Fuel to fire.

Mindfulness, however, fully engages with the emotion, feels it full on, and lets it be what it is.  It gives a sort of dignity to the thing.  Approaching anger with that tender, nonjudging Witness, I can often see what is making me angry (usually not what I first thought).  I can see what it is that I think I need, or what I think it is I’ve been threatened with. Fears and pains are teachers.  We should listen to them.  Benevolent curiosity toward anger is the first teacher of compassion; I learn compassion (not pity) for myself, but also a kind regard for the other party, whose needs and motivations are often remarkably similar to my own.

Being mindful toward my anger also graces me with a kind of flexibility, generosity, and bigger than myself ness.  Anger rankles and burns. It consumes.  But it is also only a piece of who I am, not the whole.  And it often consumes more precious and tender aspects.  Mindfulness allows me the room to give anger its place without letting it hold sway.

The big, sweeping space of mindfulness is the active practice of keeping the mind focused on what you are experiencing in the present moment, moment by moment, without commentary, analysis, or judgement. Without reference to the past.  Without expectations or fear.  Again, oddly, the practice makes us big: by dissolving the ties we take for granted (why does he always do this?  Why can’t I ever…? I hate…I wish…every man is the same…my body does this every time I get a headache) we have the room to try other approaches.  We see people for who they are, rather than what we’ve come to expect from them.  And we see that who we are need not be attached to who we’ve always been and the way we’ve always done it.

Typically, we use the breath as a  vehicle or focusing point for our meditation.  But we can apply mindfulness to anything: different sensations in the body, sounds, emotions, even thoughts.

Finding the clarity born of mindfulness, letting go of distractions, needs, and expectations that carry us away from the present, only happens with time, commitment, and a surrender to the process.

The process can be scary.  We learn how little control we have over our own minds. The light we start swinging around can illuminate parts of ourselves we’d rather not know, or force us to reckon with things we’ve spent tremendous energy avoiding.  When people begin a ‘meditation’ practice, they often say “I’m no good at this.  You tell me to follow my breath but I can’t shut off my thoughts long enough to do that.” Depending on who we are, ease of sitting with the uncomfortable may be terrifying. Impatience, self-criticism, perfectionism, and the desire to quit or run away run deep in us.

In the end, mindfulness is not about escaping thoughts or emotions, or turning the thoughts off. Thought happens.  No one can stop thought.  If that were possible, there would be no reason for meditation, ‘liberation’ of yoga, or any of the self-soothing strategies humanfolk have devised over time.  We don’t escape thought and feeling and what is, but radically change our relationship to them.  “You don’t have to believe your thoughts.” said unnamed teacher: mindfulness and witness open the heart to possibility.  It allows choice, rather than reaction.  It opens a space for Right Intention to steer our lives, or true belief, or the really right thing to do.

Thoughts and emotions can overwhelm: most of the ‘problems’ in our lives have to do with our reaction to thoughts or feelings we didn’t know how to think or feel.  Mindfulness won’t magically stop this, but it will bring it to light.  At those times, we can begin to fall back on compassion  – again, not pity – for ourselves, the great reality of where we’ve been and the greatness of the task we’ve begun.  Facing demons rather than running from them. Mindful witness is a place to begin the forgiveness of self, and of our failures.

Yogic Sakshin, the Eternal Witness as ally

Begin at the beginning.  Begin where it’s practicable.  Begin with the body.

Sit back or lie down on the floor and close your eyes.  Step back from your body, as you might step back from a puzzle or slightly crooked picture frame.  Scan your awareness over your body’s surface.  Easy.  Do this from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head.  Feel, for example, where your skin comes into contact with the world, the border between what’s inside and what’s out.  Feel where fabric of your clothes touches your skin.  Feel the heat or coolness of the floor.  Feel where the air in the room moves over your body.  Feel where your skin is soft, where it’s calloused.  Where it’s warm or cool or cold.  If you can’t stay methodical, let your awareness play.  Just keep refocusing on being aware.

Begin to start scanning those places of your body where we don’t often go – with awareness, with breath, with vision.  The back body is key.  Notice if there are areas beyond the vision of your Witness (internal organs can be hard.  Or areas of injury may simply feel ‘injured’, not detailed).  Somewhere along the way, we lose large tracts of ourselves to a kind of physical avidya (ignorance or not knowing).  Eventually, someday, the Witness will be the guide that brings you to those places.

Follow your Witness inside, away from the surface, toward the contents of your citta (everyday consciousness…that fluctuating mind).  What do you see in there?  Our brains consume more energy and more sugar and more blood than any other part of our body, but we’re largely unaware of what it’s doing.  Forget the whole we only use 10% part.  Generally speaking, I’m wholly unaware of that 10% I am supposedly using.  Ordinarily, we identify with the fluctuations and so submerge or lose ourselves in them.  We lose not only them, but ourselves.  The Witness will tell us the kinds of thoughts we have.  I was surprised to learn how much time I spent planning and worrying and projecting – I thought I was a lazy and sanguine kinda gal.  Most of us are consumed by planning, rehashing, competing, preparing.  Any and all of these have a value and a place – but if we’re not aware, we’re not even getting the benefits of worrying, planning, or preparing.  Or of reflection.

Use Sakshin to step back from the contents of your mind and regard what you see without favoring any one of them, or trying to dismiss the unsavory. Appreciate that you can remember yourself and know yourself apart from these rippling thoughts, cataclysmic or therapeutic or preoccupied as they may be.  Allow each its full expression without getting mired in them.  They are a part of you.  Wings, or limbs, or potentials.  But they are not who you are.

Sakshin is the means by which we inquire into and enlighten ourselves.  It asks, sometimes irreverently, sometimes compassionately, who we are.  The more open we are to the Witness, the more we begin to see our ignorance/avidya; we begin to realize we don’t even know who we are.  This is a gift.  We have worlds of potential in us, big areas of healing that have historically looked like lost causes, huge reservoirs of flexibility, endurance, compassion, attention, and creativity that remain lost in the morass until we approach and learn, Witness as guide.

The elementary act of witnessing, and not doing anything, is enough to initiate the process of transformation.  Physical transformation, emotional transformation.  Revolution of spirit.  When the Witness shines the light of awareness on the unnecessary or unhealthy doing-somethings we engage in, the doing-somethings immediately lose some of their potency.  The grip of avidya – and hence, suffering – is weakened.  Stubborn, trenchant tensions or habits or beliefs spontaneously dissolve and transformation becomes effortless.  We subtly change.  The authentic slips in.  Breathing, and all the other things we do ‘just happens’.

Your inner being is nothing but the inner sky. Clouds come and go, planets are born and disappear, stars arise and die, and the inner sky remains the same, untouched, untarnished, unscarred. We call that inner sky sakshin, the witness, and that is, the whole goal of meditation. -Osho

“I am the goal, the supporter, the Lord, the witness, the abode, the refuge, the friend, the origin, the dissolution, the foundation, the substratum, and the imperishable seed.” -Bhagavad Gita

This, Gargi, is just that which is not changed.  It is not seen, but is the see-er.  It is not heard, but is the hearer.  It is not thought, but is the thinker.  It is not known, but is the knower.  Apart from it, there is no see-er.  Apart from it, there is no hearer.  Apart from it, there is no thinker.  Apart from it, there is no knower. Gargi, in this alone which is not changed, all space and time are woven, warp and woof.- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8.11

“Some look upon this Self as marvelous; others speak about It as wonderful; others again hearof It as a wonder. And still others, though hearing, do not understand It at all.”  ?

The point (practice)

The point, I think, is not to live some other life but to fully live the life that we have. It is not easy for me to swallow this.  More often than not, I want things to be different.  I am not entirely satisfied with the face that I have, nor that I am a middling age woman, nor with my bank account.  I live smack dab in the middle of conservative suburbs in the Middling West, which is the antithesis of what I expected and worked for.

I overheard a woman in a restaraunt the other day, with a crestfallen look and her hands limp on either side of her plate: this isn't what I wanted, she said.

Which is what most of us get.

I used to teach a woman who was driven and focused as a tiger.  She was beautiful and, I think, relatively 'successful' by anybody's standards.  We practiced headstands one day and I saw frustration cloud her face to a cool marble tone.  I'm not strong enough, she said; I'll never be able to do the variations.

I answered that it would come.  But I think I answered, wrong.  I think I should have said it doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter whether or not she will ever find lotus and hanumanasana and pincha while standing on her hands.  It is a truth that she maybe never will.  We can't predict things and she may never practice again, let alone for the years more the pose might take.  She might lose her limbs or her health.  She may lose interest.  She may never get the poses she wants.

But the practice still has a radical and precious worth.  I watched her move away from the wall and knew she was more comfortable doing those poses in which she looked like a rockstar.  It's enough, she said, speaking of the sweat and the work out and the core work.

But there is something, something to practicing those poses we are not very good at.  Something to inhabiting the land of This Is Hard For Me.

When I was a little girl, I believed, I knew, that I was going to be a monk.  I wrote silly poems that were half prayer, half song, and half magic spell and this seemed to me the most important thing I could do with my life.  I felt the truth of human love and suffering and likened that somehow to god.  And, it seemed to me, that if god or love exists, the only rational way to spend my life was in dedication to it.  As I grew up, though, I lost my sense of god.  Churches seemed ridiculous places for me to be.  I lost all feeling of 'faith' without losing that first tug and pull to be what I wanted to be: a monk, serving love, writing poems, standing for healing in a broken world.

These suburbs rankle me, and newspapers bother me, and my schedule sometimes leaves me feeling very little of 'purpose' and much more of 'fatigue'.  I spent the afternoon, yesterday, writing poems and daydreaming under a tree next to a monstrous bed of peonies.  The poems were intoxicating and wild and breezy, the heat was dizzying, the afternoon passed slow.  But I hit a wall of doubt: the notebook is so messy.  The poems are not finished, not edited, not publishable let alone memorable.  I looked from the black ink on the limpid paper and then to the ants, colonizing the blooming peonies.  What's the point...I found myself thinking.  I can't describe these flowers.  No one will ever read my poems.  I will never be a monk.

I stood and brushed the humid dirt from my knees and my seat, gathered my papers and headed back into the house.  But as I did so I remembered some of my students, the conversations we have had, the way their movements sometimes strike me dumb and make me teary.  I recalled to myself the days I am most tired, most frustrated, think myself most stupid and a bad teacher and stuck in middling america; the moment I show up, my mood no longer matters.  Something happens.  I let my 'self' be pushed aside and let the yoga talk, instead, I try to be present not to my wheeling thoughts but to the bodies and lives that show up in the room with me.

I wanted to be a poet monk, to stand for love, to touch beauty and heart and soul every day.  It occurred to me, standing in the hot sun with my arms full of half written poems, that that is exactly what I am.

The point is not to change our lives, but to change our selves so that we can live our lives, fully.  To find the precious worth of what we can do, are doing.  To appreciate that we are getting the myriad benefits - postural, hormonal, strength and tissue and joint wise, now and today.  That this is more real, and more beneficial, and a bigger point than the imaginary pose we might or might not someday hit.  This is real, while we spend most of our lives blind and desirous of the imaginary.

To be present while moss covers our face, or the drone of suburban lawn mowers drills into the fantasy, to watch ants and peonies and be okay with whatever poems we can write.


Ordinary Saints

"A saint in the Buddhist context...is someone who provides an example of the fact that completely ordinary, confused human beings can wake themselves up; they can put themselves together and wake themselves up through an accident of life of one kind or another. The pain, the suffering of all kinds, the misery and the chaos that are part of life, begins to wake them, shake them.

Having been shaken, they begin to question: "Who am I? What am I? What is happening" Then they go further and realize that there is something in them that is asking these questions, something that is, in fact, intelligent and not exactly confused." - Rinpoche