Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Ahimsa Challenge

Years ago on this blog, I wrote about the yamas and niyamas. They are the first and second limbs of yoga, or the complete yoga path. My first post on ahimsa, the yama of nonviolence, focused on how we can be nonviolent with ourselves. The second post on ahimsa focused on the overabundance of violence in our world (and it has only gotten worse in the past two years).  But I find myself coming back to this topic. I find myself struggling with ahimsa on a daily basis, both internally and externally.

Certainly, the legal profession does not put Ahimsa as its pinnacle. Unlike doctors, whose oath states, “do no harm,” lawyers are asked to litigate. Sometimes it feels as though the lawyer’s job is to make the other party look bad. Certainly that is not the actual job, but unfortunately, some lawyers take on their clients and stories so intensely, that this is what ends up happening.

I see the opposite of ahimsa, however, in other places in life as well. There is little that bothers me more than speaking badly about people behind their backs. I am not going to try to say I have never done it. I probably do it on a daily basis. Somehow this has bothered me from long before my yoga practice, but it has been yoga that has taught me why it is so damaging to myself and the universe.

The energy we put into the world is the energy we receive. When we put out negative energy statements about others, we are only harming ourselves. We are harming the people who hear them. It creates a violent atmosphere. The violence is not with guns and rockets, but it is violence nonetheless. I look at so much of the larger violence happening in the world today (Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq), and I try to make sense of it. I try to understand how humans can be so awful to other humans.

And then I realize, war happens when we do not understand one another. I have been incredibly blessed to have traveled in many parts of the world. I have lived in two foreign countries, one of which I did not speak the language fluently (France), and one of which arguably does not speak the same language as me (New Zealand – I still sometimes don’t understand Kiwis). But all my traveling has made me believe one simple truth:

If everyone in the world lived in a country where they do not speak the language natively for six months, war might disappear. There is nothing more humbling than having to trust the people around you with them knowing you are not from there. I have been welcomed into peoples’ homes, provided directions, showed amazing places, and treated wonderfully everywhere I have been. And yes, I was an American living in France when the United States went to war against Irag in 2002.

There are other ways to reach this without actually living in a foreign country (though I highly recommend it). I think the first way is to do our best not to belittle others. It sounds cliché, but clichés exist for a reason – they are often correct. I will not say it is easy, but I do know it is possible. I work in a field where it is easy to be judgmental. Children’s lives are at stake every single day. People make decisions with which I do not agree every single day. I make decisions with which other people do not agree every single day.

None of that means, however, that we have to be cruel to one another. The idea that sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me is not actually accurate. Not only can words harm, they bring a lack of understanding for others, which can lead to physical violence in the future. In the world of domestic violence, we do not differentiate between emotional and physical abuse. I have actually heard victims say the emotional abuse was worse than the physical abuse. This is not something I understand personally, but the sentiment is not lost on me. Thus, our words are just as violent as our weapons even if they result in fewer immediate deaths. Words also have the power to bring positive change. What if instead of belittling others we attempted to understand them? What if we took the time to stop and think about the words we speak?

To be clear, venting is different than what I am talking about. We can vent and be frustrated, even angry, about situations and what happened, but we do not need to belittle people in the process. We do not need to, for lack of a more mature way of saying it, call people names. When I was a camp counselor, we were adamant that the children in our care were not bad even if at times their actions were bad. When we disciplined, we were sure to make that distinction. That distinction matters. It matters to the person making the distinction, the person about whom the distinction is made, and to the energy of the universe.

I have come to realize there is little I can do in my current circumstances to stop the Israeli-Hamas war or to stop the riots in Ferguson short of offering prayer/light/healing/etc. But there is a lot I can do to change my own way of bringing violence into the world in the form of words. This takes a lot of strength, and sometimes, frankly, it is strength I do not think I have. It is easier to follow the crowd and poke fun at the target who is not there. But I started practicing yoga to find a new way of living, and this is a very important step. It is taught that ahimsa is the very first step on the 8-limbed yoga path because it is the foundation. How can we proceed along a path when we constantly bring negative energy into our lives and the world?

As a positive affirmation, nonviolence means compassion. It means understanding, or at least attempting to understand. That means stopping and thinking – an act that is often lost on us in the digital age. But I am challenging myself, and those who wish to join me, to go one day without speaking unkindly about someone. Our words matter.  How can we use them to be compassionate instead of violent? And after that one day, try one day more. Start small and see how the changes affect you. 

There are so many ways to bring ahimsa into our lives, but this is one small step that can make a huge difference.

Are you willing to take this ahimsa challenge?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Ahimsa Challenge, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Monday, August 11, 2014

“We Are All Damaged Goods”

My uncle, who also has his own blog, made this statement once: “We’re all damaged goods.” It just sort of came to him. And right he was.

I work with the people we traditionally think of as damaged – abused and neglected children. And they are very often damaged. But interestingly I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw harmed children in another context. I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in northern California, and I worked in a city even wealthier than the one in which I grew up. I was a camp counselor and worked in an after school program as well.

There were very few times I suspected “traditional” child abuse was occurring in these families, and the times I did suspect it, those suspicions tore me apart. I still wonder, more than ten years later, whether I made the right calls in certain situations. But traditional physical abuse is actually not as common as people think when people think of child abuse. Although I see it more now than even 2.5 years ago when I started my current job, the real issue remains neglect.

When neglect gets really bad, children do not develop properly. Children often have speech delays, and research tells us their brains actually develop less fully. There are physical symptoms of physical neglect. I do not want to minimize physical abuse or physical neglect. They are awful and horrible. I wish there were more media coverage of just how bad these issues affect the children in our communities. But here I want to talk about something else.

What I saw all too often where I worked was children dropped off at 7am and picked up at 6pm. I expect children would have been dropped off earlier and picked up later, but those were the hours we were open. I saw, and had to administer, a growing amount of medication over the course of the 4 years I worked there as families decided it was too difficult to deal with children who acted like children. As cars got bigger parents and children were more and more separated. Sure, these children could read well, and their speech was perfect, but something major was missing.

I started this post about a week ago, but I guess the universe had other plans for me. Today Robin Williams took his own life. He blessed this world with such humor, grace, and true talent, and yet he was depressed. There is nothing wrong with being depressed, but society asks us to hide it, to put on a happy face. Instead of getting help, Robin Williams became Mork and Mrs. Doubtfire and my personal favorite – O Captain My Captain, the great Mr. Keating. Interestingly, I watched that movie this past week, and it touched me as much now as it did nearly 15 years ago when I first saw it.

But the truth is that all of us have experienced some sense of loss in our lives. No one had a perfect childhood, and our pain is what helps us grow. These are clichés, but they also miss part of the point. The damage is real. The damage is scary. And we are all looking for how to heal that damage. I have written often about community on this blog. For awhile it became one of my favorite themes. Although I did not know it at the time, research tells us that having people, even one person, helps us recover from trauma.

What I see is that we are unable to respond to trauma and damage the way our bodies were intended to respond. Instead of allowing ourselves to cry, we hide our tears for fear of looking weak. Instead of allowing our muscles to shake, we hold ourselves stiff until our bodies give out. Instead of reaching out for support, we put on a happy face and act our ways through life.

But we are all damaged at some level. This is not a nihilistic approach. It is a heartfelt approach to life.  And we all need each other. Yet we do the very things that make it so much harder to recover. For me, yoga was my way out. Some might say I have become too sensitive since starting yoga. The truth, however, is just that now I know the importance of touching base with others and reaching out.

Yoga has been that path for me. It has allowed me to notice when something is not right and to feel the damage. That does not mean it needs to linger. Sometimes that allows it to go away faster. But my uncle’s realization is huge and important. When we finally realize we are all damaged goods, we no longer have to hide our own damage. What kind of amazing world would it be if we showed our true selves and helped each other out instead of hiding behind our different masks all the time?

It is this recognition that we are all damaged that helps us learn compassion. And compassion helps us actually feel more loved. It is, therefore, our damage that allows us to heal, but first we have to recognize there is damage. And that comes in so many forms. This is not to say we are all horribly damaged, only to recognize that when we notice we are damaged, it is actually incredibly freeing, and we can then learn to reach out to one another, and ourselves, with love in our hearts rather than expecting everyone to be strong all the time. 

Are you able to share your heart with others? Are you able to see their damage, and yours, without judgment? 


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights resered.
The post, We Are All Damaged Goods, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.