Ahimsa: Thoughts on Being Good

Recently a military working dog made the headlines due to her role in a raid. While I typically avoid writing anything overtly political here, this event and the media coverage and the divergent responses from the malinois community dovetailed with something I’d been thinking about all week. Hell, if I’m honest, it is something I’ve been thinking about for years.

The specific thought: it’s a fine line to walk to celebrate the dog while decrying the act. The dog’s actions were part of an incredibly highly trained team working together for a terrifying purpose. The risks were as high as they get. All involved risked their lives to bring this mission to a successful conclusion and come home alive. No question, all are heroes, the dog and her handler and the entire team.

But more generally: why was this act of violence necessary? Why do we need military working dogs and special forces? And as educated world citizens, don’t we have to understand global conflict in all it’s complexity, including understanding the role of our own country and its actions, policies, economics, and history? How do we make our own personal sense and peace out of a world in which we see dogs used as weapons… and yet we have no leg to stand on in supporting NOT using all means possible to arrest terrorism.

If one is to practice ahimsa, then don’t we have to stand against war? Ok, what the hell am I talking about? What is ahimsa? Sounds suspiciously foreign…

Let me back up. Decades ago, as a young wife, mother, and yoga teacher trying to make money and make a life, I tried hard to be kind to all and make and keep friends. If someone got angry with me or didn’t like me, or took issues with anything I said or did, I tried hard to fix it. I tried to work through every challenge, and to understand and resolve all conflicts. I cared about whether or not people liked me. I worked consistently at being likable… with only moderate success.

I’ve been living the on-going realization that somewhere along the way, I stopped doing all that. I stopped feeling so wounded by conflict. I stopped caring so much about being liked and I stopped trying to be likable. In its place, I started trying to make good decisions and live an ethical life. Fuck being well-liked or getting along with others; let me see if I can just be good and do good. That was my conscious thought.

But how does one be good? What the everliving fuck is good anyway? I mean, ok, some good is pretty clear. Don’t cheat, lie, steal, or kill. Basic. But unless we start photosynthesizing, we have to kill to eat, so right there, the most basic tenet of goodness has an asterisk.

My study as a yoga teacher organized this lurching towards goodness into a commitment to understand and live by the yamas and niyamas. Honestly, I’ve forgotten a bunch of them because there are ten (five of each) and I’m menopausal. But the first one is ahimsa: nonviolence or “do no harm.” The final one is ishwara pranhidana: to lay your actions at the feet of God. Along the way there are a few I do remember: tell the truth, don’t steal, keep it in your pants, stuff like that. But the bottom lines, for me, just circle back over and over these basics: do no harm and do your very best. Whatever it is in the moment that I have to say or do, it has to pass the test of “can I place this action at the feet of God?” Is this the best I have to offer?

So when I see someone doing something that I know will bring harm to them or others, what do I do? What’s “good?” Do I step in and inform them that their actions will lead to harm? Sometimes this is clear: if children and pedophiles are involved, it’s an easy yes. If it involves torture or killing animals for sport or entertainment – again, easy yes. I am clear that these actions are counter to the practice of ahimsa. To me, they are abhorrent and repulsive. But what if I know I will be misperceived, misunderstood, or Tom’s favorite expression: “misunderheard” (which means I wasn’t listening). What if I’m just written off as a know-it-all, or a killjoy? What if I know I will not be respected or acknowledged, and that the folks I try to share information with will simply reject the information and me? Sometimes it’s a maze and a minefield…

Social media is a great stage upon which to act all this out. I’m gifted with a bazillion opportunities every day to choose what to say or do. I used to engage much more. I came to feel like that wasn’t consistent with my practices of ahimsa or ishwara pranhidana. Nor was it great for my blood pressure or my stomach. I’m still tempted to weigh in on all sorts of issues from time to time, but I remind myself… I can let it unfold without me. Not my circus, not my monkeys, as the saying goes.

I get it wrong and make mistakes all the time. I often feel sad and confused. I hide behind my dogs and the mountain lifestyle, curating an exotic and badass image to a degree. That’s probably running counter to one of the yamas or niyamas but sometimes a bad memory is a blessing. At least I’m pretty sure I’m doing no harm. There’s being good, and then there’s being good enough. As far as doing my best… boy, that’s a moving target.

So no, I’m not posting a photo of the malinois that took down the terrorist. No, I’m not gloating over his death. Not because I think terrorism is cool but because I know that another will rise and take his place because all the conditions that created him remain. I mourn a world in which we need to use dogs in this way. And I celebrate that dog and her team, because clearly they are an amazing force to be reckoned with, a true example of what the human-canine bond can be. And I keep trying, fumbling and stumbling, towards some notion of good. It’s the only thing that makes any sense.

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2 Responses to Ahimsa: Thoughts on Being Good

  1. Janet M McSwain says:

    Lady, I do hear you. I grieve that we have used dogs, and the dog-human bond to create violence, even when that violence ends some other violence. But we have come no closer to actually stopping violence. At the same time, I stand in awe of the team that could do such things, at the training and the bonds, even though I wish they were unnecessary. I struggle with how much to weigh in on our own country’s failings, and when and how to try to push the arc of history more towards peace and justice. To some extent, I believe it is my circus and my monkeys, that this government and our policies are to some extent my responsibility. I have tried to drop back from the vitriol of social media and only occasionally post and weigh in. But then I wonder if silence is interpreted as agreement. I am trying to engage less on line, and more in person. And yes, I try to do good, and make sure that what I do could be laid at the feet of God.

    • halia466 says:

      Thank you for reading and chiming in, Janet. You are a role model for me, for sure. I know that when you do weigh in on any topic, be it politics, dogs, or spirituality, you do so with grace and wisdom. Yes, part of the conversation does include the troubling truth that silence is complicity. I agree. In my microcosm I try hard to be the change I wish to see, living in accordance with these principles as much as possible. Sometimes I do remain silent to keep a certain peace… but always with misgivings. Always wondering what’s the best course of action. And all too often feeling like “that took a nasty turn.”

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