Ahimsa: Reckoning With Our Own Violence

Red-tailed Hawk

Last week a red-tailed hawk killed one of our chickens. My husband watched it swoop down, rip the hen’s throat from her body, lift her slightly aloft, then drop her down to die in a puddle of her own blood. The hen was young, not yet three months, and was an easy target for the hawk. She had lost that fight before it even started.

Although the scene was bloody (and sad), I wouldn’t call it violent. After all, a hawk needs to eat, too, perhaps even has babies to feed. The hawk was doing what evolution and instinct demanded of it.

The violence didn’t come until after the killing. And it came from me, not the hawk.

When my husband told me what had happened, I went outside to survey the aftermath. I saw my sweet little bird in a lifeless pile and that son-of-a-bitch hawk perched in a tree nearby waiting to come back and swoop up its feast. If I were a decent person, I would have walked away and let the hawk come get its dinner. After all, it was my fault for not having already installed a flying predator net over my chicks. If I had let the hawk be, at least my chicken’s life would have fed another bird as nature and the food chain prefer.

But that is not what I did.

Instead, I found the biggest rock I could and launched it at the hawk. When that did nothing, I did it again. And again. And again. I wasn’t trying to kill the hawk, nor could I have. The thing was a beast! But I was pissed. It had killed my bird, and I wanted it out of my sight. I started yelling, cussing, and acting a general fool until the hawk finally flew off, probably more out of confusion at my behavior than anything else. My husband retrieved the chicken carcass, tossed it in the woods, and sweetly informed me that I had been lobbing rocks at a protected species.

Honestly, at that moment I didn’t care. And if I am being totally honest, I had the conscious thought, “No one saw me do it,” as though that made it better. The fact of the matter is, I reacted violently and out of anger, not for any constructive purpose other than unleashing some pent up rage in the guise of avenging my chicken’s untimely death. Ridiculous, right? Comical.

Except for really it is not.

In the course of a few seconds, I switched from normal ho-hum Lauren to an enraged would-be hawk poacher. I allowed myself to repeatedly try to pummel an innocent animal because it had taken something from me. It hurt my chicken, and that hurt me. I deserved to hurt it back! And here I am calling myself a yoga teacher. Sounds pretty yogic, right? Luckily I have terrible aim.

My point in telling this story is not to make some sort of absolving confession. I am telling it for one reason only: to call attention to my own capacity for violence. And that capacity isn’t mine alone; it is in all of us. It is always there, always a possibility, and whether we like it or not, none of us are immune to it.

Watching video footage of George Floyd being murdered, his neck crushed under the weight of a non-plussed police officer with his hands in his pockets, has shaken me to my core. How can violence like that come to pass? How could any person do that to another human being? How could his partners not have pulled him away? How? How? How does this happen?

But at this point, those are ridiculous questions. At this point, the real question is how could I possibly be surprised?

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Tony McDade, David Mcatee, Donnie Sanders, Isaiah Lewis, Michael Dean, Dreasjon Reed, Atatiana Jefferson, Josef Richardson, Ryan Twyman, Tony Green, William Chapman, and countless, countless more.

These people are a miniscule fraction of the numbers of Black lives ended through the unspeakable, unnecessary, and inhumane violence that is such a horrifyingly common occurrence in this country. Violence lives at our very foundation. From wiping out indigenous populations upon arrival to building our nation on the backs of slaves, we are a violent nation. We are other things too, for sure. But pretending we are not violent is delusional. Pretending we are not violent perpetuates more violence.

In yoga, there are principles to live by that are called yamas. One of these is ahimsa, or non-violence. A pretty good example of ahimsa would be, “If a hawk kills your chicken, don’t throw rocks at the hawk.” Clearly, I have a long way to go.

And our nation has a long way to go, too. It isn’t enough for me (or anyone) to just say Black Lives Matter, be sympathetic and empathetic, label myself an ally, and be done with it. Hell, no. That doesn’t even come close.

First, there has to be a widespread Come-to-Jesus moment, a real reckoning with the fact of our own violent tendencies; we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize our own violence.

And then?

We have to change. And we have to work and work and work to be better, cognizant of the fact that the work will never end. But that is what ahimsa is. It is working your ass off to live in a way that isn’t violent, that doesn’t inflict pain, that doesn’t threaten, or bully, or belittle, or choke. Ahimsa doesn’t look away from violence, it looks it square in the eye and dismantles it.

I think, pray, hope, beg that we as a nation will be able to dismantle it as well. We have such a long way to go.

The very least I can do is work to dismantle it in myself until my dying day.

And the moment I start feeling smug or self-satisfied in my labels/politics/identity/affiliations, I can remember that I am someone who throws rocks at hawks, and I too have a long way to go.

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