Yoga and Terrorism

I have been repeatedly asked about a yogic take on terrorism. I tried to avoid this difficult subject but it keeps popping up, so here it is. Firstly, I am in no way recommending the dissolution of our defense forces. According to dharma each individual has the right to defend themselves and if they are caring for others (such as a partner, children or an elderly parent), they even have a duty to defend themselves and those in their care. This principle then must also be extended to the state which has the duty to protect and if necessary defend its citizens.

Additionally, the judicative and executive powers (i.e. legal system, law enforcement, etc) of a particular state have the duty to protect victims and, shall we say, exert corrective influence on the behavior of perpetrators. So far so good! It probably hasn’t escaped your attention though that we have corrected, protected and defended as long as we can remember, actually its been millennias and still counting. None of our efforts have decreased the sort of barbaric acts into which we are here inquiring, if anything they have increased them. So what has gone wrong?

Violence at the core of our culture

This is the way from which yoga would approach the problem. First ascertaining remedial actions to alleviate the current situation and then trying to penetrate to the core of the problem through successive waves of contemplation. Let’s have a look first at the extent to which violent behavior is inbuilt into our contemporary culture. Currently movies for children contain more characters being killed than movies for adults. Children brains being in a hypnotic theta state are therefore hypnotically prepared for a violent adult hood. While we think that mass killings are the prerogative of wars between countries, the various forms of civil violence worldwide kills nine times as many people as wars. Despite the fact that violence between individuals is penalized, watching deaths of characters on screen your whole life long gives you the impression that violence is the continuation of communication with different tools (I am paraphrasing the Prussian chancellor Bismarck who said, “War is the continuation of diplomacy with different tools”). In other words if you can’t convince them beat’em up.

The entertainment industry does not teach us to solve social problems through negotiation and reciprocal understanding but through violence. Imagine for a moment Sly Stallone and Arnold having a stoush and instead of reaching for the AK-47’s they sit down and share their hurts, hopes and disappointments to find some common ground. Honestly, think about it. How many viewers would that attract?

What I am aiming at then, is not simply the bashing of the entertainment industry but that we, collectively, have made a decision that violence is sexy and entertaining. To me it looks as if the violence that we encounter day to day is a manifestation of this cultural decision. Compare this for example with the amount of violence that is seen in various forms of sports such as football, rugby, boxing, etc. and the importance that reporting of violent acts is given on the news channels. I have seen and heard of many acts of human greatness, nobility and kindness that never made it to the news simply because nobody is interested in them. If however Islamic State or Boko Haram have invented new pinnacles of atrocities its sure to top the headlines. Why?

To me it seems it is because of the fascination that we have invested with such actions. After we have brainwashed ourselves with stereotypes of imperial storm troopers and Sauron-lead orks and trolls, it is a small step to expect to see these figures in real life. And is not currently the most powerful nation on Earth contemplating a presidential candidate who, upon beholding a person disagreeing with his views, expressed the urge to punch that person in the face? This particular presidential candidate seems to have an excellent grasp of the Machiavellian principle of “divide and rule”. It’s us versus the women, us versus the African Americans, us versus the Muslims, us versus the Mexicans.

Us-ness versus otherness and externalized inner conflict

Behind all of these concepts is the idea that we need to defend “us-ness” against an imagined “other-ness”. Let me first briefly inquire into the us-ness before I explain the implications of otherness. That a modern nation state contains a homogenous population that can be summarized under “us” is a 19th century myth that was created by the then ascending new elite, the political class. Prior to that we were not Italian, American or Iraqi but we were subjects of a particular king, caliph, tsar, etc. When the ascent of the political class replaced the ruling aristocracy this myth was sorely needed to be able to rally the population under the banner of the new political system and the newly invented nation state. The master at this game was undoubtedly Adolf Hitler. A democratically elected leader hamstrung by a hung parliament he managed to assume sweeping powers by telling his electorate they were under attack by foreign terrorists. Sound familiar? Yes. Copied over and over again by every power maniac that came after him. Later it was found out that the so-called foreign terrorist attacks were performed by Hitler’s own Nazi-thugs. Ingenious, wasn’t it?

As a yogi, I do not see myself predominantly as a member of a nation state (or political or religious group) that is pitched against people with a different identity. When meeting a person of a different culture with different dress code, habits, religion, etc. as a yogi I am trying not to see the “other” that threatens my identity but I’m focusing on what unites me with that person (which is most often much greater than what separates me from them). I also tend to think, “interesting” when I meet somebody different. Is there something that I can learn from this person? Strangely enough, when it comes to food habits we have long become a multicultural society or is anyone out there trying to deport Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek or French chefs from their countries just because they are not one of us?

Psychologically, the search for us-ness versus otherness implies that I have a personality split into warring factions. I am externalizing a conflict that is actually raging within me. Because I am rejecting aspects of myself, am incapable of accepting and loving myself with having particular qualities I am seeking and attempting to destroy those very qualities outside of me, in those ugly subhuman orks, trolls, imperial storm troopers, dissenters that need to be punched in the face and foreign terrorists.

Once this conflict within is ended you will not be able to enjoy anymore any form of violence as entertainment, whether in the movies or sports or in form of violent music. You will simply recognize the human being opposite you and wish them well.

The end of inner conflict can be reached by simply tracing all your negative sentiments back to their roots. For example I need to ask why am I angry or why am I afraid? The surface self will tell me it’s because of the others but the root is deeper inside. By identifying and letting go of negative sentiments about myself I can let go of any inner conflict.

I am not claiming here that by doing that all conflicts will automatically go away but our investment in them will. And through that our contribution to and stoking of those conflicts that has been going on for such a long time. Have you noticed that a dog tends to attack you when you are afraid? Why are we afraid? It’s because of our inner violence. If we are internally at peace, we tend to radiate this out and are less likely to trigger violent acts in others. Notice my cautious language. The ancient compiler of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali, is much more radical. He says that in the presence of those completely established in non-violence, all violence ceases.

Colonialism and the continued spread of white, male dominator culture

During the early days of my extensive travels throughout the world tourism facilities were not yet prolific. Hence I was relying on my ability to quickly suss out what sort of behavior the inhabitants of a visited country thought to be acceptable. As I usually arrived alone in these countries I could not resort to the usual “canon boat politics” that the colonialist employed. Being short of canon boats I found that the next most powerful tool to get the needed respect and support of the local populace was to “show respect to their culture and customs”, i.e. to not act as if by some divine sanction I knew how they had to run their countries, culture and communities.

And yet it is exactly this what the Western dominator culture still does. We still believe that our political and economical model is not only the best but the only one. If other cultures don’t come around to our view and open their markets to exploitation at our hands, we still send the canon boats. Only today they are more sophisticated and are now called carrier battle groups. That’s not a term from star wars but refers to a fleet of usually 30 to 40 war vessels centered around a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with over 100 fighter jets on board. That’ll sort them out.

In the days of the canon boats the resistance response of the local populations was muter than today as the technological gradient was more severe. Through the advent of the Internet and globalization military technology can now be much more easily shared and the to-be-colonialized can defend themselves more effectively. Hence, the perceived “terrorism” is now much more prevalent or at least more visible.

Getting off the white, male, neo-colonialist trajectory I would suggest to apply the label “terrorist” much more cautiously and first to try to look at these people as somebody who has a different view and culture. Following a similar train of thought Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to the Vietnam War. He said he didn’t have a problem with those Vietcongs because none of them ever called him ‘nigger’.

Have we really tried to find out what those “terrorists” want? Have we every sat down and discussed what sort of compromises would be possible? For example one of the founding goals of Al Qaeda was to stop “crusader armies from being stationed in the holy land”, (referring to Saudi Arabia, containing the three holiest cities of Islam). Does this request sound reasonable to you? Could we accept keeping our armies out of what 1.3 billion inhabitants of this planet consider their holy country? I think we can and having studied the history of the crusades it sound completely reasonable to me that Muslims feel sensitive around that issue.

In the interest of writing a balanced article I want to point out that the US government now pursues a policy of dialogue with moderate elements within the Taliban as it was found that Afghanistan couldn’t be defended against a unified front of all Taliban. A similar policy in Iraq would do us much good. For years Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has been a receptacle of disenchanted groups of Sunni insurgents. These groups have stated over and over again that if they would be allowed to contribute to the forming of the Iraqi government they would withdraw their support from Isis (more to the point they actually said they would “take care of Isis”).

The main point here is that for such a long time we have been used to telling people how to handle their affairs that it is now very difficult to switch to a mode of listening and to treating them as equals. But this is what needs to happen if we want to end “terrorism”. First we need to end our barely veiled form of economic colonialism and treat those people as partners.

On another positive note I want to mention that Australian universities have decided to change the wording of history textbooks from Captain Cook having “discovered” Australia to having “invaded” it. The “discovered” version of the story left out the existing Aboriginal culture and declared Australia to be a “terra nulla”, a no-man’s-land. This is a great step that comes with a general de-colonialisation of place names such as the returning of “Ayer’s Rock” to its Aboriginal name Uluru. These are great steps forward but more is required.

Spiritual aspects of violence and “terrorism”

The psychologist Carl Jung developed the concept of the collective subconscious. He saw this as a subconscious way in which we are all connected and a collective psyche from which we all draw. Try now to connect that to Patanjali’s concept of prakrti (which he simply imported from the older Samkhya school of thought). Prakrti in yoga is seen as a receptive, subconscious matrix into which we think, speak and act. It then simply reflects our thoughts, words and acts back at us as our life. That is by the mechanism of cause and effect (the law of karma) prakrti reflects our inner world back at us as our outer experience. If you can manage to see the two models in context you will stop harboring any negative thoughts about anybody whether terrorist or not. Any form of hatred and adversity does not only poison our own psyche but also the collective psyche that we have as a humanity. And this poisoning of our collective psyche will then be reflected back to us as violence, war and terrorism.

Going into this third millennium of the common era we need to come together as a global humanity and stop replaying this silly “You blow up my place I’ll drop bombs on you” over and over again. It is something that requires only the maturity of a five year old but not that of a grown up. You sometimes see children pointing fingers at each other saying, “You started it”. To find out who started it doesn’t put an end to it as it still just means that we are coming form wanting to be right. I can take that from a five-year old but as grown ups we want to aim higher and put an end to whatever was started and by whoever did start it.

The continued violence and warfare on Earth is not something simply caused by one or two groups that can be eradicated by bombing those people. Violence will always beget more violence. Violence then can only be ended by ending violence. Ending violence can firstly take place by facing our own demons and to admit in how far we ourselves are contributing by what it currently happening on Earth. And then we need to change that. Part of that is that we need to stop consuming any form of violence as entertainment, whether in sports, movies or elsewhere.

We then need to eliminate violent, hatred, wanting to be right, wanting to have the last word (and the last bomb) and adversarialism from all of our thoughts, words and actions. Only when that is done can what the ancient scriptures call “pureness of heart” be reached. A pure heart is one void of any interest in conflict and adversarialism. Once this state is reached we can then invite others to sit down with us to work out scenarios in which no ethnic group, nation, etc ends up with the bum-end of the deal. Because that will always beget new anger and the conflict goes on.

The future of humanity

Is that at all realistic? In fact it is the only realistic alternative. We can only survive as a global society if our spiritual and ethical progress matches or outperforms our scientific progress (read progress in weapons technology). Leaders like Gandhi, M.L. King, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi have clearly shown that this is the natural way in which our evolution is to head. It is the way of self-love and love of all living things, the way of reconciliation and forgiveness. The question is not whether we will head this way or not. The question is only how much pain will we will cause each other and ourselves until we decide to do so. It is up to us.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

Posted in Society/ civilisation, Teaching, Yoga Philosophy.

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