AHIMSA – nonviolence in thought and action.

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AHIMSA INSTITUTE 

This is Dr. Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center and Institute for teachers. I am eternally thankful to her for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart; for the grace I have received because of the opportunity she gave me. My whole life had been about violence, and that is the only way I knew to stand up for myself, to protect myself. She inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended  the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. A nine year journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening lead me to discovering the greatest love within myself. A love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.

Nine years ago when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail from my principle around 4:00 pm, just as I was going to head home for the day. You know one of those all staff e-mails forwarded by your principle, so she/he can delete it from his/her inbox and quickly move on to more important matters.

The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were, “Nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted with my application the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and each time I attempted to write my statement, I’d end up writing about some of the most painful memories in my life.

Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother.  I was so angry at her.  I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; hat even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself.  So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life, because like me, she was also searching for love. We tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me.

Or the time I almost hit my daughter with a broomstick.  She was about 12 and her room, more and more often, looked like it had been shaken, upside down.  It was definitely a point of contention.  Later I’d come to realize that it triggered memories of instability and neglect, reminding me of dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, loads and loads of dirty clothes scattered everywhere, an empty refrigerator, and cockroaches scattered amongst it all. I remember quarreling with my daughter about why she couldn’t just keep her room clean.  Why she couldn’t just take the time to care for and be thankful for what she had. Subconsciously, I was reproaching my mother , “If you love me, you’d take care of me, you’d take care of our home.”  I grabbed the broom that had been propped behind the door all morning as she procrastinated to clean her room.  I saw myself holding the broom over her and she laying on the bed with her arm shielding her face.  I hit her once with the bristles, before putting the broom down and going to my room to cry.  I had always been so careful to not hit her or scream at her, and there I was becoming the very violence I had hoped to never perpetrate on her.

I turned in my application and was given a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.

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JAPANESE GARDEN 

When I came to the Ahimsa Institute in 2007, my wounds and pain were stripped raw. Often, during breaks or lunch, I’d slip away and come down to the Japanese garden to cry. I had so much anger, it hurt. The Koi fish were calming. Their slow movements soothed my angry thoughts, their patient proximity to one another comforted my anxiety, and their coloring warmed the parts of me that were void of nurture.

Many of the attributes of the Koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life. The Koi fish has a powerful and energetic life force, demonstrated by its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. That’s what the journey of forgiveness, nonviolence and healing I was embarking on felt like. Some of the characteristics associated with the koi include courage, perseverance, and ambition; all characteristics I would need to practice on this arduous path.

Many of the above described symbolic meanings of Koi fish stem from the Chinese legend of the Dragon Gate in which a Koi fish swam upstream, through waterfalls and other obstacles to reach the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain was the “Dragon Gate”. The legend says that when the Koi finally reached the top, it became a dragon, one of the most auspicious creatures in Chinese culture.”

This past weekend after a nine-year journey of healing and after a powerful three-day Ahimsa conference on Giving and Forgiving, I visited the Japanese garden once again to cry. I didn’t cry from pain, but from extreme gratitude for the Grace I have received through my experiences with the Ahimsa center. For the grace I received that day in my classroom when I received the application. I came to thank the Koi fish for their support and unconditional love. To thank spirit for its guidance and lessons. I came here to remember, to renew my commitment to healing and non-violence and to set new intentions for the next beautiful stage of my life.

 

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HORSE STABLES 

One last stop before leaving…
When I participated in the  Ahimsa Institute, I stayed on the Cal Poly campus. Every morning I’d get up early enough to walk to the horse stables and commune with the horses. I’d often pick up leaves and the horses would eat them from my hand. At some point, the caretaker there started to expect me, and would give me alfalfa to hand feed the horses.

I visited them once again this past weekend, and I stood in silence while one of the horses ate. At some point, it cam closer to the fence and stood their with me. And that was enough.

My longing to be with the horses every morning came from the deep unconditional love I saw in their eyes. The first time I saw that kind of love in a being’s eyes was in my grandmother, and later I’d come to see it in my daughter. In those horses, I saw the love I’d ultimately come to discover in myself.  A love I’d come to understand connects us all. At some point in my journey, I realized that no matter what I had experienced, the wounds and trauma I carried, or the love I was still searching for, I was whole.

WHOLE                                                                                                                                                           

One day I became conscious enough to ask:

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,
indistinguishable voice
inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

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F O R G I V E N E S S

Every autumn season, the eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, and the process is highlighted by a wonderful display of color and / or amazing patterns of strips and flakes.

I imagine this is what our bodies look like as we open our hearts in vulnerability and and allow the wounds and bruises to air out.

When the bark is shed, lichens and parasites that are toxic to the tree are also shed. And a smooth, bark appears, until the next autumn season when the tree sheds once again.

We have seasons of growth and we have seasons of letting go. Both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves is part of the process of learning to let go of things that no longer serve us.

Cleansing and grieving are important processes, so our pain does not metastasize as hate. Hate will ultimately destroy us.

 “A sufi holy man was asked what forgiveness is.  He said – it is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.” – Rumi                                                                                                  

The Gratitude I have for Dr. Sethia, her work and commitment to nonviolence, and the opportunity she gave me to transform my life, I can only honor by dedicating to her my life of service and commitment to nonviolence. There are people whom I recognize as having saved my life – Dr. Sethia is one of them.

To Know Forgiveness

I have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate forgiveness and restorative practice workshops through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and learn from various groups of middle school students for a year now.  While I am greatly impacted by all the students I get to work with, this past session, a young man who I will refer to as Omar, had a very profound impact on my work and me.  From the onset of the workshops, Omar was resistant to the idea of non-violence and using restorative practices.  He pushed me to analyze and think more deeply about what it means to be committed to non-violence, not just in the ideological sense, but in the everyday world filled with violences, oppression, and injustice that we live in.  He said his father taught him that if someone came at him, he was not only to defend himself, but give the person a “beat down”; it would teach that person not to ever mess with Omar again.

“Effective non-violence is not about putting the right person in power, but awakening the right kind of power in people.” -Metta Center for Non-Violence 

I remembered my grandmother telling me about a group of girls who bullied my mom when she was in upper elementary school.  These girls were always ambushing my  mom in the bathroom taking her lunch money, her lunch or whatever they could take from her.  My grandmother brought the issue up in school to no avail.  Finally after weeks of attending school in fear, my grandmother had my mother meet up with the girls who were bullying her, and in very forward terms told my mother she either had to kick their ass or my grandmother would kick my mother’s ass.   So, against a fence near the school, my mother, as terrifying as it might have been, fought those girls with my grandmother cheering her on.  Those girls never bullied my mother again.  My grandmother had survived two abusive marriages, and fighting back was one of the ways she learned to defend herself when she was the target of violence, especially during a time and culture in which police very seldomly protected a woman from an abusive husband.

Omar was speaking a philosophy that had been spoken and taught in my family.  I also understood that in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, gangs, drugs, and all sorts of other violence there was a different code for survival, especially in the streets.  Who was I to dismiss his father; to dismiss what Omar had learned from his father and his own experiences to survive.  I grew up in neighborhoods where understanding and abiding by the law of the streets was what kept me safe.  I didn’t know what Omar’s environment was like nor what he had to do to ensure his safety and survival.  Restorative practice takes community effort and while an individual can commit to this kind of work, it is only within a committed community that the work can sustainably change behavior and thought patterns entrenched in violence.  Omar was being guided by his father’s own experiences of safety and survival and whether I agreed with his perspective or not, I had to tread lightly for I wasn’t their to diminish the bond that existed between Omar and his father; the minute it sounded like I was saying his father was wrong, that is exactly what Omar would perceive.

My approach with Omar wasn’t to tell him that the only option was non-violent action, so instead it was about looking at consequences and ripple effects of violence.  It was about teaching him problem-solving skills and what it meant to be intentional and mindful about his actions.  In this context, whatever action he chose to take in the future, he would do so understanding the potential consequences, stand with conviction, and take responsibility rather than feel ashamed or dishonored.  In other words, I was teaching him how to act and behave with dignity.  Our decisions should be made with conviction rather than simply from a place of reaction, which allows us to have ownership over the decisions we make in our lives, leaving us feeling empowered rather than helpless.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim-letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
―C.R. Strahan 

Toward the second half of the workshop series, I started to notice a shift in Omar.  He began to describe scenarios and ask what would restorative practices look like in those situations.  On one particular day, when we were discussing forgiveness, he asked what would happen if he forgave someone who kept doing the same harm over and over again? I responded that forgiveness was a process for him to let go of the pain and anger that enslaved him to the person that caused the violence & harm, but it did not mean he was accepting the person’s behavior, and it certainly didn’t mean he had to have a relationship with the person nor accept him/her in his life.  We can forgive someone and still choose to never engage that person ever again.  He also stated in a questioning manner, “But if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will think they can keep messing with you.” I told him that he was absolutely right.  I went on to give him examples of people around the world that had and were using non-violent resistance to fight for their rights and dignity.  The reality is we aren’t always going to engage with people who are interested in restorative practices or justice, though that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily revert to violence. I also explained that we weren’t always going to engage with people who were sorry for the harm they caused us, but in order to be liberated from our pain we would have to find a way to forgive.

It takes a greater commitment to resist and fight back without violence.  I also exposed very complex historical examples of folks like Martin Luther King whose work was based on a philosophy of non-violence, but who had body guards who carried guns for protection. Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence, especially after his home was bombed, though many experts say that by the 1960s he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense.  I also talked about Harriet Tubman who carried a gun for protection and told the very slaves she was helping to escape that she would kill them before allowing them to go back.  She knew if they went back, they would be tortured and would compromise the work of the Underground Railroad.

Another students then responded, “yeah, but how are we supposed to be non-violent when everyone around us is violent,” to which Omar nodded his head.  In a world in which achievement, performance, competition and acquisition take precedence over integrity, honesty, compassion, collaboration and community the worst is brought out in all of us, unless we are taught to intentionally approach life in a different way. When all around us exploitation and dominance of our labor, bodies and minds is occurring, we grow up angry, and we grow up thinking “I’m going to get you before you get me.” The how becomes one of the most important questions to ask and continue to ask  ourselves as we embark on and commit to non-violence as a way of life.

“So how do I fix myself,” Omar asked hesitantly.  I knew how difficult and courageous this moment was for him; he was breaking away from the philosophy his father, the man he looked up to and admired,  had instilled in him and taken the first step to explore what forgiveness and restorative practice might look like in his life.  Of course, the first thing I told him was how important it was not to see himself as needing to be fixed, for he wasn’t broken, and there were so many beautiful things to celebrate about him.  When we feel better, we do better, and this is why we use our strengths to overcome our challenges.  I ultimately wanted him and the rest of the students to understand that none of this is easy, and that we are all bound to make mistakes and be backed into circumstances where violence might feel like the only choice. However, learning alternative ways to violence through skills and strategies and working with a community of people committed to non-violence empowers us to continue to explore and discover restorative practices that lead to forgiveness and healing.  And so, the second half of the workshop series we spent a lot of time focusing on skills, tools, and strategies.

Forgiveness can be a very difficult and complicated process, especially when the violence and harm are connected to deep systemic trajectories of dehumanization. Forgiveness is a process, and though there is so much I have learned about this process, I know, within the broader spectrum of society’s ills, I have so much more to learn. The students, though young, had some very profound discussions and never ceased to move me and challenge me to go deeper into my understanding of it, especially as I embark in understanding how to embrace forgiveness and restorative, non-violent practices in the work of resisting and confronting destructive power.

Watching these students discuss, reflect on, and own the process of forgiveness within the context of their own lives and experiences was a beautiful opportunity. While concepts of compassion, nonviolence, and restorative practice and justice become messy when the violence that is perpetrated is so horrific and generational, and when the perpetrators do not acknowledge the violence and harm, it is my hope that the strategies and skills the students have learned will allow them to be more aware of how to deal with conflict, navigate the pain, and ultimate take ownership of their healing.

“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence. ”  -Mahatma Gandhi 

The students will continue to do work both in their school and community as peacemakers and facilitators of restorative practices. If they engage in the work now, they will be prepared for the difficult work when they become adults. Practicing forgiveness not only changes the karmic path of one’s life, but it also has tremendous neurological and biological benefits for those who are able to release the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the violence. If we engage our children at an early age to practice forgiveness and restorative processes, we are giving them a greater chance of peace.

“Giving and forgiving are matters of the heart. The more magnanimity we evolve in our hearts, the easier it is for us to give and forgive. The more we give and forgive, the more enriched our lives become, widening our circles to include not only those who we give, but also those who we forgive

Giving includes not just charitable gifts or material objects, or donating food and clothing. It is giving when we give of ourselves, our time, our service, our knowledge, even our organs; expanding our love and friendship in the spirit of advancing our humanity. Giving need not be a response of pity or sympathy, of helping the “poor” or the “needy.” It can be an exercise in building empathy and gratitude, opening our hearts, supporting a cause – a journey toward self-fulfilment and joy.

Forgiving or seeking forgiveness, though related to giving, is a much more challenging task than giving. It requires giving of one’s anger and ego so as to accept and embrace those we think have harmed us in some way. It is an exercise in utmost humility that enables us to seek forgiveness of any intended or unintended mistakes in any form. It is a process not based on forgetting the wrong or the harm done, but rather on remembering it so as to learn from it to not repeat it. Like giving, forgiveness too is ultimately good for the self.”

From the Ahimsa Center, Non-Violence in Thought and Action.

 

 

I AM GOOD

feel better Yesterday, a student I’ve been mentoring was suspended for giving a xanax to another student. He was expelled earlier in the year for selling weed.   The adults all seemed to be disappointed beyond redemption, mostly angry, and intent on punishing the student. This does not mean the student should not be held accountable for restoring the harm and learning the lesson. But when a child falters, the last thing we want to do is shame and isolate him.

Stay with me on this one. . .

When we feel better, we do better. This is why a compassionate community is so important, and the greatest predictor to how well an individual will do. There’s a lot of trendy talk around restorative processes at schools, but these processes will become just another failed intervention if we don’t truly understand the incredible amount of mercy that it takes to support our children through transformation and change. It’s not only about understanding that we can hold children accountable for their behavior and give them an opportunity to restore the harm without being punitive and retaliatory; it’s also about understanding what it takes for a child to redeem himself and develop new behaviors that are positive, productive, and build their sense of worth.

Every river is born from a single drip of melted snow. The drips collect together and trickle down the mountain forming into creaks and streams that meet together and converge into a river. Moving water is a powerful force and can wear away soil and rocks through erosion. Once a path is created by erosion, because water takes the path of less resistance, water will most likely continue to flow through that path, creating further erosion and therefore, greater flow. Our thoughts and behaviors work in the same way. The more we think or behave a certain way, the more we entrench ourselves in those patterns. Our patterns are the result of the repeated behavior, like rivers are the result of repeated erosion.

Once a river is established, it takes an incredible amount of force for it to create a new pathway. In this same manner, rewiring our brain’s cognitive processes and retraining it to develop new patterns takes an incredible amount of very specific and intentional work, along with immense determination and support systems. Rewiring takes time. It’s not a consistent process. It takes an extreme amount of motivation to perform a habit. The most difficult part of changing a behavior is one’s life is to actually start the behavior. Like a river starts with a drip, a new habit starts with a small behavior change that doesn’t feel threatening or exhausting. Something that seems easy and reasonable to do consistently and constantly.

We can’t expect our children to change a negative habit from one day to the other, or as some would put it, to never fall off the wagon. They will, and we have to be compassionate, forgiving, and patient enough to support them in getting right back up; encouraging them to try again. Each time they try again, they are reaffirming their worth, their goodness, and the idea that they are deserving of better.

Here is what we can expect them to do:

We can expect them to make mistakes from which they will learn lessons, especially when given the space to process the experiences. Similar experiences will repeat over and over again until the lesson is learned. As parents, mentors, teachers, counselors, and guides, this is where we have to do better than punishment. We have to guide our children to recognize the patterns of the experiences they are living to try to understand why they continue to find themselves in those same circumstances. When we recognize that life provides countless opportunities to heal and our experiences are far more than isolated occurrences, we can begin to feel empowered and determined to take ownership of how we give meaning to our experiences. We can expect to hold them accountable by guiding them to take the necessary steps to restore the harm they have caused as a result of their actions. This not only strengthens their individual dignity, but also allows them to continue to see themselves as part of a community that is always working together for the betterment of all. We can expect to teach them problem solving skills, because when a child learns to work things out on their own, they are less likely to blame others and make excuses. Mostly we can and must expect them to be the beautiful, loving human beings they were born to be.

The following is a community process that was described online in reference to how a tribe uplifts, redirects, and restores the individuals in their community when they have lost their way: When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as good; each of us desiring safety, love, peace, and happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected.. Ultimately to have him remember. “I Am Good.”

**Some sources state this is a made up story.  Some sources cite this process from a tribe in the continent of Africa.  It’s a beautiful process that I hope does exist in some form.