Non-harming is the first practice on the list, a sign at the outer perimeter of the territory of the first ten practices of yoga. “Entering Non-harming Population: TBD”
The countryside is initially familiar, with little to distinguish it from the surrounding region. However as I move into it, I discover a subtly different landscape. I am intrigued – this might be a nice place to live. If I were to settle here, I might be able to keep my job, friends, family, and hobbies, but improve the underlying quality of my life.
Last year my wife and I moved from our city flat to a new home, which I love even more than our old one. It is near the ocean, surrounded by trees. Maybe moving into non-harming would be the same kind of thing.
Initially non-harming seems simple to understand. I was sometimes cruel to my younger sister as a child; I treated my wife coldly last week. Malicious actions are to be avoided, even mildly harmful ones. I feel better when I steer clear of them.
But what about situations that seem to require choosing between one kind of harm and another: the situation at work where I seem to have to thwart a colleague’s self-interest in order to pursue mine; the inevitable home conflicts where my wife and I can’t possibly both get what we need at the same time?
In addition to the seeming paradox of choosing between harms, nature itself seems to contradict the practice of non-harming. Animals kill other animals; earthquakes injure people; trees fall on houses. Destruction of form and harm to life are built into the basic machinery of nature. By prohibiting harm, this practice seems to ask me to do something unnatural.
Further complicating the issue is this: unlike the leopard tearing into an antelope’s throat, I usually harm at a great remove. I have never seen a cow being slaughtered so that I could eat it. My own tiny furnace doesn’t seem to significantly deplete the earth’s oil supply. I have never placed a landmine. If all of my harming at a distance counts, how can I possibly avoid it?
There may be a patch of truth at the heart of these paradoxes, like a town green in the center of this territory of not-harming. I am a part of nature, so harming is part of my role on earth. But I can avoid it when possible, and when faced with a choice between harms, I can choose thoughtfully. I can revere what’s around me, even things I am harming – the chicken in my dinner, the hedge I trimmed in my yard yesterday, even the microbes I inhale as I write here at my computer, like a million infinitesimal stars.
I love to walk alone on the peninsula
among the scrub pine and golden birch –
to trace the shape on the bay
of an old arm whose mud cliffs raise like a fist.
Here I read again a plaque the town has placed
on its height in view of Boston:
this was once a missile site. I’m in a place
where silos sleep, filled to the brim with earth.
As I walk further on, the trees are nodding
like patient older brothers. Another breath
is lifting from the water,
another man is passing with his thoughts.
Sometimes when I am under threat, anger rises
in my chest and bursts;
bright fingers streaking from its apogee
grip me in their palm.
If you are hit we both shower fire,
a part of each of us destroyed.
I want instead to stand at the silo’s lip
gathering the stillness of water and soil
like the men who emptied and emptied their shovels here:
thus we fill with time the deepest hole.
Learn this, unsettled man:
underground even bits of bomb will rust;
what won’t decay will be held for ages
among the roots of wise trees, ancient grasses.
Remember: when a glacier raked its face
our Earth raised up this fair and pleading arm;
now sweet grasses grow here,
sheltered only by the sky.