The Path of the Peaceful Warrior


By Anne Cushman  |  

On a cold, rainy night last December, after tucking my 16-month-old son into his crib, I built a fire in the wood stove in my living room. As I crumpled newspapers to kindle the flames, the last month’s headlines danced before me: Terrorists had threatened to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. Mistaking a mountainside farming village in Afghanistan for a terrorist training camp, American warplanes had bombed its mud huts to dust, killing 50 people. The United States was unprepared to handle a bioterrorist smallpox epidemic. A postal worker had died from anthrax. Go about your ordinary life, the government admonished, but be on “high alert.”

With the war news blazing away in front of me, I spread out my yoga mat and folded into the silence and surrender of a deep forward bend. Since hijacked airplanes crashed into the heart of America last September—smashing our collective illusions of safety and separation to smoking rubble—we’re all doing our yoga practice against a whole new backdrop. On one level, things go on as usual, especially for those of us whose lives weren’t personally torn by loss: We pick up the kids at preschool, order spiritual books from Amazon.com, fret about our backbends, charge too much on our credit cards. But all we have to do is turn on our television, and we’re plunged into the ongoing drama of America’s “war on terror,” unfolding in epic images of suffering and horror that also, somehow, exert hypnotic fascination.

In the weeks immediately following September 11th, as Americans flocked to churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in record numbers, attendance also soared at meditation and yoga centers around the country. As prescriptions for antidepressants and sedatives skyrocketed, people turned to yoga and meditation as a kind of spiritual bomb shelter, a refuge of peace and safety solid enough to withstand the daily bombardment of bad news.

Since then, many yoga students continue to turn to their practice with a new set of questions. What tools can yoga and meditation offer as we struggle with our anxiety about suicide bombers on our transcontinental flight, our tears for the orphaned children of a firefighter crushed at Ground Zero or for an Afghan shepherd blown up by a stray American missile, our fury at an “evil one” in a cave in Afghanistan or at our own government for bombing one of the poorest countries on Earth? What practice should we do when we wake
up at three in the morning planning where we would flee with our child in the event of a smallpox epidemic, or find ourselves suspiciously eying the turbanned driver of a truck in the next lane on the George Washington Bridge?

And the ongoing war has brought up other, even more compelling questions. For thousands of years, one of the bedrock principles of all forms of yoga has been ahimsa, a Sanskrit word that literally means “nonharming” or nonviolence. “Hatred never ceases with hatred, but with love alone is healed. That is the ancient and eternal law,” taught the Buddha. But what does that mean, on a practical level, for a nation at war? How should we live our practice in a country whose citizens have been attacked and whose
government is hurling bombs at another country in retaliation? Is
nonviolence compatible with self-defense? Is the use of force acceptable in a just cause? And who and what determine when a cause is just?

These are particularly compelling questions for me, given my background. My father is a retired three-star Army general. I grew up with troop formations jogging alongside my school bus, Reveille playing on the post loudspeakers as I woke up, and my father absent-mindedly humming “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, I wanna live a life of danger…” as he cooked our Sunday waffles. So I can’t demonize the military; for me, it wears a human face. And I am well aware that historically, the freedom of a society’s members to
choose a life devoted to spiritual practice—whether as a monk in a mountain monastery or as a lay practitioner in a busy city—has often been predicated upon the existence of a standing army to protect the borders of that society from murderous invaders. In that sense, the path of the monk cannot be perceived as superior to or separate from the path of the warrior; like
everything else in the universe, they are intimately connected.

But as a yogi and a Buddhist in a country bristling with weapons it often seems all too willing to use, I find myself turning to my practice for a wisdom deeper than patriotic rhetoric and a firepower different from that of bunker-buster bombs. And I find myself asking how, in this time of global conflict, I can express my spiritual practice in the world in a way that makes a difference.

The Terror Inside

By now we have all been thoroughly tutored on how a “war on terror” is fought—at least as depicted on CNN. It involves guided missiles and commando raids—a relentless hunt for the enemy, who is unquestionably identified as an external force who can be tracked down and eliminated. And on a certain level, that strategy can be perceived as effective. As a headline in the New
York Times proclaimed in late November, as Taliban forces scattered before the advancing Northern Alliance: “Surprise. War Works.” (Of course, we can’t yet know how limited and shortsighted a definition of “works” that might prove to be. After all, our previous strategy of funding the mujahideen in Afghanistan “worked” to get rid of the Russians—and helped bring the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to power.)

But from the point of view of meditative practice, “fighting terror” is a totally different matter. As Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote shortly after the September 11 attacks, “Terror is in the human heart. We must remove this terror from the heart…The root of terrorism is misunderstanding, hatred, and violence. This root cannot be located by the military. Bombs and missiles cannot reach it, let alone destroy it.” From this vantage point, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the current situation. To a yogi, the fact that the world is filled with
violence, uncertainty, suffering, and confusion is hardly late-breaking news. Yoga offers a time-tested arsenal of weapons against the forces of ignorance and delusion. (It’s worth noting that the word “evil” does not often make its way into the yogic texts.) Yogic practices have been honed over thousands of years to chart a path of peace and stability amidst the exploding land mines of a world whose most fundamental characteristic is impermanence.

As I turned to my own practice for guidance, I decided to ask a few of the many teachers who have inspired me over the years for an alternative battle plan: a war on terror as a yogi might fight it. Their advice, on one level, was nothing new. Spiritual teachings don’t shift like yoga-wear fashions—there’s a reason why it’s called perennial wisdom. Yoga counsels us to meet an international war on terror with the same fundamental practices with which we encounter the conflagrations that rage through our own minds
and hearts.

But extraordinary times do help bring these eternal truths home to us. Young Prince Siddhartha did not embark on the spiritual quest that would make him the Buddha until he left his palace and came face to face with the naked truths of sickness, old age, and death. As a nation we are being collectively forced from our own pleasure-palace. The question is whether, like Siddhartha, we will use this as an opportunity to look more deeply at our lives, our hearts, and our world—and begin to transform them.

The Yogic Battle Plan for the War on Terror

1. Stop It’s the first step in all contemplative practice: Don’t just do something, sit there. Turn off the television. Put away the newspapers. Log off the Internet. Tear yourself away from the addictive fascination of the drama. Do whatever practice grounds you in your heart and your body and helps you turn down the volume on the pontificating anchorperson in your head—whether it’s sitting cross-legged in meditation, flowing through Sun
Salutations, digging the dandelions out of your garden, or just chopping onions for a pot of soup.

“Go back to what gives you life and strength,” advises Wendy Johnson, longtime organic gardener and meditation teacher at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County and a dharma teacher in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh. “Now more than ever, we need human beings who will keep going back to their spiritual center and be a resource for one another. By aligning and integrating body and mind—through whatever practice you’re doing—you’re
standing up in a grounded way to the forces of chaos and violence. A
practice that gives you stability and openheartedness is really important.”

Like all spiritual traditions, the yogic path is rich in simple, timeless practices that soothe and empower the spirit—practices that we can tend to neglect or belittle in a culture that tends to seek dramatic, high-tech responses to crisis. While rolling out your yoga mat may seem like a futile gesture in response to an international terrorist attack, renowned Iyengar
Yoga instructor Aadil Palkhivala—who was teaching a workshop for teachers from around the world when the news hit on September 11—notes that asana practice is a powerful tool for releasing the fear and anger locked in the body’s tissues. “We can use the asanas as a tool to help us maintain equanimity and samata [unruffled peace] at all times,” he said. “Because when we have fear, we lose contact with our spirit. Which is exactly the intent of terrorists: to take us away from our spirit, our true nature.”

2. Feel As the initial shock of the attacks wears off, it’s easy to shut down our hearts to what’s going on, letting the war fade into a dull, soul-numbing din (or, even worse, an entertaining action thriller) in the background as we return to our customary obsessions. (As one character said to another in a New Yorker cartoon, “It’s hard, but slowly I’m going back to hating everyone again.”) But don’t let the theme songs playing along with the news lull you into believing that what you’re watching is just another
made-for-TV miniseries. “When you’re aware, when your heart is open, you know that what is happening in the world right now is extraordinarily consequential,” says Johnson. “Meditation practice gives us tools for letting it in without getting swept away by it. It teaches us how to bear the unbearable—and what’s happening is on so many levels, unbearable.” Let your yoga practice remind you again and again to drop out of your mind and into your body: to feel the swell of your breath in your belly, the fear that tightens the skin on the back of your skull, the sting of the rain on your cheeks as you walk on a stormy beach. And as you feel your own body, let your practice lead you into the heart of what’s really going on in the world. Notice what happens in your body as you watch images of fighter jets
slicing through the sky, or women flinging off their veils and dancing in the street, or refugees fleeing American bombs. Notice what happens when you read that “we” are winning or that “they” are planning another attack. As a simple practice, Johnson tells the teenagers in the teen meditation group she teaches to try skipping dinner once a week—to see what it feels like to go to bed hungry—or to go outside without a coat for half an hour on
an icy night. “It’s so ridiculous, just one little meal, but for many of us that’s unthinkable,” she says. “Our practice can open our hearts to the fact that there are human beings who are feeling incredible fear and hunger and terror and cold.”

3. Contemplate Death If you find yourself skipping meetings held in skyscrapers or canceling your yoga vacation in Florida because of fears of hijacking, try what Buddhist scholar and former Tibetan monk Robert Thurman calls “homeopathic dharma.” Says Thurman, “If you’re afraid of dying, meditate on death.”

The American government’s instruction to “be on high alert, yet go about your ordinary life” may have struck many people as all but impossible, but that paradoxical injunction is actually one of the central commands of spiritual life. Being prepared to die at any moment—while continuing to go about your life in a meaningful way—is a core yogic practice.

Zen monks chant, “Like fish living in a little water, what sort of comfort and security can there be? Let us practice diligently and eagerly as if extinguishing a fire upon our heads.” Hindu yogis meditate next to funeral pyres by the Ganges, their naked bodies smeared with ashes to remind them what they will eventually become. Tibetan monks blow horns made of human femur bones and drink from cups made of skulls.

All of this focus on the imminence of death isn’t meant to be morbid or depressing. It’s meant to shock the practitioner into an understanding of how things actually are—which frees you up to be more alive and awake. If you really know, not intellectually but viscerally, that you and everyone you love are definitely going to die, you are less likely to sleepwalk through your life.

These days, the daily headlines can serve as that same kind of wake-up call. Americans have done our best to live in the delusion that we are immortal. But that perception is as flimsy as the plastic domes being hawked on the Internet as havens from bioterrorism. For the first time in over a century, war has come to our homeland, and we are being shocked into an awareness of the truth of how things actually are and always have been: that we and any of our loved ones could die at any moment.

“People are so terribly anxious because the facade is cracking, and we’re realizing our own identity with the people around the world who face death every day,” Thurman says. “That can be a spiritual advantage. That’s not to deny that a horrible thing has happened. But we can use it to rise to the occasion and be spiritual warriors.”

As long as we remain in denial of the truth of impermanence, the onslaught of bad news will continue to make us anxious and contracted and panicked—a state in which we are more susceptible to being manipulated, not just by terrorists but by the media and by our own government officials. But directly facing the inevitability of death can actually make us freer, more openhearted, and more compassionate. Our own emotions can be a doorway through which we can connect with the emotions of fragile, hopeful, ordinary people all over the world—whether it’s an American boy whose father never came home from his work at Windows on the World, or an Afghani girl whose mother was blown up by an American cluster bomb, or even a man whose heart was so mangled by fear and hatred that he could fly a plane into a skyscraper.

4. Look Deeply In meditation practice, samata—the stilling of the mind’s stormy seas—goes hand in hand with vipassana—looking deeply into the nature of what’s happening inside us and around us. “Yoga is pretty clear that the world is simply a reflection of ourselves. Whenever something adverse or unhappy happens on the outside, we must find the part on the inside of which this is a reflection,” says Palkhivala. “It is a tough pill to swallow because it is so much easier to point a finger than to look inside and get to work.”

“When we protest against a war, we may assume that we are a peaceful person, a representative of peace, but this might not be true,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us. “If we divide reality into two camps—the violent and the nonviolent—and stand in one camp while attacking the other, the world will never have peace. We will blame and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without recognizing the degree of violence in
ourselves.”

Yoga practice invites us to examine our own land mines of rage and fear, the network of caves in which our own inner terrorists skulk and plot. It asks
us to note the countless small acts of violence and deceit that we perform every day—examining them with the same compassionate attention with which we are encouraged to explore a jammed hip joint in a forward bend. We can study how our true nature—which according to yogic philosophy is clear and bright
as the mountain sky—is often obscured by the sandstorms of fear, hatred, and delusion, and we can cultivate practices that settle the dust so the sun can shine unobstructed.

We can then turn the same discerning eye on the world around us—where our practice helps us see that, in the words of the Buddha, “this is like this because that is like that.” When we look carefully, we see that nothing in the universe is separate from anything else. Without condoning their criminal actions, we can investigate the terrible poverty and social upheaval that fuel terrorist movements. We can study the economic imbalances
and political policies that help give rise to anti-American sentiments. We can examine our own habits of consumption, as individuals and as a society, seeing how all of us—through the cars we drive, the products we buy, the houses we live in—are intimately entwined with both the causes of conflict
around the world and their potential solutions.

In this way, we can come to recognize that the current crop of terrorists is not the cause of the world’s problems but simply one symptom of them—and that any solution that does not address these underlying imbalances will be, at best, a temporary remedy. As Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen pointed out in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Osama bin Laden was inadvertently speaking
the Buddhist truth of interdependence when he said, “Until there is peace in the Middle East, there will be no peace for Americans at home.”

5. Practice Nonviolence In times of war, it’s especially vital for students of yoga to meditate on this core principle of all forms of yoga. In the words of Gandhi, “Ahimsa is the highest ideal. It is meant for the brave, never for the cowardly… No power on earth can subjugate you when you are armed with the sword of ahimsa.”

But it’s also important to acknowledge that not all spiritual teachers agree about how best to live such core spiritual teachings in the current situation. Some, like yoga teacher and international peace activist Rama Vernon, feel that absolute pacifism is the path. “In the Yoga Sutra it says if we’re nonviolent, even the beasts of the forest will not come near us,” says Vernon, whose Center for International Dialogue, based in Walnut Creek,
California, has sponsored conferences, conflict resolution trainings, and dialogues throughout the Middle East. “We are not rooting out terrorism in doing what we are doing; we are only planting seeds for future attacks.” But others point out that the careful and restrained use of force is sometimes necessary to prevent even greater violence and loss of life. One widely quoted story from Buddhist scriptures recounts that the Buddha—in one
of his “past lives,” which are frequently used as mythic illustrations of Buddhist principles—killed a man who was about to murder 500 others. Muses Douglas Brooks, a scholar of Tantra and professor of religion at the University of Rochester, New York, “To think of a world in which there is no violence whatsoever is to imagine one without nature, without seasons or
weather, without any of the experiences in which confrontation, collision, or competition are in fact creative or salutary forces.” Instead, says Brooks, we should take to heart the ancient lessons of the Bhagavad Gita—a spiritual dialogue between the god Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna that takes place on the edge of a battlefield—and the Mahabharata, the vast and turbulent Indian epic that contains it. According to Brooks, the Mahabharata encourages us to “align ourselves with the forces and energies—sometimes violent or disruptive—that nurture life itself,” recognizing that just as a surgeon must sometimes cut out cancerous tissue, sometimes it is necessary to act in violent ways to preserve a greater well-being.

At the same time, Brooks says, the Mahabharata makes it clear that in doing so we must confront a terrible truth: Inevitably, if we resort to violence to stamp out a violent movement, we take on the very characteristics of the thing we wish to eliminate. We may wish to destroy only those who kill innocent people, but in doing so, we inevitably also kill innocent people ourselves. In that sense, there is no such thing as a righteous war, and our actions will carry their own dark karma.

This insight points to a central truth: Ahimsa is an ideal that, by its very nature, is impossible to keep perfectly. Instead, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, it is like the North Star: a guiding light that we should keep in our sights at all times. I once heard an Army officer ask Nhat Hanh if, as a military man, he could take as vows the Buddhist precepts, one of which prohibits killing. How could he take a vow not to kill when his career was to be a warrior? Nhat Hanh’s response was that it was especially important
for him to take the precepts. “If you take the precepts,” he said, “you will kill less.”

However, it’s important not to let the impossibility of perfectly observing ahimsa prevent us from attempting to follow it at all. If we accept its importance, we must embrace it as a serious practice, reminding ourselves of it again and again—not just in intellectual debates about global issues but also in the small decisions we make every day in our lives—so that it
becomes a habit that can sustain us when the stakes get high.
After all, it’s easy to glibly rationalize violence in “a just cause.” But a sincere commitment to ahimsa can counterbalance our knee-jerk tendency—as individuals and as a society—toward retaliation and revenge. And it can open
our eyes to alternative courses of action that we might not have considered if we were not firmly committed to the principles of non-harming.

6. Take Action As the military campaign in Afghanistan continues, it’s easy to assume that our actions in support of peace no longer make a difference. But the military “success” in Afghanistan has actually obscured a larger, more important question: How do we as a society chart a course that will actually result in a safer, more peaceful, more equitable world in the long
term? As the yoga teachings remind us again and again, the short-term fixes of war are guaranteed to have some long-term unwanted consequences. (This fact tends to be obscured by the war news itself, which has a naturally dramatic narrative line, is emotionally gripping, and is instantly understandable in terms of “winning” and “losing”—all characteristics not shared by the long struggle to make a better world.) Our new challenge, as socially engaged yogis, is to use the insights of our practice to help us contribute to the long-term challenges ahead.

Our spiritual practice can’t be just another shelter in which to huddle away from the bombs and viruses of the outside world. To be truly effective—indeed, to be a whole practice—our practice must inform the way we treat our friends and families, the products we buy, the politicians we vote for, the governmental policies we support and oppose, the beliefs we speak out for.

Taking compassionate action to relieve suffering—even something as simple as donating blankets and canned goods to an international aid agency—can alleviate feelings of helplessness and victimization. And through our deep
contemplation of interdependence, we can come to know—not just
intellectually but viscerally—that just as Middle Eastern politics are intimately entwined with our societal dependence on oil, our personal choice about carpooling to work is intimately connected with the plight of an Afghan orphan freezing in the Hindu Kush.

Remember, however, that what the Buddhists call “right action” may vary from person to person. Yoga is not a monolithic, authoritarian system, but one designed to lead you deeper into your own truth. In the yogic view, the unfolding of karma allows for—indeed, depends upon—different people pursuing different dharmas, or life paths.

“People are turning to Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama and asking, ‘What should I do?’ But the important thing is to look inside,” points out Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and the author of A Path with Heart (Bantam Books, 1993). “It’s important to ask ourselves, ‘What are the deepest values of my heart?’ Then, based on what one finds in an honest self-evaluation, you act.”

Most important, remember that for the yogi, social action is also a
spiritual practice: which means that, paradoxically, it must be performed, in the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “sacramentally, without attachment to results.” Yoga reminds us that we cannot predict or control the outcome of our actions. Instead, our focus must be on the way in which we perform them—the degree of presence and insight and openheartedness we can bring to every gesture toward peace and wholeness, no matter how small. As a society, the “war on terror” is bringing us harshly, abruptly in touch with the terrible, wonderful truths of the way things actually are: that our lives are precious and precarious; that all we love can be snatched away from us in an instant; that human beings are capable of inflicting terrible suffering upon one another; and that we are also very capable of extraordinary courage and compassion.

Ultimately, spiritual practice demands that we deal with terror, whether within us or outside us, by opening our hearts rather than closing them—and by acting from that openhearted space, not out of some abstract ideal but because this is the way of living that ultimately brings us the deepest connection with life itself.