When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the others is a memory of the G-20 summit in June 2010. I’m carrying my six-year-old son away from a burning police car in front of a bank tower on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Three young protesters dressed in black jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and began making our way home.
I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto formed five years ago with the intention of integrating yoga and Buddhist practice with everyday urban life and social action. The Buddha taught that our actions in the world are an expression of who we are. Karma is not just something that happens to us; it’s the outcome of our choices and their consequences. We must cultivate responsibility for our actions and their consequences—not just at an individual level but also at a social, political, economic, and ecological level. This is the lived experience of karma. The world is so thickly woven that every sphere—social, economic, ecological, psychological—touches every other sphere. When I begin taking care of how I suffer—how I too am greedy, angry, or confused—then I develop my capacity to respond to those same energies in individuals and institutions alike.
Similarly, the yoga practices of waking up the intelligence and sensitivity of the body and breath are designed, as Patanjali suggests in his seminal text, the Yoga Sutras, “to allow one to see that the body and the universe are indivisible.” If I vow to serve every corner of life, I begin to see that service begins in this body and spreads out from my limbs to my family, my neighborhood, and the earth at large. Yoga is about waking up not just the body but the body politic as well. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.
All week leading up to the G-20 summit, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to discuss the public austerity measures that would follow the private bailout, security forces were fortifying the urban core: two enormous fences were built around the meeting areas, trees were uprooted (the city claimed they could be used as weapons), garbage cans and bus shelters were removed, and military boats cruised the Toronto harbor. Every morning, members of our sangha gathered at the fence, surrounded by police, and sat in meditation, following the breath and bearing witness to the vast range of feelings and observations that arose in the face of the police presence and military buildup.
A group of young activists emerged from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons; one lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. With the streets beginning to resemble a war zone, I realized it was time for my son and me to leave. I was appalled by the seemingly endless instances of police aggression I witnessed against protesters. I also recognize that some other voice inside me wanted to see the protesters tear the fence down and disrupt the closed-door meetings that $1.2 billion had been spent to “secure.” They were determined to make their voices heard, and the massive state apparatus deployed to silence them only fueled their frustration.
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