As many of you know, in the summer of 2018 my life changed radically when I had to move away from the east coast to a 46,000 acre ranch in rural New Mexico. Wait. That makes it sound like that just accidently happened to me. Correction. In 2018, I extremely reluctantly chose to move from my in every way perfect, lush, green, New England life to the very dry, overwhelmingly vast, windy, scary (to me) high mountain desert. It was also me who chose two years earlier to pack up my 15 years of NYC living to marry a man who lived in small town New Hampshire with his then 14 year old son. Also me who let go of a successful 15 year career teaching yoga, 10 of those years full time, to accept a job I didn’t really want at a yet to be built retreat center in said dry, windy, scary, high mountain desert.
When I first moved, I tentatively shared stories with you about this transition. You can read in previous posts about how my husband broke his knee 13 days after our move, putting him in a wheelchair for three months. You can read about my struggle to figure out how to write and share with you authentically about my personal experience, while simultaneously enticing you to visit this place as part of my new job. You can also read about my budding attempts to embrace this objectively beautiful new landscape.
If you read all these blogs, you will notice that they abruptly stop in January 2019. A year and a half ago! What happened you (might) ask? That’s what the following posts will shed some light on. As we enter two weeks of Yoga Camp, now online (thank you Covid-19), I thought I might share with you some stories about what’s really been going on since I last wrote about my time here in New Mexico.
Our theme for Yoga Camp this year will be the first two building blocks of yoga philosophy: the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances). The yamas and niyamas are the first steps in an eightfold path to deeper understanding of ourselves through yoga. The yamas are guidance on how to be ethical in our relationship to the world around us. The niyamas are about how to be responsible in our relationship to ourselves. When practiced in order, each of the 8 steps encourages more introspection and inner refinement, eventually leading to a place of deep meditation. Hopefully through deep meditation, we take our increased self awareness and bring it back into our everyday lives. And then begin the steps all over again. Over and over and over 🙂
I’ll share a story with you each day, related in some way to (me) the yamas & niyamas. These stories are not meant to be lessons as much as personal sharings on how I think about, and often struggle with, these core yogic principles in everyday life. I hope in some way they are useful to you.
AHIMSA : NON VIOLENCE
As with everything in the Yoga Sutras, the order in which the information is given is important. Ahimsa is the guiding principle over all the following principles. Some teachers say that if you just practiced this one you could stop right there, as you would in essence be practicing all the others. Non-violence can be studied in many ways, but the most obvious to me are the personal and societal ways we adhere (or not) to non-violence.
When I met my now husband in 2014, I did what perhaps a lot of young people do when they first meet someone they like – idealize, idealize, idealize. I mean to be fair, it wasn’t hard to do. I was a single lady in NYC hovering at the brink of certain spinster cat-ladyhood at the ripe old age of 34. I had been wanting for a while to put aside my world traveling adventures for the great adventure of partnership and family building. Out of the clear blue sky came the most handsome man I ever met – a farmer (very exciting for us city gals) Waldorf boarding high-school teacher living in a Rockwell painting, I mean a small town in Southern New Hampshire. Granted he lived about 5 hours more north than I was anticipating, but he and it was everything I had been dreaming about. He was generous, smart, funny, interesting, humble and definitely kept me on my toes (in a good way). We shared a lot of the same values. So naturally I assumed we thought the same way about everything. Haha, just kidding. But there was definitely a part of me that quickly filled in the fuzzy parts of getting to know someone with whatever best matched the picture I was already painting.
At some point after we had been dating a while, I noticed a gun safe under his bed. It caught me by surprise and when I saw it, and I felt a sudden constriction in my chest. I had seen an old shotgun that belonged to my grandfather once when I was young, but it struck me like a souvenir rather than a tool; something that would certainly never actually be used. I had never seen a real gun up close before (and still hadn’t – I was still just looking at the box). When I asked Brad about it later, he said it was hand-me-down from his father. And I, being in the early throws of ideal relationship land, took that information and fit it neatly into the story I wanted to create. “He’s just like me! It’s just a souvenir gun! All good!”
I say “all good” because I had been living by the principle of ahimsa quite literally since first learning about it in my early twenties. I was a vegetarian going on 19 years. I was against all acts of physical violence, from personal aggressions to hunting and war. I worked at non-violent communication in my relationships, avoided violent movies, and aggressive activities in general. I even worked for several years at a non-profit focused on highlighting non-violent peace building efforts between warring countries. I didn’t try to press my views onto others, but they meant a lot to me personally. So I guess you could say that I never imagined one day living in an environment where guns were a significant way of life.
Fast forward a few years. We are married now. We survived the drive cross country (barely). We were settling into our new home, which to me felt about as foreign as if we had moved to the moon. I was slowly becoming aware that my neighbors, my bosses, the folks at the grocery store…everyone (it seemed) had a gun. It wasn’t overt and obvious, but it was all around. Weird bulges on the sides of someone’s boots. The edge of a holster under someone’s vest. The huge amo section at the Walmart. And the numerous conversations about guns and hunting. From someone who’s life up until this point included zero conversations about guns, it suddenly felt like that’s all people talked about out here in rural New Mexico.
A week or two after his emergency knee surgery, less than two weeks since we had left the bubble of the east coast, Brad was resting in bed and asked me to retrieve something from his night stand. I reached over and opened the drawer. Nothing went off, there was no accidental shooting. Just me seeing the gun laying there, up close and personal for the first time. I screamed.
I was so angry. I was so so so angry. There was a gun. In my house. IN MY BEDROOM. A gun that was certainly not a souvenir. And moreover – I AM MARRIED TO A GUN PERSON. I can’t tell you how many arguments ensued. My stance: I believe in ahimsa. I never wanted to live in a house with a gun. My husband: he wants to protect us. The danger of large animals and intruders is different out here. Me: then why did we move somewhere that would even necessitate the need of a gun?! People and animals included?!
I feel like I could write quite a bit more on this, but I want to get to the main point. I arrived in New Mexico with a very strong view on guns, and ahimsa. Guns are bad. They are nothing but tools for violence and killing and in my heart I do not want anything to do with them. Ever.
More to the point: over time, I have realized that I arrived in New Mexico with more than just a strong point of view on guns. I also brought with me some pretty strong assumptions about who the people with guns are.
And this is where I was wrong.
Now before you go thinking I made some complete 180, no, I still do not like guns. But I learned something super valuable: when you live in and among people with very different worldviews than your own, those people can no longer remain a monolithic blanket stereotype. And this is a very good thing. One of my very first friends in New Mexico was a neighbor from the ranch next door. She teaches retreats that incorporate yoga and horseback riding (what are the chances?!) and went out of her way to make me feel welcome. There was something about her which reminded me of my friends back in NYC. One day at the hot springs, she started sharing about hunting and her cool pink gun. And would I like to learn how to shoot? I felt my body tense up again and politely declined. But at the same time, I think I literally felt my heart expand – not in the fun gushy way, more like a big tear of confusion. I like this person. She is kind and generous. She loves animals and yoga. And she likes hunting. And guns.
It feels silly to write it now; I’m almost embarrassed to admit how unaware I was of my prejudices. Apparently I had been putting people into boxes all this time and didn’t even know it. They say stereotypes exist for a reason. But they are also dangerous little suckers. It’s far harder to live in a world where things are a little gray, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s why we keep trying to make things black or white? Red or blue? But then, when’s the last time you saw a rainbow where the edges of one color didn’t merge into the next?
All that to say, pretty much everyone I know, everyone I am friends with out here, owns a gun. I am regularly invited to “go out shooting” or “at least learn how to shoot a gun Julianna” (I’m not there yet). These are good people whom I love and trust. And one of them also happens to be my husband.
Allowing myself to be a little less rigid, I have learned a lot about why some people have guns. The same person who owns a gun can also be for stronger gun laws and against assault weapons. The same person who hunts can care about sustainable land management. The same person who sleeps next to me every night might have the gun in the nightstand because he’s just had knee surgery, can’t walk, and is trying to figure out to protect his wife in this foreign place he’s brought us to.
I can’t say I agree with a lot of what I’ve learned about guns. But I have learned. And in learning there has been some much needed listening. And with the listening there has been understanding. And with all that, there has been an expansion of the whom I can call my friend. Ahimsa is most often translated as meaning non-violence, but it can also be translated to mean non-harming. We harm each other (and ourselves) in so many little ways all the time. But when you know someones’ name, their family, the deeper reason behind their choices – even the ones you don’t agree with – there is a better chance that you will not only go out of your way to not harm them, but also go out of your way to take care of them. And that might just be one of the best possible outcomes of non-violence I can think of.