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Some Things are Universal August 1, 2020

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“There can be no doubt, that, in most cases, their judgment may be equal with the other sex; perhaps even on the subject of law, politics or religion, they may form good judgment, but t would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men, although their powers of mind may be equal to the task.”

 

– quoted from “II: Becoming an Advocate” in Observations on the Real Rights of Women , with Their Appropriate Duties, Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason and Common Sense  by Hannah Mather Crocker (published 1818)

 

Believe it or not, Hannah Crocker was advocating for women’s rights when the wrote the above, in 1818, and stated that “It is woman’s peculiar right to keep calm and serene under every circumstance in life, as it is undoubtedly her appropriate duty, to soothe and alleviate the anxious cares of men, and her friendly and sympathetic breast should be found the best solace for him, as she has an equal right to partake with him the cares, as well as the pleasures of life.” Taken out of context, and viewed with a modern mind, it is easy to think that Crocker would have disapproved of Maria Mitchell, who was born today in 1818 (on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts).

Miss Mitchell, as the king of Denmark would refer to her, was the first acknowledged female astronomer. Her Quaker parents believed in equal education for the 10 offspring, regardless of gender, and her father shared his love of astronomy with all of his children. Miss Mitchell, however, was the only one really interested in going deeper into the math and science of what they viewed as “a hymn of praise to God.” She was assisting her father by the age of 12; opened and taught at a school for girls by the age of 17; and starting working as the librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum in her twenties.   On October 1, 1848 she observed what she initially thought was a distant star, but quickly suspected was actually a comet. Further observation proved her correct and, after her father wrote to the Harvard Observatory, her conclusion was reported to the King of Denmark who awarded her a gold medal and named the newly sighted object “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Maria Mitchell would go on to be the first woman appointed to the American Association of the Advancement of Science (also in 1848), the first woman to earn an advanced degree (1853), the first woman appointed to the faculty of Vassar Female College (as their astronomy professor and head of their observatory, in 1865), and, therefore, the first woman in American history to earn a position as an astronomy professor. She is what I refer to this week as an impossible woman (more on that in a later post) and Hannah Crocker may or may not have approved.

“First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are power.”

 

– quoted from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals by Maria Mitchell

Whether or not Hannah Crocker approved of Maria Mitchell’s life choices is kind of beside the point. What’s relevant here is the idea that all things being equal, there are still people who believe there should be different rules (and therefore different rules of moral conduct) for different people based on gender, race, or other external factors. A quick glance at religious and philosophical commandments and precepts, however, indicates that (in most cases) the big commandments and precepts are intended for all, they are universal.

Yoga Sūtra 2.30: ahimsāsatyāsteyabrahmcaryāparigrahā yamāh

 

 

– “Non-violence (or non-harming), truthfulness, non-stealing, walking in awareness of the highest reality, and non-possessiveness (or non-hording) are the restraints (or universal commandments).”

Yoga Sūtra 2.31: jātideśakālasamayānavacchinnāh sārvabhaumā mahāvratam

 

– “[The five restraints] are not affected by class, race, ethnicity, place, time, and circumstance. They are universal and become a great vow.”

There are times when I am quite perplexed by the different ways people will twist things around so that the  rules and laws no longer apply to them. Hold off (for just a moment) on jumping to conclusions and let me be specific. Over the years, I have been involved in several discussions regarding the Buddhist precepts. There are five basic precepts or rules of training for lay Buddhist: non-harming (or non-killing), non-stealing, not engaging in illicit sex, a commitment to truth/honesty, and not imbibing in intoxicants. Notice how the first four overlap with the yamās from the yoga philosophy and how both philosophies overlap with the last five of the 10 Commandments. Also, just as Jewish practitioners adhere to more than 10 commandments (613 in total), there are additional precepts for people on retreat and people who are taking vows.

Regarding what might be viewed as discrepancies in practice, all the categories include non-harming/non-killing, but I have heard people very clearly argue that they are not violating the precept/commandment/yamā if they didn’t actually kill the animal that results in their burger. Here, now, I am not judging that argument except to say that it can be confusing (to me), because I think it all comes down to intent. And, speaking of intent, I have listed the third precept as “not engaging in illicit sex” versus “not engaging in adultery,” just as I refer to bramacharyā in the more literal sense so that (in both cases) the focus is on the cause of the action (i.e., intent), rather than on the resulting action.

Intention is important. Yes, you can unintentional harm someone or something. And, sometimes, that unintentional act can be tremendously more harmful than something you did intentional (knowing it would cause “a little” harm). Most legal systems back me up on this, hence the reason there are different penalties for manslaughter versus murder, and even within each of those categories there are various degrees with different punishments. Intention also comes into play when you look at why there are more commandments in Judaism and why there are more precepts if you are on retreat of taking vows as a monk or nun. Intention is also the key to why some would say, from the outside looking in, that Islām only has one rule: avoid what is harām (“forbidden”). That said, if we are going to be dedicated to the truth (i.e., not lie), we have to be honest with ourselves about why we want to practice – or not practice – some aspect of our particular belief system(s).

Ask yourself why you follow certain rules. Is your intention in following the rule(s) to be good? To be holy? To be saved? To be enlightened? To not be reincarnated? To not have people judge you harshly? To not get in trouble? To mitigate (or lessen) harm to yourself or another?

In the commentary for yoga sūtra 2:31, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait and others point to the fact that the intention is always to start where you are, given your particular situation. These practices are intended to set up for success and so the expectation is that you (again) practice with dedication and devotion to the best of your ability. As stated in the sūtra, these restraints can be applied to every situation. They are universal. The last part of the sūtra is equally important, because by practicing where you are and as you are, on every plane of existence, these practices become habit. They become ingrained in your psyche. They become the great vow and you start to think, speak, and act in a way that is mindful of all living beings…without actually having to think about it.

But, of course, we start off thinking about it.

“Killing a human being is murder, but killing a fish is not. Killing a fish is not. Killing a fish is a spiritual offense for a strict vegetarian, but not for a fisherman. Hunting in and around a shrine is an offense, but hunting in the forest is not. For a Hindu, eating meat on the fourteenth day of the moon is an offense, but eating meat on other days is not. In day-to-day life it is a grave offense for a soldier to shoot someone, but it is not an offense for a soldier to kill and enemy on the battlefield.”

 

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 2.31 from The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Speaking of “killing a fish,” today is also the anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville. Born today in New York City in 1819, exactly a year to the day after Maria Mitchell, the author shared a love of the sea (and certain other experiences) with Nathanial Hawthorne. During Melville and Hawthorne’s brief friendship, they were both their most prolific and published what would become their most popular works, including Melville’s Moby-Dick and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Both wrote about people who obsessively purposed their goals (something that is encouraged in yoga), but their characters did not always temper their determination with devoted surrender and non-attachment (which is something that is also encouraged in yoga). Lest you think it was only Hawthorne who focused on commandments, read on.

“Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth.”

 

– quoted from Moby-Dick, or the Whale by Herman Melville

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

 

– quoted from Moby-Dick, or the Whale by Herman Melville

Per my email, I have cancelled class today due to a family emergency. I still have tomorrow’s class on the schedule, but stay tuned here to see how that works out. If you were planning to practice today, please, practice with yoga sūtras 2.30-2.31 in mind. Since this week’s sūtra focus is a continuation of last week’s, you can use last week’s recording. If you are not on my email list, you can request the audio recording from last week via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Last week’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (This is the “Hays Code 2020” playlist dated March 31.)

As this is the anniversary of the 1-35 bridge collapse, please hold a neighbor in your hearts and minds today. So many people are suffering with current events, but let us not forget that some people are still grieving and healing from past events. To quote my dad, “Sounds like we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

###” CALL ME ISHMAEL, GOD LISTENS” ###