Peaceful protest: sangha members at the G8/G20 summit, Toronto.

From the frontlines of the G8/G20 summit, Michael Stone reflects on nonviolence and engaged living. The first in a three-part series.

When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the other narratives of my life is this one: June 26, 2010, 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 using “black block tactics” jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and walked towards the empty street behind us to make our way home.

I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto. Our community formed five years ago with the intention of integrating Yoga and Buddhist practice, everyday urban life and social action. When I first read the teachings of the Buddha, I connected with his full engagement in life – not just with internal states of mind, but how he taught that our actions sculpt who we are.

Karma is not something that happens to you, it’s the ongoing choices and effects that determine who and what we actually are. We must cultivate an awareness of and responsibility for our actions and their consequences. This is the lived experience of karma. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali (the seminal author of the Yoga-Sutra) as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.

If learning to work with anger and greed can teach us how to respond creatively to our inner struggles, can this same skillfulness help us interact with institutional greed and imbalance and global forms of suffering?

All week leading up to the 2010 G8 and G20 summits in downtown Toronto, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to chart the course of global economic development, 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 police presence and military build-up.

Early in the week, it was easy to feel fear or anger soften to compassion when policemen would come and ask if we could teach them some meditation because, as one officer from Huntsville said, “these are long days on my feet away from family, eating garbage food.” As the weekend approached and 10,000 police filled the downtown core, sitting meditation became unsafe. Though I wanted to sit with others I decided to spend time researching the issues and biking the city bearing witness.

Although my background is in psychology (I am a psychotherapist in private practice), I always thought of non-violence as a way of using meditation and bodily awareness to stay disciplined during times of turbulence. In my life as a father in the relatively peaceful city of Toronto, most of the violence I have encountered is in my own heart and mind: a temper, old emotions rooted in my childhood, and irritation when my son takes an hour to put on his snowpants. I’ve never had to respond to a group of young people burning a police car in front of a bank, with military helicopters circling overhead, and a son in my arms asking for an explanation.

When the young group of activists broke away from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines, my first feeling was fear that they would get hurt. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons, one of whom lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. The streets looked like a war zone and I realized it was time for my son and I to leave, even though I was also appalled by the countless instances of police aggression against protesters and wanted to somehow reach the police and the protesters alike and ask everyone to stop. It was too late. And with all my Buddhist training and years of psychological practice, I 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.”

Watching the young protesters split from the peaceful march of 20,000 concerned citizens, I couldn’t tell where my allegiances lay. Such a massive gathering of citizens in the face of widespread police repression and hysteria was in itself a victory. But when the peaceful protesters were pushed far away from the fenced-in meetings, it was also clear that there could be no relationship or communication with those inside the meeting, who collectively held the fate of millions in their hands. There was no place for voices calling for justice. We were barred from expressing discontent. Or, as my son asked, “How can you protest a meeting when you aren’t allowed to know what they’re meeting about?”

Part two will be published tomorrow!

Michael Stone is the director of Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto and the author of many books, most recently Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Find Michael at www.centreofgravity.org

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