Let Freedom Ring!

I started this blog exactly one year ago, on Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday, by posting his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. The speech is as moving and inspiring today as it must have been on August 28th, 1963, and still as relevant. Though America has come far since the 1960’s, there is still a tremendous disparity between races, between political groups and religions in our country and in the world. Yoga dogma is no exception. Reverend King was a freedom fighter in the tradition of Gandhi and Tolstoy; he staunchly adhered to non-violence in his quest for peace and equality. But what is peace, exactly? Peace is not an idea, it is not something that by wishing, or even praying for, will occur. We can see by looking at the lives of Dr. King, and of Gandhi, that peace is hard work; it is a major struggle, it requires absolute commitment, faith and sacrifice – and even then, the results of the work can be tragic.

According to the yoga shastra, peace is an energetic effect of the transformation of our body, breath and mind; it is a transformation of character that arises from repeated, continuous self-examination and practice. The transformation that occurs by doing these two things will lead us to behave in the world in such a way that we do not create conflict. In the Yoga Sutras, when Patanjali describes ahimsa, or, non-violence, he does not say precisely what we should do to practice non-violence, he only says what will happen if we become established in it: those who come in our presence will relinquish enmity. That is the test of our ahimsa – do people who are hostile become peaceful in our presence? Can we turn an angry situation to a peaceful resolution based on the strength of our inner calm, that has been cultivated through mindful behavior, through years of breathing in a smooth and even manner? We have opportunities to do this almost every day in our own lives, in our practice, and in our interpersonal relationships. If we each work on ourselves, and our small circles of relations, it will be enough to have a larger, collective impact.

In light of that, and as I look back on my successes and failures of the past year, I feel that I am measuring my past year not from the Gregorian calendar’s marking of January 1st, but by the birthday of Dr. King, and by the conviction that he brought to his life.

About two weeks ago I finished reading a book by Freeman Dyson, one of the great quantum physicists of our time. He is a controversial figure. He was present for the development of quantum physics as we know it today with Richard Feynman at Cornell, and was with Oppenheimer at Princeton. He was active in the nuclear programs of America during the development of the hydrogen and neutron bombs, and also active in the development of the test ban treaties. But for all of this, he had a deep spirituality and sense of awe of the universe, and also a conviction that what he saw happen in Europe under Hitler should never happen again, and that we should not be naive about non-violence.

In August of 1963, Dyson was in Washington, DC, testifying at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nuclear test ban treaty, and why it was vital that the treaty should be signed and upheld – to avoid our assured mutual mass destruction should America and Russia ever declare nuclear war. The day after his testimony, he took a stroll down to Constitution Avenue, where he came upon, and took part, in the following:

Black people from all over the United States were marching. A quarter of a million people were marching. It was quiet. No music and no stamping of feet. I walked to the end of the avenue where the marchers were assembling and marched with them to the Lincoln Memorial. Each group of people carried a banner saying where they came from. Occasionally there would be cheering and shouting from the crowd when a group came by from one of the really tough places – Birmingham, Alabama, or Albany, Georgia, or Prince Edward County, Virginia, the battle grounds of the early freedom fighters. The people from the Deep South were very young, hardly more than children. The Northerners were older, many of them husbands with their wives, or union members brought to Washington by their unions. In those days, in the Southern towns where the battles for civil rights were raging, black people with family responsibilities could not afford to take chances. From the toughest places only the young people came. 

Most of these children from the Southern battle grounds had never been away from their homes before. They had been fighting lonely battles. They had never before had anyone to cheer for them. They had never known that they had so many friends. They sang their freedom songs while the Northerners listened, and they looked like the hope of the future as they danced and sang with bright faces and sparkling eyes. 

From two till four, the leaders of the black people spoke at the memorial, with the huge figure of Lincoln towering over their heads. Only James Farmer did not speak, but instead sent a message from his cell in a Louisiana jail. Martin Luther King spoke like an Old Testament prophet. I was quite close to him and was not the only one listening who was in tears. “I have a dream,” he said, over and over again, as he described his visions of peace and justice. In my letter to my family I wrote, “I would be ready to go to jail for him any time.” I did not know then that I had heard one of the greatest speeches in the history of mankind. I only knew that I had heard one of the greatest.

– Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, p. 141

(Video below)