We have spoken of Ahimsa often, but I do not believe too often, if anything, not often enough. It’s just that we struggle so much with this on a daily basis that we need to re-address it regularly.
First, let me reiterate what Ahimsa means.
Ahiṃsā: non-harming, non-violence in thoughts and actions toward ourselves and others.
It is a practice that can lead us to yoga (the spiritual practice of yoga) and is categorized as a ‘restraint’ or Yama – a practice of holding back or restraining ourselves from causing harm. The idea of restraint implies that harming may already have been there – unconsciously – in our thoughts, words, and actions.
This is a difficult concept to grasp hold of I believe, that we are intrinsically violent beings!
Let's look at that for a moment…. I often explain this through the understanding of our chakras. Violence is an aspect of our first chakra, Muladhara, the root chakra! The root chakra is the closest link we have to the animal world, or the physical world if that feels better. When we first began as beings on this earth we were hunter-gatherers, to kill was an act of survival and necessary to the health and safety of the tribe in which we lived. Survival of the fittest! I am sure they didn't call it violence, it was life itself. As we have evolved spiritually speaking, the need to survive in that manner was no longer necessary. We now have jobs, and can purchase what we need to wear and eat. We have laws to protect us and keep us safe (although there would be some that would not see a distinction between the two). We continue to grow through and up our chakras into a more spiritual-minded sattvic state of existence, or at least we are striving for this.
While we strive for this non-violent existence we may be tortured by the daily, if not momentary, reminder of just how close we are to that survival and first chakra response that we now call violence. Not convinced? Watch your thoughts the next time you are driving and someone cuts your off, or drive in the city for a few minutes and you will feel it rise, as is its nature to do so.
The first step is looking with clear eyes at the way our actions impact others. It means reflecting on ourselves deeply and with clarity, honesty, and humility. We can start by trying to reduce the harm we are doing in the most outward ways in our lives, the harm created by action. This is a practice and implies returning again and again to the same action (or restraint) with intention and consistency. It does not imply perfection but the willingness to apply effort and persist until we are able to sustain the new, desirable habit.
Habits are also called samskaras, impressions both positive or negative. There is no difference, just a habit of one or the other. The habit of violence lies within us and it rises regularly. Watch for a moment your thoughts, the thoughts you have first thing in the morning, the thoughts you have about yourself when you first look into the morning mirror, the thoughts you have about your day, your life, your relationships, your job, the weather, the world, the news and on and on. Are they harmful thoughts, unkind thoughts, or judgmental thoughts about yourself and others? Try to see them as bad habits, and begin to change them into good habits of kindness and love to all, to see God and yourself within all living beings.
As we practice, we start to move more inwardly, going beyond action to our words, thoughts, and even where the deepest root of the motivation to cause harm comes from, our underlying beliefs and attitudes.
“Submission of lower desire to higher desire is called yoga.” We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and go against the grain of our habits, our immediate desires, and culturally conditioned actions if we want to make a better world possible. The willingness to be a little uncomfortable is the first step.
After some time, giving up a harmful action ceases to feel like restraint, but begins to feel more like an affirmation of life and an alignment with our innermost values. It no longer feels uncomfortable but becomes an act of joy, love, and upliftment of all beings. At a point, ahimsā transforms from a turning inward, a ‘restraint’ into its opposite; an offering, an expansion of Self.
Julia Butterfly Hill says, “ahimsā is to live so fully and presently in love that there is no room for anything else to exist.” As the practice grows and expands, ahimsā becomes much more than a practice of restraining harm, but a practice of creating good. Ahimsā not just as a ‘no’ but as a resounding inner ‘yes’ to nurturing the web of life. As the desire to say no to unnecessary harm transforms into a yes to increasing the good we may find that the sense of who/what I am expands.
I read something that mentioned that a “True Yogi” goes all in! They do not exist in isolation, they are interdependent on all that is. Liberation or freedom, cannot exist for the individual as isolated from existence. In yoga we are trying to understand the self as expansive, as beyond what we usually consider the self –The self not as the lower human existence of the ego, but the higher existence of the universe and of God that lives within each of us, in our body and our mind. Expand the sense of “me” to include not only other people, but the plants which are responsible for the atmosphere that gives me breath, the butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, and bats that pollinate the plants. The rivers and the oceans which evaporate and create an ocean in the sky that turns into rain, and the sun that creates evaporation and provides energy to so many.
If we zoom out far enough and contemplate the web of life and the interconnections between all molecules, minerals, elements, beings… There is nothing that is not me, that is not you. The entire concept of self-care radically shifts to Self-care, which is care for the air, water, soil, and ecosystem that supports all of life. On another level, studying the connections and relationships that were previously unknown to us. Healing our relationship to the earth means honoring and nurturing our environment.
Many of us may feel a sense of resignation or hopelessness in the face of this escalating climate crisis, and the human violence around us. When we see ourselves as separate we may not seek or create community support and collective action. We may feel that our actions won’t produce the desired result. Even the stories that our culture usually tells about activism and change, highlight the individual act, the individual person. This is almost never how powerful change occurs, it occurs in a cultural context, an ecosystem, with many thinkers, activists, community builders, and change-makers — sometimes working together, sometimes working in parallel — to bring about a cultural shift. Individual action is also the product of the environment it grew out of and you too can make a difference.
It only takes one to inspire the world. How will you inspire, through faith or through fear?