by Gabriella Buttarrezzi
In my last article, I focused on the importance of mind-work in Yoga, and the positive effects that regular mind-work can have on one’s behaviour and character.
A related and important tenet of Yogic philosophy and Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism is Ahimsa. Ahimsa loosely translates as non-violence or doing no harm, but I think it also makes a lot of sense to view Ahimsa as a kind of compassion. This is perhaps the most difficult tenet of yogic philosophy to live out fully, I have many battles with it myself, but working on Ahimsa, through mind-work, Dhyana Yoga or meditation does gradually have an impact on the quality of your experiences in life I find.
The Concept of Ahimsa
According to some teachings, Ahimsa is a virtue and a concept that is based on the premise that doing harm to others is also doing harm to ourselves, because we are ultimately one and the same. In other teachings, this is extended to all living things, including all animals, notably but not exclusively in Hindu tradition. This is where an ethical (vegetarian/vegan) diet meets Yogic philosophy. Living without Ahimsa has also been taught as having karmic consequences, notably but not exclusively in Buddhist tradition.
As an ethical concept, it is touched upon in ancient Vedic texts and has been emphasised and expanded upon further, notably in Hindu teachings. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Ahimsa is considered an essential path for the yoga practitioner, included in Yamas (self-restraints, controls), the first of the eight limbs of Yoga. Coupled with Niyamas (observances), these two limbs comprise the ethical paths of the Yogic philosophy. Ahmisa also features in the Upanishads and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Understanding and living out Ahimsa is a component of Yoga, best worked with through mind-work, Dhyana Yoga or meditation, in my opinion.
The concept became more popularly understood through Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protests within the field of politics and civil rights. Other prominent figures, including Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi also advocate Ahimsa in one form or another, though there has been some debate on the incompatibility of Ahimsa in cases of self-defence. Some have suggested that reverence of life is essential always, and some have suggested that Ahimsa need not be extended to times of war and conflict. Further to this, modern spiritual teachers have equated defence or self-preservation as the harmful first stage of war and conflict. It is our personal decision how far we extend Ahimsa to different aspects of our lives or circumstances we might find ourselves in. It is our decision where we draw the line between what we would consider to be Ahimsa and what we would consider essential behaviour for our own self-preservation.
The Daily Practice of Ahimsa
I think we all do our best to live life consciously and ethically, but sometimes the most obvious examples of violence are directed towards ourselves. Once we begin a regular meditation practice, our self-talk becomes alarmingly apparent. I find that working with non-violence towards ourselves is the most powerful means of losing any tendencies we have of violence towards others. Violence perhaps sounds like an aggressive term for what might be best understood as moments of ill will, harm or negativity towards ourselves and towards others. We have all had these moments, even if we haven’t then had corresponding behaviours or actions, haven’t we?
When I sit in meditation, I often like to quiet the mind and let go of the internal chatter or even just praise the morning, best achieved (for me at least) through subtle breathing meditations, body-awareness or visualisations. But when I really want to work with the mind and any unhelpful repetition that it throws up, mind-work for Ahimsa seems to be the most effective option. What’s interesting is that when an unhelpful repetitive thought is worked with in this way, it completely transforms. It no longer resonates with you, and it ceases to live inside you.
Some examples of unhelpful repetitive thoughts we can have towards ourselves might be:
- I am not good enough.
- I am untrustworthy.
- I am foolish.
- I am easy to take advantage of.
- I am weak.
And some examples of unhelpful repetitive thoughts we might have towards others might be:
- They shouldn’t judge me.
- They shouldn’t be so lazy.
- They should show me more respect.
- They criticise me.
- They don’t listen me.
- They look down on me.
And the list goes on and on. We’ve probably all had these thoughts and this internal chatter at some point, regardless of how different our life experiences have been.
All of these can be categorised as violent or harmful thoughts, as (non)-Ahimsa, in a sense. When we believe thoughts of this nature, we might react in a harmful way towards others and/or ourselves. That harmful way might even be something small or simple, like losing sleep over a thought or getting agitated over a thought. So a yogi or yogini would apply all their best techniques, tools and practices for exploring the truth within those thoughts and more often than not, this would eliminate them little by little. When I say exploring the truth, I really mean going through a process of inquiry whereby we challenge them:
- Are these thoughts assumptions?
- Are they exaggerations?
- Are they honest?
- Are they reasonable?
- Are they hurtful?
- Are they realistic?
- Are they even (bloody) true?
Perhaps more pertinent questions are:
- Do these thoughts define me?
- Do they reflect my goodness?
- Do they reflect my true self?
- Do I like who I am when I believe these thoughts?
- Does having these thoughts permit me to live authentically?
- Do I feel at peace when I believe these thoughts?
You might find truth in some thoughts you have, certainly that happens, but more often that not I find that when I challenge them and explore them, I realise that they are simply not true. But, if they are true, exploring them somehow makes them less harmful. It distances you from them, you begin to identify with them less and less, or more importantly, you gain more insight and clarity in what to do with those thoughts, in terms of behaviours and actions, or even in terms of non-behaviours and non-actions in many cases.
So, Ahimsa, though most commonly associated with Gandhi, non-violent protests and vegetarianism/veganism, is much more. It can be a road to peacefulness and truth. It starts with an exploration of the unhelpful repetitive thoughts our mind throws up, first directed towards ourselves and then directed towards others.