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Ahimsa: Embracing “Non-Harmfulness” in Deed, Word & Spirit

Ahimsa: Embracing “Non-Harmfulness” in Deed, Word & Spirit

As with many other spiritual traditions across the globe, the Yogis realized it is difficult to have a peaceful mind when our lives contain violence or aggression. For that reason, ahimsa or “non-violence” is our first guideline. But as discussed last week, ahimsa – like all the ethical principles – can be understood on several levels, including a few nuances that make distinct from the way some other traditions approach the idea “thou shalt not kill.” Let’s start our discussion with some of those principles.

Understanding Non-Violence in Literal & Subtle Form

To begin where our general discussion left off, the yamas and niyamas like all the other limbs of Yoga ultimately revolve around the idea of minimizing the thoughts and behaviors that disturb our natural state of peace. Of course, when we engage in violence we make the world a more hostile and stressful place, ultimately disturbing our own peace as well as the peace of others. This clearly is true not only of our actions but also our words – we all know caustic remarks can hurt every bit as much as deeds – so ahimsa means not only acting kindly but speaking kindly as well. Further, we know anger can dramatically impact those around us, even if we don’t vocalize our feelings. For that reason, ahimsa is a call not only to gentleness in deeds and speech but ultimately our state of mind.

This subtler but even more powerful understanding of ahimsa leads to one of the more complex aspects of non-harmfulness which for lack of a better term we’ll refer to as “compassionate protection.” We know throughout human history there have always been people who felt they had the right to harm others. As a result, every spiritual tradition has had to ask the question: “What is the proper way to respond when we, our loved ones, or innocent people are being harmed?” The Yogic response is: “When all other means have been exhausted, sometimes force must be met with force.”

Given the prominent place of ahimsa, many are surprised to learn this. However, when we consider the deeper principles, the apparent contradiction dissolves. Obviously, we would only use force as a last resort having exhausted every other avenue, but the Yogis realized sometimes physical force is the only way we can prevent the far greater harm that would arise if the actions of a misguided person were allowed to go unchecked. Simply put, when a person like a Hitler comes into the world, if words and reasoning have no impact, then force is considered a valid way of “upholding ahimsa” in the larger scale.

To look a little deeper, it’s important to understand, in the Yogic view such “compassionate protection” ultimately can be crucial not only for the welfare of the innocent being harmed but even for the person who is choosing to engage in violent or harmful behavior. Again, we would want to make sure we had exhausted all other options and were acting in a spirit of compassion, not anger or fear or “judgment,” which would again go against the deeper spirit of ahimsa. But that much being done, the Yogis firmly believed force does not inherently go against the greater idea of “non-harming.”

Beyond Deed & Word: Exploring the Philosophical Roots of Ahimsa

Again, beyond the direct and subtle levels of action, ahimsa – like all the yamas and niyamas –is ultimately about a far deeper psychological and philosophical level. As we discussed last article, each of the ethical principles is not about “right” or “wrong,” but rather about understanding how certain behaviors always arise beliefs that are false or without ground – beliefs that in turn generate stress and pain for us, even if we never act on them. In the case of ahimsa, I obviously can’t wish another person ill without what the Yogis considered the very mistaken belief his or her feelings are somehow less valid than mine, and also without committing the error of thinking I can inflict harm on another without ultimately hurting myself.

In many ways, this latter point is similar to Plato’s contention that no one knowingly does evil. As you may recall, Plato believed that, since all evil acts ultimately reduce the quality of the world as a whole, and since no one with full understanding would ever purposefully make their own world worse, all acts of evil must ultimately come from ignorance – an idea with which the Yogis agreed. In this sense, ahimsa clearly goes far deeper than refraining from harmful acts or words, encouraging us to examine the thoughts or feelings that make us want to act that way in the first place. “Are these feeling and beliefs truly accurate? Are they fair? Is this how I want to see the world or how I would want others to act?” In the Yogic view, this self-reflection ultimately leads us to revise our feelings, in turn returning both our actions and our thoughts to their natural state of peace.

This of course ultimately takes us back to the distinction between ahimsa and the idea: “killing is a sin,” where in the Yogic view intention is clearly more important than action. In the Yogic view, if we are walking down the street in a mindful way but inadvertently step on a bug, this is not considered an act of violence or a violation of ahimsa. Likewise, if we were to forcefully push someone to protect them from a speeding car, that too would be in harmony with ahimsa. But, importantly, intentionality also works the other way: for example, if we were to wish someone ill or hope bad things for them, that would go against ahimsa, even if we never acted on it. Similarly, if we didn’t mean to harm someone but still did so due to our negligence – say driving while texting or driving recklessly because we are in a hurry – in the Yogic view that would still be considered an act of violence and one with all the negative internal consequences of intentional harm.

Ultimately, this ties back to the idea of “compassionate protection” discussed earlier. Again, in the Yogic view, there may be times when the only way to avoid greater harm is through an act of force – for example if a person in a deranged state is hurting others and force is the only means to stop him or her. In this sense, corporal punishment or even war potentially can be seen as in harmony with the idea of ahimsa if our intention is ultimately the greater well-being of all involved – again, not only those targeted by the violence but also the person engaged in the act. In the Yogic view, such an act would be based on a (true) sense of connection and compassion rather than a (false) sense of fear or judgment or “retribution” and thus in harmony with the greater spirit of ahimsa.

Ahimsa On the Mat & In Our Lives

To finish with a brief look at some of the practical applications of ahimsa, like many of the yamas and niyamas, non-harmfulness obviously applies quite readily to the practice of asana. All students of yoga know it is easy to let our zeal to improve lead us to ignore the warning signs of our bodies and in turn hurt ourselves. On the most literal level, ahimsa reminds us to be gentle and kind with our bodies and especially to watch for the false idea that we need to harm ourselves to improve. We also know it’s easy in our practice to compare ourselves to others and in turn have negative thoughts about ourselves or alternatively to think ill of others for not living up to our expectations or agreeing with the same approach. In this sense, ahimsa on the mat not only means being gentle with ourselves and others physically but also mentally, watching for critical thoughts and redirecting them in a more accurate and healthful direction.

Of course, beyond asana, ahimsa is clearly a principle we can apply widely in our daily lives – again in both the literal and the more subtle forms. On the literal level, we want to be mindful of any physical harm we might do others, including through our life choices. Classically this would include a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, but my teacher always reminded us even this must be understood on a larger scale – for example, if we follow a vegan diet but are critical of those who disagree, or if we are vegetarian but still harm our bodies with overeating or alcohol we are missing the true spirit of ahimsa. Ultimately, “non-harmfulness” in lifestyle means making choices that are respectful of our bodies, the welfare of others, and also the limited resources of our planet.

Beyond action of course is the greater issue of mindfulness. Again, we all know it is easy to at times let our focus on a certain objective lead us to unconsciously hurt those around us – such as when we scold or belittle someone for doing something that we feel is not “good” for them. True ahimsa means staying mindful of how all our choices – even in thought and focus – fit into the overall welfare of everyone. Obviously, this tends to be easier to do with family and loved ones, but true non-harmfulness extends to strangers and even those we think of as causing suffering. In other words, in the Yogic view, even if we feel someone is engaged in harmful or cruel behavior, we still need to treat them kindly and compassionately, otherwise we are missing the essence of ahimsa. That much said, again it would also go against ahimsa to allow such behavior to go unchecked, so this doesn’t preclude action, rather living in the spirit of ahimsa ultimately means doing our best to consciously minimize harm on all fronts while maintaining a spirit of compassion and warmth toward all.