Do No Harm
Almost 2000 years ago, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, and laid out a set of doctrines and principles for living a yogic life. Although it is now believed that Patanjali was not just one person, but several people who contributed to the text, The Yoga Sutras are considered the primary doctrine outlining the core beliefs of Yoga. He sets forth the 8-Limbed Yogic Path-- steps we can take to lead and meaningful and purposeful life. These steps will be the subject of the next several weeks of Bee Free classes and writings. The path begins with the “Yamas” or 5 codes of conduct, outlining how we behave outwardly, towards other human beings. And the first of these is “Ahimsa.”
The Sanskrit word “Ahimsa” means “non-violence.” It asks us to minimize the amount of harm we bring in thought, word and deed. We do this by becoming aware of the ways we may be causing suffering to ourselves and others.
The first step in this journey is to understand that to harm another is to harm yourself. If you recall, we first studied the word Yoga “Union”-- the divine in us. Then we looked at “Namaste” - seeing this same divine spark in all beings. The natural outgrowth of this connection, this union, is that when we harm another we harm ourselves, and when we harm ourselves, we harm others. This is evident every time we look around. An exhausted mother who doesn’t care for herself will not be as good of a parent. If we let ourselves get physically run down, we cannot be of service to the world. In the other direction, if we are negative, or constantly critical of others, this negative energy will negatively impact our experience here on earth.
The most obvious source of violence to others is physical harm. We are hopefully not inflicting much physical harm on other humans. However, unless we are living a perfectly sustainable life, we are undoubtedly doing physical harm to the planet and future generations with our over-consumption and our reliance on plastics and fossil fuels. Many yogis decide to be vegetarian because of Ahimsa, to avoid doing harm to animals. More and more disturbing information is coming to light about the lives of factory farm animals and the methods of their slaughter. Others seek to only purchase meat locally, from farms with animals that lived humanely and were mindfully slaughtered. These are personal choices, but have global repercussions, so they are definitely worth consideration. What big and small choices can you make in your life to start living more in alignment with Ahimsa? Tap into your curiosity, and find joy in looking for alternatives and ways to improve! Start with the small, easy steps that feel right for you. A popular quote by Anne Marie Bonneau that's going around is “We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions doing it imperfectly.”
Then, there are more subtle ways that we do harm to others. One primary method is by attempting to control other people or shape them to be what we want them to be. This could easily go in both categories (harm to others and ourselves), because the more we try to control and change others, the more we will suffer when we don’t succeed-- and we won’t succeed. Rather than trying to impose our will on others, we can turn our focus to what we can control-- our reactions, our boundaries, our choices and how we communicate.
We can also cause harm to others through faulty communication. Learning when, what and how to communicate is a lifelong endeavor. Some people are under-communicators -- they build up resentments and expect others to be able to read their minds. Sometimes we engage in unkind communication. When we overextend ourselves, we are too tired to devote energy to clear, conscious communication. We might lash out, or rely on quips or sarcasm. Some of us are over-communicators -- offering unsolicited opinions, or talking more than listening. “Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve the silence?” - Shirdi Saibaba
Then there are a myriad of ways we are violent to ourselves. The primary one is resisting what is. As Pema Chodron so eloquently explains, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” We must practice mindfulness, clear seeing with respect and compassion for what we see. “Resisting what is” is futile and yet we do it all the time. We do it in small ways-- we get tied up in knots over traffic or because our day isn’t going how we planned. We do it in big ways-- we resist our physical limitations, reject our physical appearance, react to being misunderstood, or want others to behave in a certain way. And we resist change. Impermanence is the nature of life, and yet we resist it all the time.
When you really begin to tune in to the monologue in your head, it is amazing how much of it is negative self-talk and second-guessing, which are both forms of self-aggression. Replacing these scripts with positive affirmations may seem cheesy at first, but if positive thoughts become habitual it can change how we treat ourselves and consequently how we treat others.
Why do we engage in these subtle acts of violence to ourselves and others? If you trace each behavior back, you can usually find its roots in fear:
-fear of rejection or abandonment
-fear of being alone
-fear of not having enough
-fear of not being enough
-fear of being too much
-fear that things won’t work out
The simple act of recognizing the underlying fear begins the process of unraveling destructive behaviors. It can be painful to face how we harm ourselves and others, and it takes a while. Be careful not to do more harm (beat yourself up) in the process of working on non-violence.
First we must simply become mindful. Begin to notice when we do harm, and create spiritual space around it. Pema Chodron speaks of “refraining,” which is just the quality of not grabbing for entertainment or distraction the minute we feel uncomfortable feelings coming on. Rather, we sit with them. Then we pause and meet whatever is happening inside us with unconditional friendliness. Don’t make anything wrong. “We are fair weather friends to ourselves - we push away or ignore whatever darkness we can. But just as a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring the same qualities to our own inner life.” (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance).
Pat Rodegast writes “So walk with your heaviness, saying yes. Yes to the sadness, yes to the whispered longing. Yes to the fear. Love means setting aside walls, fences, and unlocking doors, and saying yes… one can be in paradise simply by saying yes to this moment.”
In order to truly find acceptance of whatever is going on, we must cultivate a belief that everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it's not yet the end. (quote from Marigold Hotel). This is not some “pollyanna” belief. We can look back on our lives for concrete evidence of all the times things that seemed disastrous at the time, worked out in ways we never could have imagined.
Concretely, we can begin with self-care. Acts of love and acceptance to ourselves benefit not only us, but everyone that our lives touch. We need to be rested, have alone time, be fed and hydrated, in order to be our best selves. Then, assuming we aren’t going around physically hurting other people, we can look at other ways our lives might be negatively affecting others. We can make sure we are doing our part. Are you being considerate of the people around you? Do you clean up after yourself? Do you notice how your small actions affect others down the line? Practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
In addition to being aware of our actions, we can grow our awareness of our words. We can study nonviolent communication. We can separate from the stories we tell ourselves in our heads, long enough to listen, get curious, gather information, and ask questions. Then we’ll communicate without blame and judgment-- sharing our experience, needs and wants. When we mess up (aka engage in violence), and we will, apologize promptly. This can turn a negative experience into a positive one, or at least one that increases connection through shared vulnerability.
All of the above is made possible when we slow down. We must slow down enough to give ourselves the time and space to be mindful, to recognize and address our fears, and to have the difficult, but meaningful conversations. When we harm one person in our human family, we harm everyone. Mahatma Gandhi expresses this idea beautifully. “It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”
* (For further reading, check out “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, “Start Where You Are” and “How to Meditate” by Pema Chodron, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, and “The Work” by Byron Katie. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)