Why are we so violent, so competitive, so cruel? There are so many news stories and articles that cross our consciousness each and every day and far too many of these reports are examples of violence and cruelty. We are assaulted by stories of war and terrorism, mistreatment because someone didn’t like the beliefs or color or gender of someone else, oppression because of greed or competition, abuses of power across virtually every facet of society- politics, business, family, even my beloved yoga community.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I have been listening to an offering from The Great Courses that addresses ancient history and presents the other side of history, looking at how people lived. With each ancient culture that is analyzed- Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome- I am struck by the violence that is glaringly apparent. From turf wars in hunter-gatherer societies to oppressive class structures to downright cruel treatment of women to shocking and sickening treatment of children, the violence and brutality are ever present.
So with such pervasive violent tendencies and the compounding effect that the constant barrage of media coverage and personal experiences expose us to, how do we combat it? Society as a whole is a daunting, probably impossible task. We can start with ourselves, though.
All of this violence and harm makes me think of its opposite, Ahimsa, which quite literally translates to non-violence or non-harm. I was introduced to the word Ahimsa through my yoga training, as it is a core tenet of Raja Yoga and is present in many important yoga texts, like the Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. But as I delve deeper into learning about spirituality, Ahimsa is also very present in major religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and its ethical concept of non-harm extends to virtually every belief system.
So what exactly is Ahimsa and how do we practice it? Ahimsa is non-violence in thought, word, or deed. In a world where the ideals of not inflicting harm and acting in kindness are values that most of us are taught, we certainly struggle to put that kindness into action. An honest evaluation, certainly mine of myself, reveals that there is some work to be done in this arena. Ahimsa isn’t just talking about physical violence, after all, it is all encompassing, covering nonviolence in thought, word, or deed. While I wouldn’t consciously hurt someone, I do let not so kind words fly and I definitely have unkind thoughts swirling around in my head.
In Sri Swami Sivananda’s book, Bliss Divine, he suggests a gradational practice of Ahimsa that I really connect with. He says first control the physical body, then speech, then finally going to thoughts. Since I feel that I have a pretty good handle on avoiding inflicting physical harm, I have focused on keeping violent, mean-spirited, or harmful words from escaping my lips.
Sure, I still say things that I shouldn’t. Sarcasm is deeply rooted in my interactions. However, I have really had success with choosing not to gossip and not to crack jokes at another’s expense in a mean-spirited way. It really has been an interesting exercise, because I will think a thought, let’s say while people watching at Walmart, and I will catch myself, telling myself not to judge, to practice Ahimsa.
I challenge you to try it. Try to keep yourself from saying anything mean. Try to notice your thoughts and pick up on anything uncharitable that you are thinking. And finally, extend that non-violence to yourself, as well. Let’s not beat ourselves up for having slip-ups and extend the same kindness to ourselves that we would so readily extend to others.
I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
I have been listening to a podcast called Secular Buddhism with Noah Rasheta. A couple of days ago, I listened to an episode called What is Freedom? What is Truth? Among other things, this episode talked about conceptual truths versus empirical truths, which really got me thinking.
In brief, an empirical truth can be observed, proven through data or evidence, while a conceptual truth is much blurrier. A conceptual truth might be an idea that is accepted by society or culture or a personal idea that is true to you. An example would be precious gems, certainly they are pretty and maybe they are rare, but in the end, they are just a rock that society attaches a value to.
It really is a mind boggling rabbit hole to go down- looking at the things in your life that you accept as true and examining whether they are objectively true or whether they have all sorts of conditions and learned responses and societal influences that make them into changelings.
In terms of my own life, I have been thinking quite a bit about expectations and how much importance I place on how I am perceived by others, finding that too often I am letting this weigh on my actions and decisions. It is difficult to get past what we think things should look like. I find myself assessing whether I’m doing enough with/for my kids, saving enough, moving in the right direction at work or in relationships, finding balance between responsibility and enjoyment, exercising enough, eating the right things… oh, the list could go on.
So, thinking about this unending list, I just have to stop and ask, “What am I measuring myself against?” There isn’t a single thing on this list that is based solely around an empirical truth. Instead, each item is completely convoluted by conceptual truths, skewed by societal influence and my own personal experiences and expectations.
The people that I am trying to please, who I would like to show that I am succeeding on all of the bullet points on my list, have their own conceptual truths that are influenced by their own cultural and personal experiences. So success in people-pleasing is a moving target.
The ideals that I am striving for need to be mine, because I can never achieve the futile task of pleasing everyone else. However aha this realization is, putting it into practice is still pretty daunting. It is daunting because trusting your own intuition and decision making requires self-confidence and determination. It is also daunting because even the conceptual truths that you accept as “true” may and probably will change with further life experience. So success in pleasing yourself is also a moving target.
This means that another piece to the puzzle is accepting that we don’t have all of the answers. We could believe something today and then gather information tomorrow that completely changes what we accept as true. The only real option is to be open to that growth. Accept that we are not static beings who already know all that we will ever know and be receptive to the knowledge and transformation that further life experience gives.
http://secularbuddhism.com/ Secular Buddhism with Noah Rasheta