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!