Ahimsa, the practice of doing no harm, is one of the most important and powerful spiritual practices there is. In all great world spiritual traditions, there is the command to do no harm, to oneself or to others. When life is going well, it’s fairly easy to understand and to practice Ahimsa. It is not always easy to practice though. However when we are in the throes of despair, depression, or simply trying to survive a major crisis, it becomes much more difficult. That is when we most need to incorporate this practice into our daily lives.
What is Ahimsa? Ahimsa is one of the yamas of the path of yoga. The word, ahimsa, is derived from the Sanskrit word hims which means to strike. Ahimsa means to refrain from striking or harming. The practice itself of course refers to how we treat others and how we use our words, actions, thoughts, and intentions to build up or tear down those with whom we communicate or come into contact with. It begins, however, with how we treat ourselves, how we talk to ourselves, and how we tell others who we are. Something I find in my spiritual counseling practice is that often when a person is struggling with major life crises, trauma, or transitions, they revert to belittling or debasing themselves. Mentally or verbally programming themselves to fail, they throw up roadblocks in front of the path before them.
Why is Ahimsa important at times when we are at our lowest ebb? Generally, when we are faced with obstacles, conflicts, struggles, or the ongoing result of the normal but difficult trials of life, we lose confidence. Shame takes over. Fear steps in. A sense of failure rises up from within. Where one day we felt in control and content, we suddenly find ourselves thrown for a loop. If only we could remember that the course of life is generally full of ruts and potholes and unexpected snags. We don’t though. We perpetually believe that ‘if only’ we behave or achieve or turn our backs or otherwise make some decision about a troubling situation, we’ll not have to deal with the energy that a relationship, a job, an unwanted condition, or unexpected shock stirs up. Ahimsa, the practice of paying attention to how we are talking to and about ourselves, our situations, and experiences, and the people with whom we are connected, requires that we slow down and reflect. Two things we have a lot of trouble doing in our world. Slowing our pace and reflecting on what we are creating with our words and thoughts are not practices that many of us are used to doing.
Ahimsa is tool that anyone can use. It costs nothing, but some of your attention and time. Most of us are goal/task/time oriented with the priorities of our busy or stressful lives. Others who suffer great trauma are thrown into relying only on those inner resources as they struggle for survival and balance. Ahimsa, the art and act of doing no harm to ourselves and others, is crucial to everyone’s well being. Think back to a time, perhaps the most stressful time of your life. One of those big event moments. Perhaps it was an accident, a death, or a situation on a battlefield or an act of violence. Pick something that you are far enough away from so as to allow some time for healing or adjusting. Remember if you will, how you responded to what was going on around you. What, if any, feelings took over? What was your perception at the time, and then what was your perception of the event after it was over? Spend a little time reflecting on how you made it through that experience and what remains of the energy connections to that time.
You survived. Perhaps you still feel the residual effects of the experience, perhaps you feel it’s all in the past. Whatever we experience stays with us in some form, so pretending it didn’t happen or doesn’t matter is not coping with the situation. At least not in the long run. Our bodies, our minds, and our spirit do numb us out sometimes to help us get through a particularly painful or frightening experience. Other times we become hyper-vigilant, reacting to anything that triggers a painful or frightening reminder. We all have different ways of coping. In the long run however, we are given the opportunity of being reminded of the pain, the experience, and the effects on our lives. We also can use Ahimsa to tune into the pain, fear, anxiety, or despair that may creep into or jolt us awake with its reminder.
How can we learn to use Ahimsa to cope with stress, traumatic scars, unhealed heartache, or other kinds of challenging and hurtful experiences? If you’re like me, when something strikes the chord of terror or fear in me, I get busy. I put my energy into doing something. I might stay up all night scrubbing old pots until they are shiny, or throw myself into my work or into helping others with their problems. It works for a while. But then it stops being the panacea, the saving grace that gets me through. There comes a time with chronic stress, unhealed trauma, and intergenerational patterns of pain and negative energy when I need to find a way to start getting to the root of the problems that initiated and perpetuated my current situation. If we are the sum total of all that has happened to us (and that carries through our family line), we can understand how my behavior is linked to something beyond my immediate situation.
Not wanting to dwell and get trapped in past energy means we need to periodically work on becoming more aware, clearer, and healthier in the way we live and respond. Ahimsa begins with turning our attention to our thoughts, feelings, physical responses, and levels and tone of energy. Rather than empyting your mind, listen to what is going on in your mind. What are your thoughts about a difficult or fearful situation? What are you telling yourself? Often it sounds something like, “I can’t do….”, or “I never get….”, or “No one will ever love me…”, “That’s impossible..” You have your own script for those times when you feel trapped. And to start with, just notice what comes up in your thinking or how you are talking about a situation or how you’re talking to someone. Avoid judging or trying to change anything right away; just notice what you tend to think, do, say, or feel. With Ahimsa, we want to avoid judging or berating ourselves–both forms of self harm. It’s not that we are never sorry or feel bad about something. Rather we’re looking to face what is authentic in our own patterns, thinking, and process so we can do something to improve it.
Ahimsa is first of all paying attention, noticing, and do so with intention. Many of us process what we’ve done after the fact. Monday morning quarterbacking? This is a practice to paying attention in motion. Ahimsa then is about determining what about your behavior, your thinking, your feelings, and whatever other messages (the external ones–how others relate to you) are damaging to yourself and to others. Ahimsa is also about how you’re viewing the world. A good practice of Ahimsa is to notice your thoughts and words while you’re driving…especially when you’re in heavy traffic or someone has cut you off or been rude to you. What’s your response? Just notice.
Ahimsa is not about beating ourselves up over who we are or what we feel or think, but it is about paying attention and becoming more aware and conscious of how we think, speak, feel affects our lives. When we revisit the traumatic or powerful event that I asked you to recal earlier, reflect on whether or not something akin to paying attention and listening to that inner voice that helps you in tough times, was present. When we slow ourselves down just a bit, and when we pay closer attention to how and what we’re thinking and feeling, we have this wonderful opportunity to remember who we are. We can remember the goodness and positive intentions we have had. We can examine the areas where we’ve fallen down or missed the point and we can learn to be gentle with ourselves and others. By being clearer and by more attuned to our authentic self, we can learn to heal, rebuild, and learn how to cope more effectively. Ahimsa is a practice that helps us stand with a firm knowledge of who we are, in any situation. And all of us, are survivors.
We have come through some hard times. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here now. Remember who you are, and treat yourself with kindness. Address the issues in your lives that are making it hard to find balance, harmony, and a sense of worth. Not facing the truth will just make things worth. Stop blaming yourself and others, and use some simple practices, including Ahimsa, to help reshape your life in the form of a Path of Life and Light rather that death and fear.
Particularly for those of you who suffer from the results of war-related and other traumatic events, Ahimsa can be one tool that helps you cope with some of the recurring patterns and reactions, and learn how to channel your thoughts, feelings, and energy into more healing ways of responding to ongoing stressors. In conjunction with some positive, supportive counseling and relationships, Ahimsa can help alleviate or temper some of the more emotional and jarring reactions. And it can help you better understand the reasons that the memories are so difficult to simply let go of or stuff down. One thing we have learned about war-related stress (other types of trauma as well) is that trying to stuff it down by not talking about it has adverse effects in the long run. WWII and Vietnam veterans for example, as they aged, have had much more difficulty with suppressed memories and repression and depression. One big reason is the socially accptable behavior of burying feelings, not talking about old war wounds, and the tamping down of hurtful memories. Ahimsa, with support, can help you avoid aggravating issues in your life, by giving you a tool, a new habit that helps you deal with trauma bit by bit. For those of you who use prayer, mediation, and other spiritual practices to help deal with the stresses of war, life, and adjusting, this is simply one more tool to help in the healing process.
This week, when you feel yourself getting upset or fearful or uncertain, remember Ahimsa, and give it a try. See if it doesn’t help you experience greater inner peace and more acceptance of what you can and cannot do, be, or change. Let yourself do no harm to yourself, and in the process you might also forgive yourself for those failures, shortcomings, or lacks that make you feel less than. You are a full, rich, whole person, and you have the gift of life. Choose to use it for the good of yourself and others. This too is Holy.