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Ahiṃsā - Is it truly possible to live without violence & harm?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023



I’ve been feeling pulled to explore the Yamas & Niyamas* on a deeper level. Every time I return to these I sink deeper into embodied understanding, and as well, deeper discernment.


Ahiṃsā is generally translated as non-violence, non-harm, or kindness.


Generally speaking, it's agreed this is a good and right principle to live by, and I’m not going to dive into why it’s good - this virtue speaks for itself in this regard.


What I want to explore are the nuances, the distinctions and even exceptions to Ahiṃsā - at least in the way it can be misunderstood in many ways I've experienced and witnessed.

Why?


Because I find that, at least the way I’ve lived my life as a modern westerner, and for so many people in our culture that is highly psychologized, pathologized and largely removed from nature - we struggle reconciling living by these ideals in the reality of our world.


And, with pulling apart what we’ve conflated, we may have space to sink into a deeper understanding of how to live by these ideals, however imperfectly we may.


Let’s look at these words.. “Ideal”, “Virtue”, “Value”, “Ethics” - these are all inarguably human-realm concepts. No where in nature do these notions exist.


And, we live in a reality where there is actually violence all around and within us.


Nature is often and reliably violent.


And, even though our modern culture is quite removed from nature, we still are made of her.


In an obvious illustration, we cannot fault a cheetah for capturing an impala and ripping it to shreds to feed herself and her cubs.



We outsource this violence to large, flourescent-lit warehouses of animals that never see sunlight for hired men to commit this violence on a grand scale so most of us never have to experience what it’s like to have blood on our hands in order to eat. (You can google those photos. They're far more disturbing than what I've shared here.)


I watched a youtube video a few weeks back of a westerner asking a tribal African man what was the meaning of life. His profound answer? “Meat.”


People who live within the cycles of nature in this way have little notion to think deeply about ‘the meaning of life.’ Think about it. In order to have meaning, there must be some mind to have created meaning. And there must be time and space enough for these notions to arise within.


When humans still largely hunted for their sustenance, they were within an intimate cycle of life and death. And, guaranteed they gave respect for the kill they took down for survival. Offerings. Reverence. Prayer.


This offering-back is one thing I find largely missing from the discussion around non-violence and survival.


Sure, you can not eat meat. You still eat plants and they experience something when they’re harvested too. It is being killed.


You could starve yourself, but then that is a slow violence to yourself.


Beyond food, we are all engaged in global acts of violence by the cars, computers and smartphones we use with precious metals that are mined by slave labor in parts of the world you’ve never been to.


What new-age spiritualist now doesn’t have healing crystals shipped from across the planet, also mined in very questionable ethics? '


Your clothes.


We all know who makes our clothes.


We are all culpable for violence on a grand scale.


And we are so comfortably removed from it that it’s easy to speak in a perfectionistic, idealistic tone about living non-violently.


But it is a facade.


In terms of protection, violence is often necessary. The story is still seared into my mind of a Texas father who (unintentionally) beat a man to death who was raping his young daughter.


Too many people stay in abusive relationships out of the conflated notion that if they are just a little nicer, a little softer, if they don’t fight back - their abuser will suddenly see the light and change.


On a micro level, cells are bursting within you constantly and muscles tear when we lift weights.


On a macro level, we literally started with a bang. An explosion. What is more violent than this?



Ok, so I’m not sharing all of this to now become utterly nihilistic, but to illustrate this deeper aspect of our reality - there is a kind of violence all around, and within us.


And, any ethical guideline is quite human created. (Though, with the orcas' apparent retaliation against yachts, they may need to come up with their own ethical code at some point as well!)


And, ethical guidelines removed from context can be conflated to mean something different than what it was perhaps originally meant to.


Whenever the first idea arose of living non-violently, perhaps thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years ago (who can really say, we now know human history is much older than previously thought.)... Whenever this idea first came to a human mind, there was certainly a context in which it arose that is vastly different from the world we live in now with all of our modern conveniences (at the cost of 3rd world thriving). And certainly, they weren’t pathologizing or psychologizing their human experience as we so regularly do now in the west.


There’s obviously the importance of adapting ethics to the modern world, but again, it’s important to adapt wholistically, and not pick-and-choose what suits us and toss the rest, or turn a blind eye to what is uncomfortable.


Most of my life I’ve been quite a passive person. For a long time I conflated anger with violence. (Who has done this? Raise your hand!) I was quite a strict vegan for about 6 years to save the animals, rode my bike for about 7 years to save the earth, made a lot of my own clothes, cut down on my consumerism to the point where once, I only produced one grocery bag of garbage over 3 months. Pretty impressive for an American.


Non-violence, as I understood it, was a huge guiding principle of mine, and it still is.


But, I was still beating myself up terribly on the inside. My inner dialogue was a horrendous bully. I have been very unkind to my body, my spirit, my mind. I was absolutely one of those people who used yoga asana to try to be more perfect. (Again, raise your hand if you’re ‘guilty’ of this too!) Thank God instagram wasn’t a thing yet during that phase of mine.


Then, studying yoga a bit more in depth, even more perfectionistic tendencies can seep in…


“Mahatma Gandhi was finally shot down. Christ was crucified, Mohammed was stoned by his opponents, the great Sufi saint Mansoor was tortured by enemies and his skin was peeled off. All these men had enemies but in India there have been many who had no enemies because they practiced ahiṃsā perfectly. The most important thing is not to oppose even violent people.”


|| Four Chapters on Freedom Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali


(Yes, I cherry-picked this excerpt from the fuller context of the book to highlight my point! And, these Sutras are picked from a much deeper context of culture, tradition and history that we in the west simply are not immersed in.)


Bring thoughts like this into a hyper-individualistic, socially-disconnected, overly-psychologized western culture generally stripped of connection to nature and spirit, and it can very easily sound like victim-blaming, saintly-martyrdom, or that even the most saintly people on earth will succumb to horrific violence. Even they are not perfect enough, so why would we even bother?


That last line, “ The most important thing is not to oppose even violent people.” literally makes my hair stand on end (horripilation) as I recall my own experiences and countless stories of friends, clients, students and others who have put up with terrible treatment out of some notion that if we just be sweeter and smile, that the violence would stop.



And I’m certain I’ve not been the only one to read lines like this and interpret through my western-lens, through my own life experience-lens and then double down on my sweetness and passivity.


Context. Matters.


Biggest Contexts? As far as we know, we literally started with a bang. Nature is violent. Survival is violent. Non-violence as an ideal is human-created.


And, we are all one. We live in a nondual reality. We are ultimately love at our very core. I, and countless others, know this to be true in our bones.


Nuance. Matters.


Anger doesn’t always equal violence.


Violence doesn’t always equal hate.


Idealized kindness means nothing when someone should be fighting for their life.


Intention. Matters.


From my vantage point - a point where I’ve chewed and stewed, wrangled and wrestled for quite some time - we must distinguish where our intentions are, and where we are pointing.


It all starts within our own internal beingness. In the bombardment of our modern world, this is too easy to overlook. To forget.



Put simply, not if, but WHEN we are complicit in violence:


Is it out of maliciousness?


Is it out of avoidance?


Is it out of ignorance?


Is it out of naïveté?


Is it out of protection?


Is it out of survival?


This matters a whole lot.


Can you feel there is a texture of directionality in all of these…


Malicious violence is the clearest of wrong violences. It’s pointed the wrong way. It’s pointed not out of love, or protection or survival.


With avoidance or turning a blind eye - we are aware enough that something is wrong, but perhaps don’t want to see reality as it is, and we feel more comfortable in our fantasy world, or we are overwhelmed and so we put our heads back in the sand. Tackling the violence of slave labor and factory farming, the pillaging of the earth’s resources - incredibly overwhelming.


With naïveté - we simply don’t know what we don’t know - this is fairly neutral.


And then what about violence out of protection? Out of survival? Or even, out of… love? Kali. Chinnamasta. Goddess archetypes that are known for their ferocity, out of a deep and reverent love. A love that is certainly beyond the human-mind. How do we reconcile this?


We slow down.


We take time to get right with our intentions.


We take time to get right with our motives.


We carve out dedicated space to reflect, pause and then move forward with greater awareness.


“It is anti-cultural to claim any space that is simply space, or to move with any kind of lingering, or to take time for closure.”


|| on Ahiṃsā in The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele


I’m an unabashedly huge proponent of people slowing TF down.

It’s something I come back to as an ‘answer’ over. And over. And over. And over.



In yoga classes, people rush through śavāsana. All. The. Time. What’s next? Smart watch is beeping. The mind is already thinking about what’s next.


In modern life, many people don’t know how to relax without alcohol or drugs. Without numbing out to Netflix or social media or food.


We often even eat violently… who eats their meals with true, savoring reverence anymore?


And our culture perpetuates this. Too many people are overworked, work in systems that don't promote taking time, where people are forced to eat on the go etc.


It is a revolutionary act to slow down and to rest.

When we slow down enough, with enough cultivated conscious awareness, there is a palpable, visceral, somatic sense that we are not in survival-mode anymore. We are no longer animals fighting for our survival (at least on the whole, sadly many individuals still are).


We are animals, we are nature…


But we are also nature experiencing herself.


Each one of us beautiful, unique individual humans… each one of us is nature, experiencing herself.


What happens when the earth experiences herself?


Yes, cheetahs must eat the impala to survive.


Kali must consume the day for night to arrive.


But, how long must her people forget they are all made of the same matter as she, and act out cruelties and turn blind eyes that cause self-destruction?


A body-mind that has turned on itself. A body-mind that is beating itself up.


This is the violence that must stop.


Viscerally.


Somatically.


Profoundly.





There is no way to be perfect about Ahiṃsā


But, what I have landed on, marinated in, submerged and immersed in is that context, nuance and intention are what matter.


And it truly starts within, because our individual, interoceptive, somatic experience is absolutely a mirror to our external shared world.


Ahiṃsā is absolutely an important guiding ideal for humanity, else we fall into self-destruction, nihilism, hedonism and unconscious darkness.

Taking time to slow down, reflect and bring greater awareness to context, nuance and intention make all the difference.

Remembering that we ARE nature, we are not our egoic-mind, identity-mind, fantasy-mind.


When we bring the context of nature, things shift.


Anyone who has spent any decent amount of time in the forest where there are predators like bears or cougars, will undoubtedly have a visceral, embodied sense of respect for the cycle of nature.


Nature is terrifically humbling. And we are an arrogant modern people.


Nature reminds us of context - these guiding virtues must be married in cosmic dance within oneself.


Particularly what comes to me with ahiṃsā is also hrī (humility) and huta (offering) - two Niyamas I plan to explore & share more on soon. 🙂


As well, this word we say at the end of yoga classes, namasté - literally translates as “reverence to you”.


People can expound on this translation, “The light in me sees and honors the light in you”.


In context, and in particular in the nondual lineage I practice within, we are all ultimately one. Every cell in my body says this is true.



And so........


If I must commit a violent act in order to eat, or pay for someone to do this on my behalf to nourish myself, let it be in deep reverence and humbleness to the greater cycle of life - which I will, sooner or later, dissolve back into as part of the vast void of possibility. Kali will consume me. My flesh and blood will become fertilizer for the earth. My bones will, perhaps, become artifacts.


May I also not look away from the gross atrocities happening on a global scale that I am inextricably a part of as a modern human. May I act in ways that help lessen these violences in ways that are available to me. In ways that I can act on, habitually, each day.


May I offer my devotion to this greater awareness.


May I slow down enough to feel the nourishment of the food I eat, appreciate the clothes I wear, and bask in the smiles and sparkling eyes and souls I meet each day.


May I slow down enough to feel the earth beneath my feet.


This earth, this beautiful earth that we take so much from without offering much respect back. This earth, that I am also made of. That you are made of.


May I slow down enough to breath. And love. And soak in my aliveness while I am here.


Xo


 


*The Yamas & Niyamas - the first two limbs of yoga as are shared in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras - are essentially a set of ethical guidelines to live by.


Most people in the west who are familiar with these know the 10 Yamas & Niyamas that are shared in most teacher trainings etc. The yoga lineage I practice within, there are 20. Over the next several weeks, I’m planning on diving into each of these 20, as I find the extra 10 can often add nuance and distinction that can sometimes feel missing from the main 10 that are known by western postural yoga practitioners.


 

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Image Credits:


Grace Nandy | Unsplash

Ahmed Galal | Unsplash

Luis Galvez | Unsplash

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