Ahimsa – ‘Non-harmfulness (harmlessness). To not wish harm to any living creature — not even to any lifeless object.’
The Hindu mystic Patanjali wrote a scripture called the Yoga Sutras, where he outlines yamas (restraints, or what one should not do) and niyamas (observances, or what one should do). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, often considered the most important.
Ahimsa is about intent first, action second. It is an attitude of universal benevolence or harmlessness. When we practice ‘himsa’ (being violent or harmful), the Hindu spirituality believes this has a negative impact on us and the living being we are hurting. Thereby resigning us to forever reliving our lives over and over again, as the ‘bad’ deposits in our karma have to be worked out.
This doesn’t mean we do not take stands on issues, nor have opinions, but we express difference of view using ahimsa.
Gandhi practiced ahimsa to help India gain independence, the buddhists in Vietnam also practiced ahimsa to bring attention to that war (some also practiced self-immolation to protest, which is NOT ahimsa, but was extraordinarily brave).
Though not many people would actually kill their fellows, it is common to find people slashing at one another with angry words, or with contemptuous glances. Even themselves.
In meditation, we realise how much ‘ahimsa’ we really have towards ourselves, others, and come face to face with our real view of the world.
Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tzu
Our thoughts play a big role in our overall wellbeing. You may be the healthiest person you know; eating well, exercising lots, drinking your green smoothies, and taking supplements you need.. doing everything ‘right’ – but if your thoughts are still harmful, you can bet you’re not feeling as good as you could.
There is a real physical downside to violent thinking and feeling. When we think negatively, our body activates fight or flight response, secreting cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’). This must then be processed by the adrenals. When we tax our adrenals too much, our immune system has no protector, making us more susceptible to illness and physical pain.
Jealousy, negative judgement, anger and resentment – directed at someone else, at ourselves – will come back to bite us physically, energetically and emotionally.
“Meditation not only works on the monkey mind, it monkeys with your mind.” Lee Carsley, WanderingYogi
We all talk to ourselves, in our head and out loud. When you goof, what do you say to yourself? When you do something well, what do you say to yourself? Nothing?
Ahimsa and self talk
Most people’s self-talk is negative – you will notice this when you become more frequent with your meditation (I thought I had most of mine sorted and was surprised to find I had not). Most of it involves the distant past, not the immediate. Although if you are keen to find the ‘right’ way you will do a lot of punishing yourself in meditation in the early days.
Meditation has you digging deep into the Atman – or soul – whether you want to or not.
Many call this negativity a ‘clearing’ of emotional debris, and if they go away (usually with a balance of introspection and change in behaviour), that is exactly what is. When we observe, we tend to highlight, our mind works it over, and we finally latch onto a behaviour or attitude that will stick.
However, negative internal narratives can escalate when meditation increases in frequency or intensity. Ignoring these is not ‘ahimsa’.
Example: you discover in meditation you are highly judgmental of others. You have hidden that for so long, you even fooled yourself. You feel really bad, you know you are supposed to not feel judgmental but even knowing this, you still keep doing it. And now everytime you meditate, it’s the first darned thought that comes to your mind. Really starting to bug you….
When the thoughts won’t go away..
For about 5% of those who start meditation, and have some long standing underlying issues that run very deep, supplanting the thought with something positive is not ‘sticking’. Your changes in behaviour are not making the thoughts go away.
Example: You have read all the articles, and are spending one day a week where the only comments you will make in public are positive ones. You are able to catch some of the negative judgment or comment, but are noticing it in just about every thought. (where you live, what you saw on TV, the coffee you just drank). You try to be positive on the outside (even though you might not much feel like it).
Your thoughts start to escalate in meditation, and you find time in the seat harder and harder. And you are starting to get worse at being judgmental!
Speak to someone who can help. Preferably a professional, at some point, although a good friend and a glass of wine is often the first place we head. And stop meditating immediately. But start it up again once you have sorted out the root cause.
Please note I am not talking about apparitions, visions of the holy ones, or sensations of being at one with the universe. Speak directly to someone who is experienced with meditation or your meditation teacher if any of these occur. Usually, you are OK (usually).
Meditation teachers are teachers of meditation, not qualified psychological counsellors, nor psychotherapists (although some may have these qualifications).
A lot teach without spiritual context, which is akin to giving a Hogwarth student a wand and telling them to make magic. The advice you get will be as good as the facts underneath them, my grandmother used to say. I would listen to my best friend first. Go see a professional. And practice ‘ahimsa’ on yourself.
No thank you, I don’t eat meat…
‘Do I have to be vegetarian or vegan to practice ahimsa?’ Ahimsa is pretty specific about not harming another living being, but this can be difficult to maintain in practice. It is, though, one of the best ways to become more conscious of being less harmful to ourselves and our environment.
When we harm others or ourselves, it loads up our karma (and not in a good way). Karma is like the bank account banks dream of – load of conditions attached to it with some pretty severe penalties for large withdrawals. If you kill something or partake in the outcomes of a killing, that is like making a withdrawal from the bank where you are also charged interest. If you unintentionally say something (like your butt looks big in that dress), which may be harmful to someone else, it would probably be a withdrawal with no interest. You put karma back into the bank account a similar way – practice the yamas, implement the niyamas, self-less service. Some of them you will get interest on the deposit, and others will just be a deposit.
Given the amount of meat we eat, Aussies eat about 111 kgs a year, the Brits about 81 kgs a year (mostly pork and beef), your karma withdrawals could send you into the red.
If having a life karma deficit doesn’t scare you (maybe it won’t if you are not a yogi), we are all energetically connected, and much has been made of the level of pesticide and GMO modified animal food and its link to the increasing amount of allergies and skin sensitivities in the world. Proving that ‘himsa’ is also bad for health.
There is always a but…
But… if cutting out certain things from your diet causes you harm, then you are not practicing ahimsa. Can you change things a little so you’re supporting environmentally friendly companies? Eat organically? Maybe eat vegan or vegetarian at least a couple of times a week? Buy fair trade?
The final word from the man himself on ahimsa…..
Ahimsa is considered one of the highest ideals in many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
WanderingYogi regularly runs breath and meditation workshops for those interested in practicing mindful meditation (shamata). You can also contact her below