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
You may be the healthiest person you know; eating well, exercising lots, drinking your green smoothies, taking supplements you need.. doing everything ‘right’ – but if your thoughts are 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.
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
Meditation not only works on the monkey mind, it monkeys with your mind.” Lee Carsley, WanderingYogi
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.
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: In meditation, you discover you are actually a bit of a pessimist. You think a lot of bad things are going to happen, and they always happen to you. This will surprise your friends and probably even your family, you have done such a great job of hiding it. You feel really bad about feeling bad! And now you can’t help noticing, every day, as you put on your happy face, how down you really are. Every time you meditate, it’s the first darned thought that comes to your mind. And you just can’t get away from it. Now you are looking for excuses (bright shiny ones, not my dog or my child is sick) to not come to meditation classes.
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, you will try and supplant the thought with something positive, it might stick. Or you will ignore it as a temporary aberration, brought on by meditation, stop the meditation, and it may go away.
But the moment you head back to meditation, it will be there waiting for you. So now you just say ‘meditation is not for me’.
Speak to someone who can help. Preferably a psych professional, although a good friend and a glass of wine is often the first place we head. Stop meditating. Start it up again once you have sorted out the root cause. Meditation teachers are not qualified psychological counsellors, nor psychotherapists (although some may have these qualifications), and should not be offering advice in this area.
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