Everyone is searching for peace –peace within themselves, with others, in their environments, and in their homes. Still, somehow peace escapes out the back door, and continues to elude people. The search for peace faces multiple obstacles along the way that block the path and keep serenity at bay. One supporting mechanism to finding peace now is through the practice of ahimsa.
Ahimsa, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is one of the five yamas, or ethical practices, that together form the first limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga. While often translated as non-killing, the concept carries more nuance and depth.
Sri Swami Satchidananda describes ahimsa as not causing pain. What he means by that is not causing pain in thought, word, and deed. While many think of this as an externally focused practice, it is just as much an inside job, because neglecting the practice of ahimsa towards one’s self can create harm to others.
Practicing ahimsa in one’s every day life may seem simple at first. On the surface it appears easy to not harm others and cause them pain. People easily identify avoiding physical harm, using words unwisely like slandering another person, and other deeds that appear to overtly create pain and harm to another person.
This makes the initial layer of the practice easy for many to adopt. But the practice is deeper. First the practice should include beings other than human beings. This includes not killing or harming insects, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, and even being mindful of the treatment of plants and trees.
Second, the practice should include the way our words and deeds affect others in subtle ways to cause harm that may otherwise not be obvious to us. The effects of our actions on others are subtle and easily missed if we are not mindful of another person’s perspective and the potential ripples our actions may create.
While we may have the best of intentions, beautiful intentions do not always result in beautiful action. It is this delicate balance that makes practicing ahimsa a true art, rather than a hard science.
While practicing ahimsa with word and deed can be challenging in subtle ways, even more difficult is the practice of ahimsa in thought. The ego rarely comes up with something nice to say about another person. It often moves us into a place of survival, protection, and defensiveness automatically without even taking pause.
When I started to watch my own thoughts I discovered that negative messages that were harming me were sneakily sliding into what otherwise appeared to be efforts to be productive. For example, when trying to get myself to focus on something like my research for my dissertation, I would tell myself internally that I was banned from checking e-mail or prohibited from calling a friend back so I would finish the task.
This harsh language with myself set me up for an uncomfortable reality where I felt like doing my dissertation or any other task was punishment. It drained all the enjoyment out of things I needed to spend my time on that I truly loved. Sometimes it caused rebellious behavior in me as I rebelled against my harsh instructions to focus and checked my e-mail anyway, like a teenager rebelling against her parents. In the end, this harsh internal language to myself was not helping me be productive, nor nurturing me.
And the ripple effects it created were probably more harmful than I am even aware of now, and a pattern I continue to watch and slowly undo.
It is said that when the Buddha and other saints practiced ahimsa in the forest, animals would only kill if they were hungry and would otherwise dwell peacefully together. The practice and non-practice of ahimsa I believe has more subtle energetic affects on the environment and relationships around us than we realize, especially with ourselves.
SriDharma Mittra always emphasizes that what we focus our thought on is also where we direct our prana energy. As a result, it is key that we are sensitive to where we are directing prana. In the end, if someone wants to truly experience peace with others, with his or her environment, and above all within his or herself, ahimsa is an essential element in unlocking the serenity we seek.