Ahiṃsā is a practice that leads to enlightenment, a state of consciousness said to be beyond words. However words and phrases such as ‘spacious,’ ‘illuminated,’ ‘truth bearing,’ ‘non-identification with one’s mental whirlings,’ and/or ‘the eighth limb- samadhi,’ are often used to describe it. It is beautiful that there are so many ways to describe what is said to be indescribable.
Ahiṃsā is the first step of the five parts of Yama which is the first limb, or part of the eight limbs that make up Maharishi Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga system ending in enlightenment. It is the first step of the first step. While all the limbs are important and work together as a system, it is revelatory to study their order, what comes first, last, just before, just after etc.
The word Ahiṃsā means not to cause harm. Hiṃsā means harm and the short a in front negates, stands apart and is against that which follows it.
Ahiṃsā is both a strong and noble wish deep inside one’s heart/mind not to cause harm and the practice of acting according to that wish. Over time the wish deepens and our capacity to express it expands. Yama also means twin, addressing the relationship of self with other. The practice is one of refraining from harming the other. The second step in Maharishi Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga system is Niyama, which is made up of five practices that cultivate a non-harmful and positive relationship with oneself. In some ways Niyama forms a foundation for Yama perhaps because it is when we hurt ourselves, we project this in our actions outwardly. In Maharishi Patanjali’s yoga system Yama comes first, yet, the first two limbs work together and create balance. As corny as it may sound, being our own friend is key to being a friend to others.
Sometimes Ahiṃsā is translated as “loving kindness”, putting it in the positive rather than the negative; something to do, rather than refrain from, but it is good to keep in mind the word itself and thereby reflect on how we cause harm. Accountability is crucial on any kind of spiritual practice. How else can we know and work with ourselves? It is this holding oneself accountable that leads to freedom and change.
There are many ways we cause harm. It’s daunting to think about what our footprint can become. Thus, the work of interest to yoga practitioners is to minimize the harm one causes; a practice that is never ending. It can take shape in veganism, activism, conscious consumerism, and/-or an email drafted several times before hitting the send button. The practice can be private; quietly trying to live in harmony, or more public as in being a teacher or leader. It cultivates a way of life that radiates an energy of love and gratitude that can melt harshness in the atmosphere. It includes thoughts, words and deeds. Whatever way you embrace your practice, no one else can do it for you, nor take it from you, it is your own and it is continuous. It might start with your immediate surroundings, those near and dear to you, but the practice itself is not limited to those you like or particularly care for, it is expansive and includes others whom you may be neutral towards and or even dislike. It may be difficult at times to hold back from lashing out etc. and this is where practice can offer the time and space and change in mind set much needed to bring oneself back to a calmer and more natural disposition. At times it may feel like we don’t have love to offer, but at least we can find it within ourselves not to want to cause harm. Through the practice one discovers within themselves the potential for solving one’s problems (the ups, downs and bumps) in peaceful ways and one will want to bring that out more and more. It is not a religious practice or one that belongs to a particular group of people, nor is it academic or lacking a devotional element. It is a path to seeing God face to face or in all the faces.
Sometimes it is best to do nothing. Paul Watson, the Canadian environmentalist, also known as the Sea Shepherd, often says that if we just left the ocean alone, didn’t fish from it or dump toxic waste in it, within fifty years many dying plants and animal species would regenerate themselves. Similarly, to hold back from saying something unkind can lead to an unexpected and beautiful surprise.