A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Thoughts on the Concept of Non-Violence

There’s a powerful concept that I learned about years ago; in Sanskrit the term for this concept is Ahimsa. Ahimsa can be roughly translated as the practice of non-violence or non-harm to all beings. At it’s simplest, one practices Ahimsa by intentionally choosing to refrain from physical violence or from speech that is hurtful. And because the practice of Ahimsa applies to all beings, you also apply it to yourself – to refrain from activities that are likely to cause yourself physical harm and to refrain from thoughts that are hurtful.

Non-violence can be practiced in multiple ways. Choosing to not strike or otherwise physically attack someone is an easy example. Non-violence also refers to emotional harm, such as refraining from words that are intentionally hurtful. And some people choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, with the goal of avoiding harm to animals.

It sometimes seems harder to apply the concept of Ahimsa to myself, though. As a “type A” personality, I have regularly “beat myself up” for mistakes that I’ve made, letting regrets disrupt my ability to be present in the here and now. I’ve also resolved to not attempt to “break” a bad habit. Now, I aim to create new habits that allow an undesired or no-longer-useful habit to dissolve on its own. And more recently, I’ve recognized that even in Yoga practice, I need to balance my desire to be stronger, more flexible and mobile, and to be a more skilled practitioner with the gentle recognition of embracing who I am and not judging myself against my image of an “ideal” yogi. That doesn’t mean giving up or not practicing, but it does mean patience and to recognize those thoughts as simply not useful or helpful.

For an entertaining lecture on the concept of Ahimsa, click here to watch an hour-long video of Kofi Bosia, speaking in 2014 at the Yogaville ashram in Virginia.

The more I explore Ahimsa, though, the more I realize how radical a concept this really is. It’s easy to avoid direct harm, but what indirect harm to myself or others might I be causing by my inaction? For example, my instinct to protect someone and to shield them from harm could possibly stunt their own personal growth and resilience. A child, for example, needs to experience imbalance and even to fall as part of learning to walk or ride a bike. Speaking truth to someone, even in the spirit of kindness, can cause temporary pain but serve the greater good. And if you or I see violence between two others, we may be faced with the question of whether its ethical to harm one person to avoid a greater harm to others. Ahimsa forces us to think about the implications of our inaction as well as our action, and to apply judgment in minimizing harm versus fully avoiding causing any harm at all.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists Ahimsa as the first of the “yamas” (ethical practices). All of the other ethical practices arise from this basic concept: truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-hoarding. Ahimsa is a life-long practice that can probably never be “perfect”, but it can reflect one’s intent to embody the concept. It’s something to play with and to explore. We also have to recognize that we may not be able to fully understand the secondary or tertiary implications of our actions. So paradoxically, applying ahimsa to ourselves can mean that once we’ve taken care to choose a path, to then trust our intentions rather than to endlessly second-guess the down-stream impacts and become paralyzed with inaction.

Article by Deborah Kirkman