Ahimsa, or non-violence is another of the Yoga moral codes. Like all the others, the principle of balance as described by the three Gunas must be applied. There are some people who take Ahimsa to a Rajasic, extreme, state where they make certain that no harm is done to any living creature in any action, going as far as sweeping the ground in front of them before they step so not even an insect is injured. On the other hand, some follow various sects that take Ahimsa to a Tamasic, passive, state and allow themselves to undergo great sufferings and pains, such as flailing or starvation, without any concern to their well being and not reacting in any way to these sufferings. Yet, it is more likely that the idea of Ahimsa should be applied to our lives in a balanced way, in a sattvic state, between the two extremes. To act with non-violence in a balanced way means to act with the intention of doing no harm to others while also not allowing others to do harm to you.
Just what does it mean to do no harm to others? It is obvious that physically harming someone, stealing from someone, killing someone are all clearly harmful. Yet, there are more subtle ways of harming someone. One of the most common, and subtle, ways that we harm other people is almost never even thought of and can create injuries more deep, more damaging than any physical injury. What is this often overlooked way of hurting people? It is what I will call “hurtful words.”
The Power Of Words
Words have an incredible power. Words can have a life force of their own and can continue to live within a person for hours after they are said, and sometimes, even years. Each time we speak we put energy into the words we are saying, giving them their own life force. The words than pass to the person we are speaking to and become part of this person. Words spoken with good intention, love and filled with good energy enter a person’s mind like a beautiful flower that brings light into the person’s life, allows them to grow and become a better person. On the other hand, words with negative energy enter in a person’s mind are like a terrible weed - they take root, grow wildly devouring space and resources and block the light out. It can take hours for a person to uproot one of these weeds, and sometimes, they take such deep root that they affect a person for their entire lifetime.
I work as an energy healer using my gift to remove from people negative energy that has been deeply rooted, and often forgotten, that creates negative behavioral patterns in their life. While some of the negative energy is the result of a traumatic experience, most of the time they are the result of words, usually spoken when the person was a child. One person I worked with was told her by a father repeatedly that she could not sing. After several sessions with me we were able to bring these memories to the surface and to remove these powerful negative words from her mind. Once the hurtful words were removed, she began singing lessons and within a year she discovered that she has a magnificent voice and soon will probably be singing on Broadway. Her ability to sing was always there, but the hurtful words that she didn’t even remember anymore were stopping her from even trying to sing.
I can relate many other stories from my clients where hurtful words that were spoken by parents, partners, teachers, etc. become deeply buried and created negative patterns in these people’s lives that lasted years. Some of the most powerful hurtful words are things like “You are ugly”, “You are not beautiful”, “You will never be able to…”, “I hate you”, “You are stupid”. These words are often said in anger by the average person, but they are also often said by people who are trying to gain control over someone by destroying their self image, their inner strength.
Even the less powerful hurtful words, such as “How could you be so stupid to…” or “Don’t you know how to…” or “How could you forget..”, when spoken with a negative energy can still can have a powerful effect on someone’s life. Imagine that you live with someone who every hour says just one of these less hurtful words. These words make you question yourself, your abilities, and attack your self worth. If you are strong person, you will root these words out of your mind in anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Let us say it takes you an hour to root these words out of your mind. Well, as soon as you have rooted one of these words out of your mind, the person you live with is due to say another set of hurtful words, and, just as you are recovering from the last group of hurtful words, you find yourself working on a new set.
You can see that living with someone who says hurtful words just five or ten times a day can be enough to put you into a cycle where you spend almost all of your time with that person rooting out the words they are saying. Of course, the person who is saying these hurtful words feels great, because as soon as they release the negative energy within them through these words they feel relieved and better. Normally, a person who says hurtful words doesn’t even think about a few minutes after they say them. This is one of the reasons that Samtosha, contentment is so important. When you are content you can have more control over what you say and are less likely to speak hurtful words.
Eventually, if you live long enough with someone who says these less hurtful words they can take root and create a negative change on the way you feel about yourself and affect your ability to function. If you are in a situation like this, it is important to try to work with the other person to help the learn how to stop saying the hurtful words, or to get out of this situation. Why? Because, part of what Ahimsa means is that you don’t allow yourself to be hurt by others. Ahimsa gives us permission to protect ourselves.
Now, with an understanding of how hurtful words affect us, we now must turn it around and begin to think about how our own hurtful words affect others. This is perhaps one of the most important parts of Yoga – the ability to become aware of our actions. Once we have become aware of our actions, than we must gain control over them. I will leave the discussion on how to create change for another article.
There is still one important part of Ahimsa and that is intention. Sometimes, we act with love and only good intentions, but our actions still are hurtful. We tell someone something to protect them or help them, but the words upset the person. Or, we reach over to help someone stand and instead accidentally bump into them and knock them over. No matter how hard we try, interaction with other people is so complex that we cannot always predict the outcome of our actions and sometimes we will unintentionally hurt someone else. The important thing is that all of our actions are done from love of the other person, from goodness and kindness.
The idea of good intention and not saying hurtful words must go together. Often, people say hurtful words and than justify these words by saying that they had good intentions – they only wanted to help the other person. This is usually associated with the idea that a person wants to teach someone how to be a "better" person. If someone leaves their clothes on their floor, they are given a lecture on how lazy and sloppy they are to help them become a better person. The intentions of the lecture are to "help" this person. The truth is, these lectures have very little to do with improving the person, these lectures are given to change something about a person that someone does not want to live with. A person usually does not give lectures on being sloppy or lazy because they really want to help the other person - they give the lecture because they are tired of cleaning up after them. The motives of such speeches are completely for oneself.
Of course, there are situations where lectures and pressure are in the best interest of another person. If someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or they have behavioral patterns that hurt themselves or others, clearly in these cases it is in the person’s best interest to talk to them about changing. The key here is that the behavior is harmful, either to themselves or to others.
We can see that the idea of hurtful words and intention do go together. Telling someone that they are lazy, forgetful, thoughtless, uncaring, etc. are all hurtful words. Even if they are said with good intention, i.e. to help "improve" the person, the hurtful words will create a negative affect. There is an amazing difference in the affect that “Please, honey, could you put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of the floor” has than “Would you stop being such a lazy pig dropping your dirty clothes all over the damn floor!”. It is not just the words, it is the energy that is in the words. In the first sentence you can feel compassion, love, patience, in the second, you can feel anger and inpatience. What life force are you giving to your words, positive or negative? It takes time to learn new habits, have patience and speak from love instead of anger and you will amazed at the changes a person can make.
Non-Violence and the Universe
Does Ahimsa just apply to the interaction between human beings? No, it applies to all interactions with everything in the universe. There is a connection between all things in the universe, and creating harm to any of them can put negative energy into the world. If a calf spends its life in a small pen unable to move and in pain so that it’s meat will be tender, could you imagine that the animal’s sufferings would not somehow become part of the animal's meat? If the animal is killed in way that is painful the animal’s body will react to the pain with hormones, a change in heart rate and various other changes that will in turn will affect the levels of sugars and other elements in the animals blood. This is the “fight or flight” reaction that creates changes in the animal’s body. Do you think the energy of food from an animal that was killed while having this reaction is positive?
Most people who believe in the principle of Ahimsa are vegetarians for these reasons. Kosher meat is from animals that are slaughtered in a specific way so they do not suffer and seems to also have an understanding that an animal's suffering can become part of the animal's meat. Once again, this is about becoming aware of what we are doing. Instead of eating anything without any thought about what the food is, where it came from, and, if it was an animal we are eating, what suffering it felt to become our dinner, we now move toward awareness of what we are eating. Awareness of our what we eat is more than just learning about nutrition, it is about understanding if the food we are eating was created in a way that was positive or destructive.
It is not just meat that can be produced with a negative energy. Crops that are grown with pesticides that pollute streams and lakes and kills off many animals also have a destructive, negative energy associated with them. Ahimsa is about non-violence to the universe, too, and therefore it means that we should not buy products that result in the destruction of the nature. Sometimes crops are grown with exploited labor, paying very low wages and terrible working conditions. Ahimsa is not just about your direct actions, for example, the words you say and what you physically do to others, it is also about your indirect actions. Often, indirect actions are hidden from us, and our intentions are good and we cannot be held responsible. But, if we know that the meat we are eating is from an animal that suffered in both life and death, if we know that the produce we buy was grown using deadly pesticides, if we know the clothes we are buying was made by exploited labor, than we are promoting something that creates suffering.
This doesn’t mean that you should starve yourself because you are not sure where your food is coming from, or that you should not eat if the only food available is food that may been created with negative consequences. Not eating is creating harm for yourself, and not harming yourself clearly takes precedence.
The Power of Thought
So far, we have discussed non-violence in our actions and our words, but what about our thoughts? Most people do not realize the power of their thoughts. Some people have very powerful minds whose thoughts are capable of affecting people around them. If you dwell on something someone did in your mind, thinking angry thoughts toward that person, you release large amounts of negative energy directed toward that person. The reverse is also true, concentrating loving, caring positive thoughts toward a person can make have a positive effect on a person. Praying for someone who is sick to get better is an example of where you are concentrating positive energy toward a person, and sometimes this can make a large positive difference in their health.
It takes a great deal of discipline to control your actions and words and controlling your thoughts is something very advanced. Yet, we can all follow a path that begins with us becoming aware of our actions and the effects our actions have, than learning to control our actions and words, and eventually, we can learn to control our thoughts, too.
In conclusion, we see that the principle of non-violence teaches us that we must be careful of our actions, our words and our thoughts so that they do not harm others or ourselves.