Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the first and most important of the yamas: when you’ve got ahimsa down, all the other yamas will fall into place. Swami Satchidananda describes ahimsa as not causing pain or harm; he says, “Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing. Even by your words, even by your thoughts, you can cause pain” (126). This is an important point. There are three main ways to be violent: physically, verbally, and mentally. You might think, “But I’m not a violent person! I don’t punch people, I don’t say mean things!”, but we all have the capacity for violence in our thoughts. Every violent action taken or word spoken started out as a thought, and even if that thought never makes it that far, it’s still hanging around in your head, causing tension, causing pain. In practicing ahimsa, we should strive not to cause pain even to ourselves, and this is the really hard part.
Pantanjali has some suggestions for us about how to deal with these negative thoughts. He tells us, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of” (book 2, v. 33). When we feel hatred and anger, then, we should try to feel love instead. Easier said than done, of course. Both Satchidananda and Nischala Devi give the example of a married couple who are arguing, when their child crawls up or cries in another room. Most likely, their anger will dissipate when they go to their child and hug him, because they’ve been reminded of love in the midst of their anger.
Satchidananda has this to say about how negative thoughts affect us: “But even before the other person is affected by my anger, I will be affected. I’ll shake up my nerves. My blood will boil” (128). There might be something satisfying about getting good and mad, sure, but is it actually pleasant to feel that way? Not for me.
I feel like I struggle with my temper all the time, but for a very long time, I never even used the word “anger”. I would say, “I’m so annoyed at my boyfriend, he never washes the dishes”, or “That parking ticket really upset me.” But what I really felt was anger – blood boiling rage! And for some reason I wouldn’t admit it even to myself. Maybe I don’t want to see myself as an angry person, but anger is still going to be there. Not admitting to the anger doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it harder for me to deal with the anger and become a less angry person. Now when I’m angry, I at least try to notice it, and say to myself, “Wow, I’m angry!” Then that opens the door for me to do something about my anger.
If I’m not getting mad about something happening right now, then I find myself getting mad about something that happened days or months or years ago. I’ll find myself standing there in the shower, holding the soap and not even doing anything, getting mad all over again about that stupid parking ticket from 2005. This doesn’t do me any good. I’m making myself late, ruining my experience of a perfectly nice shower, and getting all tense and worked up over something that’s past. Or, if I’m not getting angry about something long ago, then I’m getting worried about something that hasn’t happened yet, imagining how things could go wrong and how angry I’ll be! I make up these long stories about how the man at the post office will be mean or how my friend will forget to invite me to her party, and I get all worked up about something that never even happened and is never likely to happen. My friends are thoughtful, and I know the man at the post office (his name is Pete, and he’s kind of gruff but never nasty!). So what good does all of that anger do me? I squinch up my shoulders and get a crick in my neck, and that’s just the physical effects. What’s worse is that my mind is disturbed, sometimes all day, sometimes such that it’s hard to concentrate on my work. Sometimes I’ll be so busy yelling at someone in my head that I end up actually yelling at my husband when all he wanted to know is when we’re going to start dinner. This is a violent habit! It causes harm to me by affecting my moods, and it causes harm to those around me by making me grumpy and peevish. It’s a habit I really want to change.
Instead of defining ahimsa as “non-violence,” Devi defines it as “reverence and love for all.” I think this is a nice thought: it’s one thing to say, “don’t be violent, don’t cause harm,” but sometimes it’s easier to change a behavior by focusing on what to do instead – like Patanjali says, to think of the opposite, positive thing. Now when I’m worked up about how my friend was inconsiderate, I try to remind myself about how busy she is at work right now or planning her wedding or traveling lately, and how good a friend she’s been to me in the past and how much I care about her, and then I realize that it wasn’t a personal insult, she probably just forgot. (I’m still working on loving the airport traffic cop who wrote that parking ticket, but hopefully throughout this training process I can get there.)
I think I have a lot more in me to say about ahimsa, so consider this part 1. (It really is time for dinner!)