Doing No Harm to Self and Others
In its most elemental form, the Sanskrit word Ahimsa means “to cause no harm.” It’s a value that exists in many world religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam. Ahimsa gained popularity among laymen (particularly those outside Asia) when Mahatma Gandhi became a leader in the South Asian subcontinent’s fight for independence from British Colonial rule. From then on, ahimsa took on the narrower meaning of “non-violence towards others.” When we return to the purest form of the word, ahimsa represents the practice of non-violence towards all living beings. Ourselves included.
To not cause harm to ourselves requires us to be compassionate towards ourselves. But too often, we are our own worst critics. Voices and standards internalized from our past, reprimand us, day in and day out, for not doing enough, for making mistakes, for disappointing others… the list of negative judgments goes on. Lack of compassion for ourselves takes a toll on our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth, and our overall sense of well-being. It’s not easy to practice self-compassion. Many of us have been conditioned to do the exact opposite.
Ahimsa represents the practice of non-violence towards all living beings. Ourselves included.
What are some ways of practicing ahimsa towards ourself? Fortunately, the answers are not all that different from how we practice ahimsa towards others. Modern day discourse around Mindfulness offers us tools to be compassionate towards all living beings. It includes the practice of Acceptance and Willingness.
Acceptance of experiences we have, both internal and external to ourselves, without passing judgment, and
Willingness to experience the present moment no matter how uncomfortable or pleasurable it may be; and to do so without giving in to the urge to control what is not ours to control.
Meditations, guided or not, help us practice acceptance of our thoughts and feelings. They help us create some distance between our Self and these internal experiences so we may,
Realize that our Self is not defined by our thoughts and feelings,
Deepen our understanding of what triggers our thoughts and feelings, and
Intentionally chose to act in a way that is in line with our values rather than being driven by these thoughts and feelings.
Relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, help us practice willingness in the face of both uncomfortable and pleasurable experiences by maintaining a state of equanimity. Deep breathing kick starts our parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore over-rides the fight/flight/freeze response of the sympathetic nervous system. It allows us to maintain an emotional sense of equilibrium even when we feel triggered.
Practicing ahimsa is a daily choice to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
When we can begin to practice greater ahimsa towards ourselves, it will become easier to practice ahimsa towards others. Too often, how we treat others, is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. If we are harsh to ourselves for not meeting our own standards, others are also likely to experience a bitter tongue lashing when they do not meet our standards. If we minimize our own discomfort, others may also find it difficult to experience genuine empathy in our presence. If we do not allow ourselves flexibility in the path we follow to pursue our goals, others are also likely to feel stifled by our limited perspective on what is or is not acceptable. Practicing ahimsa is a daily choice to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
If you would like support in the path to practicing greater ahimsa, reach out for assistance from a licensed clinician at Bodh Center for Wellness. In the meantime, continue learning about this subject with some of these easy reads:
What is Ahimsa? by Rina Deshpande
What is Ahimsa? by Sejal Shah