“Ahimsa.” What is it, why does it matter, and how can it help us?
I first heard the word “ahimsa” in a yoga class. The instructor explained that “ahimsa” is nonviolence towards oneself and others, and that we could use “ahimsa” to guide our practice and discern when to push ourselves and when to rest. I didn’t learn until later how “ahimsa” could change my every thought and action for the better. “Ahimsa” is beautiful and it can change our lives.
Is “ahimsa” just another word for “love”?
I’ve loved the word “ahimsa” since that first time I heard it because we don’t really have an equivalent English word. The closest word in English might be “love.” But let’s be honest, when I hear someone say “love yourself,” I instantly picture the thousands of hokey self-help books and affirmation calendars available at nearly every store here in the U.S.
Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with learning to love yourself! We should love ourselves! That’s totally part of “ahimsa.” But, to me, the phrase “love yourself” has become something kitschy, garish, and commercialized. To me, “ahimsa” is pure. It’s a free term. I’ll admit, it also has some cultural connotations (Eastern, new agey, yoga, Buddhism, etc.) but I’m okay with that; at least those cultural connotations don’t leave a neurotic bad taste in my mouth.
What does “ahimsa” really mean?
“Ahimsa” is also deeper than it first appears. The dictionary definition of “ahimsa” is pretty limited:
But “ahimsa” is really much more. “Ahimsa” is a Sanksrit word. Let’s break it apart. “A” means “no” or “lack of.” The root of “himsa” is “hims,” which means “a desire to hurt, strike, or destroy.” So the dictionary doesn’t have it quite right. “Ahimsa” isn’t just a lack of physical violence; “ahimsa” is a lack of desire to be violent.
This distinction is important. The difference between an action and a desire is like the difference between the superficial and the authentic. It shifts the focus from what we do on the outside to what’s going on inside.
Does what we think really matter?
That difference raises a big question. What matters more? The outside or the inside? The answer is found in the age old question: “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” You could argue that how we act on the outside is the most important part–our actions are what actually affects other people. But what we think matters a great deal, because we only change how we act based on what we think.
Many major religions agree that we need to consider both our actions and our beliefs. Christians believe in taking action: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:17. And Christians also believe that God sees our thoughts and weighs our motives: “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” Jeremiah 17:10. God “is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. For Buddhists, two elements of the Eight Fold Path are “Right Intention,” focused on pure internal thoughts and feelings, and “Right Action,” focused on how our actions affect others. To Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as stating: “All actions are judged by motives, and each person will be rewarded according to their intention.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim)
“Ahimsa” captures both important pieces of this puzzle–what we do matters, but how we think and feel also matters. We should not neglect either half of the equation.
That’s interesting, but how can “ahimsa” help me?
Practicing “ahimsa” will change our relationships with ourselves. How often do you judge yourself harshly? Or set unrealistic expectations for yourself and then beat yourself up when you don’t meet them? I’m naturally a Type-A perfectionist, which means I’m not naturally very kind to myself. What if we could replace our negative thoughts about ourselves with thoughts like these?
- You are where you need to be. Just breathe.
- Whatever purifies you is the right path for you.
- “be easy. take your time. you are coming home. to yourself.” —the becoming | wing
- At the end of a long day, put your feet up and just BE!
- inhale peace. exhale stress. inhale calm. exhale worry.
- You are loved so very deeply by a chosen few.
- Some days, just being at home is the perfect place to be.
- You are worth whatever amount of time you need.
- “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” —Rumi
- You can do what is right for yourself. Nobody else is walking in your shoes.
- You are grateful for the cozy, little moments in life.
“Ahimsa” is having true love and honest compassion for ourselves. It’s something I am working on and getting better at! It’s not just about ignoring our own negative thoughts; it’s a way to change our hearts so we stop generating those negative thoughts at all. We can have peace if we accept ourselves as we are. We can change what we can change about ourselves, but we can also have compassion for ourselves. We can make room for ourselves to just BE. We can relax. We can take time to process what’s going on in our lives, in our families, and in the world. We can stop judging ourselves by societal expectations and start thinking about who we are and what we want to be. By using a different measuring stick, we might find it a lot easier to love ourselves. “Ahimsa” encompasses all of that.
How can “ahimsa” help my relationships with others?
Practicing “ahimsa” will change our relationships with others. Take a minute to close your eyes and think about your life. What does your dream-life look like? More importantly, what kind of person are you in your dream life? My guess is, if you’re reading this, you are compassionate and kind in your dream life. I’m compassionate and kind in my dream life too.
Then reality hits. And, in real life, I fail far too often to be compassionate or kind. I have a stressful full-time job… and a marriage… and a kid… and another kid on the way… and a pet… and a phone… and Facebook… and bills… and chores… and volunteer responsibilities… and… you get the picture. When push comes to shove, and I hit survival mode, I’m not that compassionate or kind to myself or others. I’m also not that nice when I get stubborn: when I start to think that my husband and kids and coworkers and life in general need to conform to my expectations. “Who needs freedom and autonomy? I’m in charge!” I have okay self-control. Sometimes I snap at the ones I love, but sometimes I restrain myself to just thinking passive-aggressive mean thoughts about them in my head instead. That doesn’t hurt them, right?
Maybe it doesn’t hurt them, but it hurts me. When I’m stubborn and judgmental and mean (for whatever reason), I’m NOT happy. If I was a little stressed and unhappy before, I’m ten times as unhappy after I snap at and hurt the people I love. I’m eight times as unhappy after I choose to generate negative thoughts about the ones I love. Ghandi said: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” “Ahimsa” is about treating others with kindness and compassion and about feeling real compassion for others. How often do religions teach us to love one another? Even our enemies. That is “ahimsa.”
Long story short, practicing “ahimsa” is about loving ourselves and loving others in both our actions and even in our thoughts. It’s not easy. And it’s always a journey. But it will make us happy. It will bring us JOY.
Now that we know what “ahimsa” is, how do we get started actually practicing “ahimsa”? See my next post for practical tips to start practicing “ahimsa.” Thanks for reading!
Please leave comments and questions below! I’d love to hear what you think about “ahimsa.”