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Ahimsa- The Yama of Love
Ahimsa “non-harming” is the first of the Yamas to be listed in the Yoga Sutras and is probably the most universally known and discussed of these precepts. I would also say that this Yama is the most misunderstood. It’s a great word to toss around in yoga class, but putting it into practice requires all of our courage, strength, powers of mind, and humility.
Ahmisa is a very challenging idea for the normal processes of the human mind. We tend to like clean and simple answers. We tend to like a universal approach to every situation. "When A happens I always do B." But life is not black and white. Life is a sliding scale of varying shades of grey. How do we create an action or a behavior that in each unique situation does not harm anyone involved in the dynamic, including ourselves? Not an easy task, and we all succeed and fail with this every day.
To simplify things a bit, there is a very simple question we can ask:
“What is the most loving thing to do?”
The loving thing, as you may have already guessed, is not always the easy thing. The loving thing can feel wonderful, such as when we console a loved one, or when we pet our cat, or when we give what we love to the world. The Buddha would call this “Right Action”, and as I always say to clients, sometimes the Right Action or “loving thing to do” feels great and sometimes it really sucks. Sometimes it means making that phone call you don’t want to make, or standing up for yourself even when your knees are shaking, or maybe turning down a short term pleasure for longer term happiness. Ahmisa is a full contact Yama. We have to engage with it and we have to bring in the full power of our intellect and discernment to decide what the loving action actually is in each situation.
This requires some critical thought.
For example, sometimes the loving thing to do is tell someone the honest truth. They need to hear it, and you need to say it. Telling the truth helps the situation heal. Telling the truth is the loving thing to do.
But sometimes telling the truth can cause harm. They don’t really need to hear it, and you don’t really need to say it. Telling the truth causes further suffering in the situation. Telling the truth in this case is not the loving thing to do.
Sometimes the loving thing to do is to buy ourselves a new shirt. We have the money, we love the shirt, and it feels loving to make the purchase.
Sometimes the loving thing to do is to window shop. We don’t really have the money or by buying it we’re adding to unnecessary debt and financial stress. Or we know we’re buying it for the short-term rush and it will just sit in the closet with the tags on. It doesn’t feel loving to make the purchase.
The universal factors: Our discernment in a unique moment and situation asking, “what is the loving thing to do?”
You see, there’s no universal prescription. The Yamas, particularly Ahimsa, require our engagement and participation. We have to consider the dynamics of each situation and act accordingly. What is the most loving thing to do? Not “what’s the easiest thing to do?” or “what’s the action that will make me look really good?” or “what’s the action that makes everyone like me?” Those are all expressions of ego-based vanity and fear, not love. Those questions will always lead to suffering.
The loving action, while in the short term can be difficult, always leads to long-term happiness. The loving action helps us to create healthy boundaries and self-discipline. The loving action brings us into conscious contact with who we really are. Love is the foundation of what we are. To behave in a way that loves is to act in congruence with the essence of our beings. And Ahmisa teaches us, ruthless kindness, what love really is.