Ahimsa in an aggressive world

The Yamas are five moral codes and the first guides of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Ahimsa is the first of the five Yamas. The word Himsa is translated as violence. The addition of an “A” changes himsa (violence) to no violence or non-violence. So the short meaning of Ahimsa is non-violence, an instruction to live in a non-violent manner.

Ahimsa may be the most important of the Yamas. This is because the other four Yamas hinge on this first guide. After all, if we practice Ahimsa the result is a smoother journey with the other Yamas. It may make us more truthful (Satya), avoid stealing (Asetya), reduce excess (Brahmacharya), and be less possessive (Aparigraha).

Ahimsa is never Going all Jack Nicholson on your fellow driver
Is “going all Jack Nicholson” with a golf club in a road rage more violent than other harmful actions?

Today we live in a very aggressive world. Being a little forceful here or acting out a little road rage there probably would not be seen as violent. It is easy to claim that we are not violent and that we practice Ahimsa because violence is such a strong word. Laying on the horn because someone cut us off doesn’t seem as “violent” as going all Jack Nicholson on someone’s windshield in a road rage with a golf club.

The lines become more blurred when we examine the concept of Ahimsa. What our society considers a “normal reaction to stress” becomes indistinguishable from true anger, violence and aversion. Anger, rudeness, disrespect and personal attacks become commonplace. Our harmful words and actions become normalized.

When we examine the aggressive nature of our culture it is harder to parse out simple ugliness and full blown violence. The “I win and you lose” is a tenet of everything from sports to capitalism. We end up in the danger zone of harm to others, as well harm to ourselves.

Ahimsa in a larger, social context asks us to do no harm. That automatically broadens the definition to include others, ourselves, and everything in our world. Non-violence becomes less tolerant of all harm. Ahimsa asks us to consider others and ourselves before taking any action that might cause harm. Ahimsa sheds light on how we individually create an increasingly violent, aggressive world. Practicing Ahimsa helps us change it.

Yoga Sutra I.23 – Getting out of your own way

I’ve always been really curious how one can learn to discern the point where “right” becomes “wrong,” where white starts to bleed grey before becoming black. It is not always so clear cut! I want to know – when does mind-centered determination need to give way to surrender?

How do we know when the contentment of santosha is wrong thinking in disguise? Is there a way to discern the right choice and the right direction in life? Who just asked all those questions anyway? Was it my small mind or my big mind? Early Homo sapiens probably pondered their own variation of these thoughts 200,000 years ago and before. Now, here I am with that same old monkey mind!

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras follows a most interesting format by dividing the sutras or threads into four padas (translated as footprint or step from Sanskrit), providing the backstory to enlightenment, steps to practice, the progression of the yogani, and how liberation is achieved.

In the first pada of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali is describing Samadhi and the theories of yoga. At I.22 Patajali states that the speed with which one arrives is based on whether one employs mild, moderate or intense practice. But then he cuts right to the chase with I.23.

Īśvara-pranidhānād va || I.23 ||

Īśvara – pure awareness, the ideal awareness, God, the Supreme Lord, the Almighty
praṇidhānād – surrender all actions, devotion
vā – OR, ALSO

I believe the meaning and the importance of this sutra is more pronounced because of the Sanskrit word OR (va). A true listener will sit up in their seat when an orator says “you can go this way, that way… OR if you want to just arrive at your destination, do this.” Patanjali is saying Isvara can be attained immediately by surrendering the self, the ego, i.e., getting out of your own way.

Chip Hartranft, in his extensive commentary and translation of the Yoga Sutras, discusses I.23 this way:

Realization may ALSO come if one is oriented toward the idea of pure awareness. Ishvara.

B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Life (p. 261) describes the importance of Īśvara-praṇidhānda va and tells us what it is not, :

“[Īśvara-praṇidhāna va] is the most theistic of all aspects of yoga. Īśvara is Divinity in a general and nondenominational sense. What it definitely does not mean is using the ego to second-guess the will of God. It is, on the contrary, the surrender, through meditation (dhyāna) and devotion (bhakti), of the ego itself.”

Iyengar references I.23 in the closing lines of his book, Core of the Yoga Sutras this way:

“From cita-sakti, the yogi has to move from the four established aims towards the realization of the atman, to surrender totally to God. His journey moves him from citta-prasadana to atma-prasadana and from atma-prasadana to Isvara-pranidhana. Here culminates yoga-marga.”

These ideas combined as a line of reasoning and give me several take homes or points of view to ponder in relation to my original inquiry. We cannot second-guess the will of God. That should mean I can now afford to get out of my own way by eliminating doubt, uncertainty or operating from a lack of saucha (purity of thought).

Chip Hartranft’s translation of the Sutras closes with “… the power of pure seeing. That is all.” For me, yoking the concept of the power of pure seeing and “getting out of our own way” resonated as a potential answer to the opening questions and also addresses the inquiry I bring to my own yoga practice.

What remains for me is another question: what tools or concepts do we really have to help us see the moment when “right” starts to turn “wrong” and we begin to see the “white” turning to the proverbial  “black?” I understand the concepts of not second-guessing God, meditating and surrendering the ego – and the difficulty inherent in that path. The problem is made real everyday when we have to confront situations of loss, betrayal, selfishness, thoughtlessness, and dealing with the suffering we cause our selves and others.

The final answer most certainly is found along the yoga path. I still feel that the dividing line between right and wrong may move ahead of me like the mirage of wavy lines on a hot asphalt highway. As I trudge down the long road to freedom and enlightenment, I am expecting (hoping?) that what feels like giving in to someone else’s “wrong feeling” position today will look more like acceptance tomorrow. What feels like my righteous demands will give way to acquiescence. My own mind will still need to try to determine what is right and wrong. And my hand will still need to bravely draw an emotional boundary as a form of personal ahimsa. The load will become lighter, the path more defined. The monkey mind will become still and free from the need to know today what will be tomorrow’s present moment.