“Ahimsa and Truth are as my two lungs. I cannot live without them.” - Mahatma Gandhi
After a multi-year relationship ended, I finally got up the courage to not only go on dates, but also open my heart. Seeking consolation after a particularly memorable bee sting to my heart, a good friend told me, “Of course things didn’t work out. He is not only way too smart for you, but also more interesting. Not to mention your hair looks like a rat’s nest and your biceps are too small.”
A bit harsh, yeah? In truth, this was no friend at all, but actually the voice of my inner critic. When explained in this context, the story is more believable. Not only are we harsh to ourselves, but we normalize the behavior.
Ahimsa, a well known precept in Jainism and Yoga Philosophy, is an observance of non-violence or compassion. This observance is universal, meaning an outward practice towards the world is equally important as an inward practice to oneself. In other words, abate the negative self talk.
We say things to ourselves we would never consider saying to anyone else. The habit of being self punitive is the most opposite act of Ahimsa we can do. A relative of mine suffers from leg and foot ulcers as a result of a genetic condition called lymphedema. She is also a farmer, and often walks through knee-high stagnant canal water to tend to the land. When I heard this, I literally cringed, thinking of the risk and harm to her body. But we lack the same visceral response and disparagement when we learn of negative self talk, such as, “I’m not cool enough to be friends with them.” Negative self talk is walking your vulnerable emotional body through stagnant canal water.
Ahimsa is very much a practice. Like asana (yoga poses), playing the piano, sewing, or any other tactile skill - it must be continually practiced to develop and improve. Admittedly, I have come a long way in my own Ahimsa practice. Brian Kest offers a wonderful, refined, and accessible, dharma talk before his class on negative self talk. I heard it in 2012 and the vibrations of his message shape me every day.
One thing I did not expect to encounter from my Ahimsa practice was resistance and confusion from those around me. Let me preface this by revealing a deep, dark, secret: I am fallible. In another life, I booked a photographer for some promotional material, but neglected to confirm the time with one of the models, who subsequently could not come. I was in the doghouse with my boss for a while, and neither time nor apologies could get me out of there. It wasn’t until I feigned harsh criticism towards myself that I was forgiven. My boss interpreted my lack of negative self-talk as apathy.
To be absolutely clear, Ahimsa is not the outright rejection of negative thoughts and feelings. Rather, it is a decision to not actively produce them. Think about it this way: Volcanoes release carbon emissions (greenhouse gases), but they are naturally occurring and in moderation. When humans dig deep down into the earth, extract fossil fuels, burn them, and release carbon emissions into the sky - it is a very conscious process that humans actively repeat again and again. Negative thoughts are a part of the human experience, but we certainly don’t need to create more of them, spewing them up into the atmosphere of our lives.
So, now what? Here are three tips on a practicing Ahimsa.
1. An impartial quest for truth (Satya).
Acknowledge what went right (“What did I do well?”). Acknowledge what went wrong (“What can I do differently?”). View mistakes as hurdles to get around, rather than reasons to stop. Be as impartial about it as possible, and then move on. If worrying about the future causes anxiety, dwelling on past causes depression. Being in the present prevents one from running forward without reflection, and it also prevents tethering to previous mistakes. Yoga is being present.
2. Gratitude Practice
When people hear gratitude practice, they imagine deep contemplation or journaling about the seismic gifts of our lives. This is fine, but unnecessary. The act of practicing gratitude is far more important than the list you produce. If our ambition is too lofty, we are more inclined to drop out or avoid the practice. It is best to keep it simple, sitting quietly for 5 minutes a day contemplating anything that could possibly bring you gratitude. For example, “I am thankful for this chair. I am thankful for the tree that bore the wood for this chair. I am thankful for the water that nourished the tree. I am thankful for the man who crafted this chair. I am thankful for the people who loved him.” It may be daunting at first, but just like any muscle, with practice, it gets easier.
3. Pratipaksha Bhavana (Yoga Sutra II.33: vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam. When you are disturbed by unwholesome negative thoughts or emotions, cultivate their opposites).
Pratipaksha Bhavana is a practice that becomes more adept with time. There is no need to deny negative thoughts, but through observation and reflection, they lose their grip. In addition to introspection, plant some flowers in your garden- offer opposite (positive, supportive) thoughts. It seems hokey at first, but this wisdom works.
We get flu shots and vaccinations, wash our hands, brush our teeth, and take vitamins. These practices keep us alive longer and increase the length, or quantity, of human life. The practice of Ahimsa improves quality of life.