With the bluster of loud voices swirling in the public space and spewing divisiveness, bigotry, and violence, it is no wonder anyone of us might be feeling anxiety, or even a sense of powerlessness. The news has a certain seductive quality, and our minds react with a desire to know “what is happening,” “who is saying what,” and “how ordinary people are responding.” The irony is that as we are drawn into feeding this desire to know, we are feeding our anxiety and our sense that things are out of control. I know. I have been there.
Most of us do not want to live with the whirling thoughts and energy that this type of activity generates in our systems. So how do we live in the world and still have peaceful minds
Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra II.33 speaks to the state of mental and emotional distress, doubt, confusion, and agitation that emerges when our bodies and minds are overloaded with troubling news and images. He tells us very simply: When harassed by doubt, cultivate the opposite mental attitude. In other words, give up immersing ourselves in what is causing our confusion, distress, and anxiety. Instead, take steps to cultivate what helps us to have a peaceful mind and heart.
To quiet the mind and body we have the 8 – limbs of yoga, which include the practices of yoga postures and breathing techniques. For me, most recently, as an antidote to the disturbing public discourse, I have focused on the ethical principle called ahimsa. Ahimsa is one of five ethical principles, called yama. The yama is the first limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga and its principles are to guide us in our all our relationships and with the world around us: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacarya), and non-covetousness (aparigraha).
Ahimsa is considered the most important of the yama and can also be translated as “respect for life” or “abstaining from harm” and implies cultivating an attitude of benevolence and care. So what does the practice of ahimsa look like in our lives?
To start, ahimsa requires us to examine our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves. Do we treat our bodies, minds, and emotions with an attitude of respect? We can ask ourselves if we are making compassionate choices about our exercise, our yoga practice, our diet, our rest, the TV, media, or films we expose ourselves to, even the relationships we choose to have in our lives. Do we bring harm to our bodies by running in spite of an injured knee or regularly eat fast foods? Do we practice yoga in a way that leaves us breathless or fatigued? Do we watch TV shows or movies where we are exposed to hateful messages or violence? Are we in relationships where we are not respected?
This can be our first step toward practicing an attitude of ahimsa – becoming aware of our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves and moving away from those which are harmful and toward those which are kind, respectful, and caring. Our self-study can then focus on how we speak and behave toward others, looking at our thoughts, our speech, and our behavior in our relationships with the same kind of questions that we asked about our attitudes toward ourselves.
In the current atmosphere of dissension, intolerance and tension in our country, the practice of ahimsa gives me hope, not just for our own behavior, but also for that of others. Patanjali tells us that when a person is firmly established in living ahimsa with respect for all beings, those who have aggressive impulses or behavior are calmed in his presence.
As more of us come to consciously cultivate ahimsa, perhaps we can act as instruments of peace in the troubled times in which we live, rather than as victims of public animosity.