“Even mindless violence is no fun anymore”. Vyvyan, from ‘The Young Ones’ (1980s Brit Sitcom)
When my partner mimicked Vyvyan’s voice last week – not sure why, but it was relevant to the conversation we were having at the time – I burst out laughing. The thought of ‘mindless violence’ being fun seemed hilarious to me. Then I thought – wait a minute – isn’t ALL violence actually mindless? And where’s the fun part? So here’s where I start my thinking on AHIMSA – the first of the yogic ‘yamas’, or ethical/moral disciplines from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
AHIMSA translates as ’non-harming’. As a foundational value for a life well-lived, you can see the sense in this – history has shown that violence (or harming another) tends to lead to more violence.
In the Buddhist tradition, abstaining from harming living beings is one of the core five precepts, and in the Christian religion one of the 10 Commandments is ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. In fact, non-harming – ahimsa– is part of all the major traditions of contemplation/religion throughout the world. Why? I believe it has a lot to do with the ‘mindless’ bit from Vyvyan’s quote. Humankind’s tendency to react to stressful situations without awareness often seems to come from a violent place, led by fear and anger.
The ancients acknowledged man’s inherent tendency towards reactive violence. Obviously if everyone is goes around murdering each other, the fate of the human race is bound to be short-term! So there is an element of preservation of our species contained here. But the main focus for non-harming is, I believe, the fostering of humankind’s nobler and more wholesome qualities of compassion and kindness.
Of course, it’s obvious we, as a human race, have only been partially successful at curbing primitive tendencies to violence. Look at the history of the world, the current rise of terrorism, ongoing lack of peace in the middle east, domestic violence statistics in Australia alone, road rage and drunken king hits – then add in the damage or violence that’s been done to the earth and… well, you get the picture.
Where does all this violence stem from?
We seek peace, yet often do not know it in ourselves. Reactions of fear and anger resulting in harmful actions, words, and thoughts are rife.
For the principle of ’non-harming’ to be truly authentic, as deep values are, it’s my feeling that the place to begin is necessarily within myself. Can I abstain from harm to myself? What does it look like to not harm myself?
Externally, this could mean taking care of my body by eating healthy foods that support my system, getting enough sleep and exercise, and all that good stuff.
Less obvious, however, is the harm I potentially do to myself with my thinking. The critical inner voice, the judging mind, the continual measuring up of my performance/life/approach against others and finding it to fall short. All motivated by various forms of fear, essentially.
Here is where the power of mindful awareness can begin to have lasting impact on these tendencies to self-harm or violence.
How do I ensure I do no-harm? By starting with my busy, busy, busy mind.
Pause for just one moment now to notice how you have already assessed this story. Feel into your body to notice the posture you’re holding, any sensations arising throughout your body. Notice if those sensations are purely physical or connected somehow to your emotional response to this story or something else. Notice how quickly or slowly, deeply or shallowly you are breathing. Feel the breath flow into and out of your body. Close your eyes for a few seconds to register this array of sensation/thought/feeling.
Here is where you begin to develop and increase your ability to be mindfully aware – of your current state in this moment, happy or sad, simply noticing whatever is present without pushing it away or condoning it. This is an ongoing exploration, for me, to dig out the ‘roots’ of those harmful thought-patterns that precede behaviours which are essentially not kind or helpful at all – indeed, often leading to reactions that are harmful to myself and others.
Recently I came across an old diary entry where I had noted that the dinner I’d cooked the night before had ended up with undercooked veggies, and my partner had commented that I ‘probably needed to leave them on to cook for another few minutes’. BOOM! The reaction I had to this simple comment was EXTREME – first, a hasty ‘don’t tell me what to do, I’ve had a hard day, etc etc’ shot back at my poor partner, followed by a sense of anger and frustration at my inability to cook carrots properly AND at the reaction I’d had to my partner’s innocent comment.
When I sat the following day in a quiet period of reflection, I noted the rising sensations returning as I thought of the incident the night before. At the very core of these sensations was a little kernel of a thought – ‘I am not enough’. How could undercooking carrots lead to this conclusion, you ask? Well, I’m here to tell you that sillier examples abound. Somehow, in my ever busy mind, I had associated my cooking skills with my sense of adequacy, and my partner’s comment had unleashed a deep fear that I would be found out as inadequate. So I reacted in anger towards him.
This is a fairly vanilla example of how lack of awareness, which can happen in any moment, can escalate quickly into emotional reaction. I didn’t feel good after that exchange, and neither did my partner. I hope I apologised to him, but I didn’t note that in my diary!
I’m not perfect (whatever that is). I practice spending quiet time in meditation regularly, and know that when I do, my experience of being aware is enhanced. What am I aware of exactly? What is arising. When I have kept the ‘muscle’ of my ongoing mindful awareness exercised by regular practice, I find a sense of spacious awareness around most events/situations/news in any day. This awareness shows up as body sensations quite often – an increase in my heart rate perhaps, breathing pattern disrupted perhaps. Emotions arise that can be uncomfortable and which I’d rather avoid. I notice these things from that space of awareness, as if I were up on the balcony watching the dance floor below, and as much as I can I simply WELCOME whatever is there. When I can actually create space to notice and welcome, I feel calmer and more connected with my heart. Actions that spring from this space inevitably feel more balanced and supportive of wellbeing.
We have it within each of us, and I believe it is our true nature, to be compassionate, thoughtful, and caring of our world. I have seen this demonstrated time and time again. When inherent true nature is forgotten in moments of stress or anxiety, we suffer the consequences of that forgetfulness as much as we may inflict our reaction on the world around us.
The peace we seek is within, truly. It takes deliberate focus to open heart and mind to this peace. Even 5 minutes a day of sitting in a quiet place, simply placing attention on the breath and noticing what this very moment contains can have profound effect over time.
Violence is always mindless. There is no fun in it. If ever there was a time in our human history to seriously consider AHIMSA on a personal and collective level, it is now. The place to begin is always within, and the external world reflects perfectly what’s going on inside.