What's behind the name of this meditation practice?
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that means to cause no injury, or to do no harm. Its root syllable, hims, means to strike. Himsa is violence; ahimsa is the opposite.
What’s the concept?
Ahimsa is at the core of the karmic religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism—and, in a broader context, the teachings of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and other belief systems. In yoga philosophy, it is the very first step on the path to enlightenment. All other ethical guidelines of Patanjali’s eightfold path depend on ahimsa.
The basic idea of ahimsa is to do no harm to any living being in action, word or thought. It is a life philosophy that turns negativity into love. “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will,” writes one of ahimsa’s most famous adherents, Mahatma Gandhi. “Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.”
So how do we do that? We first recognize that we have an internal witness, our true self, that observes what’s happening in the physical body. By simply observing our thoughts, words and actions, we can begin to notice when they’re harmful and gently redirect them to love and compassion. Ahimsa meditation is a great way to get in the habit of observing and redirecting.
How did this meditation practice originate?
As an ethical concept, ahimsa evolved in the ancient Vedic texts, eventually becoming Hinduism’s highest virtue. It was already a strictly observed practice in Jainism when Mahavira revived the faith in the 5th century BCE. Jesus and the prophet Muhammad both taught nonviolence, instructing followers to love indiscriminately and abstain from revenge.
Ahimsa also powered some of modern history’s biggest political movements. Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to free India of British control inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership during America’s civil rights movement, and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia toppled autocracies by largely nonviolent means.
What’s unique about this meditation?
Ahimsa is a living, breathing meditation that has the ability to completely transform the way we look at the world. Cultivating ahimsa through a formal sitting practice is like pouring a concrete foundation for any other spiritual practices we may wish to develop.
What are its chief benefits?
Practicing ahimsa is the ultimate karmic eraser, and it benefits both the practitioner and others. It eliminates hatred, increases willpower, develops consciousness, and purifies the heart. It is the one true way to peace and bliss. “He who practices Ahimsa with real faith can move the whole world, can tame wild animals, can win the hearts of all, and can subdue his enemies,” says Sri Swami Sivananda. “The power of Ahimsa is infinitely more wonderful and subtler than electricity or magnetism.”
Is there evidence of its effectiveness?
Gandhi toppled one of the most powerful regimes in the world to free a whole nation using the power of ahimsa. The reason for his success? Ahimsa spreads. Yogis often tell stories of wild animals like lions and snakes that become as docile as pets in the presence of a yogi who has eliminated all traces of violence and fear through the practice of ahimsa.
Are there any controversies?
There is no universal consensus on the finer points of ahimsa, and centuries-old debates continue about its application in diet, wars, criminal law and self-defense.
How can it be learned?
Ahimsa can be learned by activating the “inner witness” to notice the body’s thoughts, words and actions. By recognizing the fact that all beings contain the divine light of creation, we realize that harming another creature is the same as harming ourselves. The inner witness observes when harmful thoughts arise and gently redirects their energy into love and compassion. It is a gradual process, one that eventually becomes a way of life.
How is this meditation practiced?
The first step is the easiest: Refrain from killing or injuring any creature (including that spider that wanders into the kitchen—take it outside). Second, begin to see your thoughts through the perspective of your “inner witness.” “When thoughts of revenge and hatred arise in the mind, try to control the physical body and speech first,” Sri Swami Sivananda advises. “Do not utter evil and harsh words. Do not censure. Do not try to injure others.” Once we begin to see the divine kinship between all living creatures, it becomes clear that negative thoughts and actions harm ourselves, while love and compassion bring personal peace.
Can anyone practice?
Yes—ahimsa is our true nature, so every human being has the capacity to practice it. It does require an open mind and a willingness to change, however. Practicing non-harm to all living creatures means not eating them. “You simply cannot intend to eat another being without harming them first,” says Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga and vegan activist. Vegetarianism and veganism is an important aspect of ahimsa, and so are other aspects of consumerism. Ahimsa means thinking about the humans, animals and environmental factors behind a purchase: Did this shirt come from a sweatshop? Is this mascara cruelty-free? Was this palm oil sustainably harvested?
Ahimsa is a state of being that can be practiced at all times, but one of the best ways to cultivate it is to focus your attention on it during meditation. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. As you breathe, pay attention to the breath. Notice what it feels like to observe instead of experience. Are your ribs rising and falling? How is your body reacting? The breath is happening on its own, all by itself—you aren't the one making it happen. Next, shift your attention to your thoughts. Let whatever you’re thinking continue—don’t try to quiet your mind, just observe it. Again, notice how it almost feels like you’re outside your own body in the way you can witness your thoughts. Remember that you can always take a step back to see what your body is thinking or doing. Throughout the day, come back to this little exercise. It might be helpful to post a note in your home that says “witness” or “observe.”
The first place to practice ahimsa is in your thoughts about yourself. Think for a moment about any self-criticism you had today. Did you look in the mirror this morning and think, “I’m too fat” or “I’m too old”? Did you beat yourself up for something you said to a coworker or scold yourself for running late? How about any comparisons you made with other people? Bring to mind these thoughts and breathe love into them. Feel the negativity shift into neutrality, then release into compassion for yourself.
Finally, bring to mind someone you’re angry with or have bad feelings toward. Observe the thoughts from the perspective of your inner witness. Allow each breath to soften the harshness of these thoughts, and release them with a feeling of lightness.
Remember to call on that inner witness throughout the day. If you catch yourself harboring anger or resentment, keep that thought right where it is instead of letting it turn into harmful words or actions. Make a strong vow, right now: “I will not speak a harsh word to anybody today.” And know that as you breathe, you have the power to dissolve negative thoughts into ones that are full of love and compassion.