Those of you who have been following my posts know that M, my yin yoga teacher, often inspires me to think about things in a new way. This week, she introduced the topic of ahimsa, the practice of non-violence. What I know about ahimsa is epitomized by Gandhi and his campaign of non-violence to win India’s independence from Britain. But then M spoke of himsa, doing harm in the world, the opposite of ahimsa. Himsa is not only violence as it manifests in the world, but the harm we do to ourselves as well. As I stretched deeper into tight muscles on my yoga mat, I began to reflect on the violence I inflict on others, and on myself.
Confession: When I’m patched through to tech support, finally, after an exhaustive time on hold listening to John Denver, I’m often talking to someone in Manila and can’t understand most of what they’re saying. I get testy, snappish, violent, demanding they slow down, speak more clearly. Rage bubbles to the surface like scum on a stewing chicken. I don’t want to be like this, but sometimes I am. This is himsa, doing harm in the world, the opposite of ahimsa.
Confession: I’ve blasted my horn at drivers when they’re slow to turn on a left blinking light. Or when they cut me off. It doesn’t sound like much, but when I’m on the receiving end, when I get blasted by someone else’s horn, my nervous system spikes as if it’s the trumpet of an approaching army. Enough. I’m making it a practice to use my horn only when someone is backing out of a parking space threatening to rear-end me. Or on their phone while stepping in front of my moving vehicle. We’re living with the reality of violence every time we tap into the news. I can’t abide knowing I’m adding one more electric shock to the collective.
More: I’ve been jealous of the success of others. Resentment has darkened the space between us like a squirt of ink from the cuttlefish. Wanting what someone else possesses sows the seeds of violence; we want the oil under the ground in another country, and feel entitled, justified in making war to obtain it. I’m learning. Gratitude is the antidote to envy.
And: I have lived with my beloved for thirty-one years and know his wounds as intimately as I know my own, yet there have been times when I’ve lashed out in anger and fear, striking deep into the heart of his tender core. I have committed violence to love, and as I surrender onto my mat, I pray for greater kindness and compassion.
Sinking deeper still, the question becomes… how am I violent towards myself?
When I’m filled with the tension that comes from feeling there isn’t enough of something in my life…money, adventure, youth, and I’m left wanting things to be different than the way they are, my body goes into fight or flight response, my adrenals kick in with cortisol, and I compensate with too much caffeine. Violence towards myself.
More: I’m capable of being violent to my body and mind in the routines of my daily life. When I over- schedule my time, push my body, compare and judge myself against others, I’m creating an inner environment filled with conflict.
When I feel vulnerable, insecure, inadequate and berate myself for “negative” feelings, I’m suffering at the hands of the introjected punishing parent, as violent as any abuser. Worse, because I know just where to plunge the sword.
Maybe “violence” sounds too harsh to you. But what I notice is how it feels to experience these thoughts in my body. How I talk to myself, how I shame and blame myself. How I harm myself. Himsa. It feels like a violent assault. Gut clenching, shoulder tightening. Shortness of breath. Ready to ward off blows. I’m also noticing how horrified and helpless I feel by the daily assault of violence in the news, the now common police brutality towards people of color, the next and the next and the next school shooting. I long to extend the full reach of my love and compassion into the world, but that’s only possible when I begin with extending non-violent mercy towards myself. As the solstice approaches, a time of stillness and wonder, may you find it in your heart to extend the same tender mercy towards yourself.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” Thomas Merton