Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living Ahimsa, or Nonviolence in Everyday Life

Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.
~ Mahatma Gandhi

I just found out today is International Day of Non-Violence. I tend to ignore International days of _______________. But usually the ones people share on facebook are the International Day of Cupcakes, so taking time to recognize a day loses some meaning after awhile. But I can get excited about a day of nonviolence. After all, it is the first of the yamas, and a discussion of ahimsa was a post back in the first year of this blog (actually on Christmas).

So why is today the International Day of Nonviolence? It is Gandhi’s birthday. Gandhi exemplifies nonviolence in a way perhaps no one else can. Without lifting a sword, Gandhi helped India achieve independence from the largest empire in the world at the time. His nonviolent revolution led to freedom movements across the world, including the civil rights movement in the United States.

That is amazing and wonderful, but while it is inspiring on one level, it is also a bit intimidating. It can be difficult to look at someone like Gandhi and not think, “I’m never going to nonviolently lead a country to independence, so how does nonviolence fit into my life?" And a day devoted to this question, if only once per year, is a great opportunity to determine this for ourselves.

It seems a bit strange that the international day of nonviolence is happening in the midst of a US presidential election, especially one filled with more vitriol than I have ever seen before. Whatever your political beliefs, or non-beliefs, it is difficult not to see and feel the violence being espoused by everyone involved. It literally pains me to witness this. But it is such a small piece of the violence consuming us these days. The news is filled with the civil war in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, and in the last two weeks, there have been two shootings in Tucson that I have heard about. And PBS is showing a film on the book, Half the Sky, which I just read, a kind of "hidden" violence happening to women and girls all over the world.

It sort of goes without saying, the world is full of violence. But if Gandhi can teach us anything, it is that we can take on seemingly insurmountable tasks with a steady focus on being nonviolent. We can bring nonviolence into our daily lives, and if more and more of us choose that path, it can be the light that ultimately penetrates the darkness.

And it need not be nonviolence in a physical, killing sense. The violence in Syria is easy to spot. We can watch the news, see people killing one another, and know that it is violence. The violence within ourselves and our daily interactions is more difficult. It is not what we traditionally consider violence. We are told that violent videogames are ones in which there are guns and blood and street fighting. But violence is also a negative word we say to someone else. It is looking at someone with contempt rather than compassion. It is treating our bodies terribly just to hide the pain.

In short, nonviolence is not a negative. It is a positive experience of working towards greater compassion, for ourselves and others. It is looking at that person with whom you are frustrated beyond belief and finding it in your heart to offer them some metta, or lovingkindness, a few words of peace. We can ensure that we stop in our moments of frustration and look to find compassion for the other person.

Nonviolence does not mean never feeling angry, upset, or frustrated. It is a commitment to recognizing those are valid emotions but we need not use them against other people or ourselves. Anger is anger. It is not a rationale for hate. Frustration is frustration. It is not a rationale for unkind words. Nonviolence is, therefore, recognizing the difference between an emotion and our response / reaction to it. Over time, if we practice conscious nonviolence, we can learn to respond with less of it and instead respond with more compassion.

And most importantly, nonviolence must start with ourselves. We are so often our own worst critic.  Our self talk, and even the ways we choose to eat and sleep and nourish ourselves must strive for nonviolence if we are going to be nonviolent with others. In some ways, the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century seems like small beans compared to our own internal world. But as Gandhi reminds us we must “be the change [we] wish to see in the world.”

If we want to see a world of nonviolence, we must begin with ourselves. Can you take today as an opportunity to practice nonviolence toward yourself and others?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

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