Whether or not we like to admit it, we are a society that thinks in black and white. You or I might be open-minded in one sense but it’s very possible that we are rigid in another. We all have the things that we value at our core and the things that we don’t hold to quite as high of standard. This is not because we have negative intentions or that we are lacking in some way, but simply because we are human with our own beliefs about what is right, fair, or important.
No matter how “good” we intend to be, we all can be “weak,” “flawed”, or “insufficient” by societal standards. Many of us learn at a very young age that there is “good” behavior and there is “bad” behavior. This dictates the food we eat, the clothes we wear, how we spend our time, and the way we interact with others.
It is not inherently bad to have some structure around how we behave in the world. In fact, we benefit immensely from governing systems that dictate how we treat people, whether it’s religion, yoga, or the judicial system. Structure can help us to reenforce the yogic principle “ahimsa” or non-harming.
However, I’m not sure that there is a one-size-fits-all guide for how we should each navigate through life. We are all different, always changing, and forced to weigh out how we can cause the least amount of harm. If we tell ourselves and others that there is only one route to take, this can feel unattainable. If there is no wiggle room and there is only one way we can be, what happens when those human frailties creep in?
Ahimsa and Diet
There are tons of reasons people modify their diet: a desire to feel better or be healthier, to initiate weight loss or gain, to cure a sickness or disease, beliefs on ethical practices, and so on. I personally believe that what is the right choice for me or you, can vary vastly with what is right for another, and that our needs can change over time.
My overarching intention of broaching this subject is to encourage us all to be more compassionate towards the eating habits and views of ourselves and others. I have experimented with adding and eliminating certain foods from my diet, not because I think there is a right, wrong, better or worse way of eating, but to see if these changes made me feel better.
Through experimentation, I have incorporated some dietary changes that are beneficial to myself and my own life, but allow for some flexibility and I invite others to do the same if that suits them. No matter what you or I believe, I think the most harming thing we can do is to alienate others by shaming them on their choices or shaming ourselves for not living up to some ideal. Let’s continue to educate each other but practice acceptance to contribute to a more compassionate world.
Ahimsa and Exercise
Routine can be useful to help structure us. Having rituals we do every day can encourage us to keep up with the intention to better ourselves. Doing spin class, running, or going to yoga every day can be quite good for us – but what happens if we overexert ourselves, develop an injury, or if we are simply too tired or busy to make this happen every day?
It’s great to have goals, action items, and resolutions that you can check off to feel accomplished, but when you move through life with rigidity, this sometimes prevents you from trying a new class with a different teacher, attempting a new sport, or making time for rest or fun.
If going to a workout class every day or incorporating a certain type of exercise is attainable and makes you feel great, do it, but only if it works with your schedule, lifestyle, location, energy level, and state of health. Otherwise, you are human and it’s your prerogative to make it work in a way that causes you the greatest help and least harm.
Ahimsa and Environment
No matter what your beliefs are about our environment and how we can contribute to the planet in a way that causes the least harm, it’s always valuable to educate yourself and keep educating yourself as what we know is constantly changing. We can all do our part by buying environmentally friendly products, recycling, using less plastic, and sending our scraps to the local compost.
However, once again, what is right for one person might not be feasible for another. Especially in low-income areas, people are not necessarily given the information and cost-effect solutions to achieve this. There are not always recycling bins available as prominently as trash cans, and we are not always informed about small steps we can make every day to make an impact. In fact, it’s only more recently that recycling is being enforced as part of the law.
While our goal can be to eliminate waste and to cause the least amount of harm, there has to be enough flexibility that people can gradually incorporate this into their lifestyle in a way that feels doable for them – with a hope this will expand over time.
Ahimsa and Relationships
When we practice ahimsa in relationships, we work to create the least amount of harm. We can try to be compassionate and non-reactive, but what happens when we don’t understand where another is coming from and when we react? Are we wrong or lesser of a person?
If something someone else does bothers us, we are forced to decide what is the least harming right now. If in that moment you decide that reacting will cause more harm than good and you are physically capable of holding back, you should take time to reflect first before reacting.
However, while it might not be the most popular or well received choice, if every part of you is itching with the need to react to something someone has done, perhaps that is less harming in that moment then holding it buried inside.
If you do react (perhaps even overreact) – because we are human and it’s likely this happens from time to time – know that those who love you will accept you and try to understand where you are coming from (including yourself).
Remind yourself that while your emotions may be heightened, it’s okay for us not to be okay with something someone has done, and it’s okay not to react in our best light. It is from this place of compassion for ourselves and others and an understanding that our path towards enlightenment is not linear that we move towards a better version of ourselves.
The Take Away
Education on ethical practices and overarching principles on how to be a good person can contribute to making the world better place. However, it’s also significant to keep in mind that we all have particular values that we hold dear, and the things we are willing to let go. We become a more tolerant world when we accept that no one is perfect, when we learn from each other, and when we give people the flexibility to make their own informed decisions. There is a misconception that accepting people’s views or choices means throwing in the towel on our own beliefs or closing the conversation, when in reality, the opposite is true – it’s simply opening up the conversation.