This past summer we had an otherworldly ant invasion in the house. I can not exaggerate enough how many fucking ants scurried around our walls, floors, cabinets, closets, etc. They were in our bed sheets and on our bodies. Turns out this is not uncommon in the middle of a hot, dry Los Angeles summer (they come in search of water), and all of our neighbors were experiencing the same. Thank god, because I was mortified that I couldn't control my pest problem. In the past I've treated the occasional march of ants with essential oils (clove) to deter but not kill them, because ahimsa. But this ant infestation was way past what my little homemade potions could pacify. We moved on to "natural"-ish retail sprays, and soon to straight-up poison for the outside of the house, plus numerous strategically placed traps. Nothing worked. Millions suffered. I felt terrible, both about the daily mass killings and the fact that they seemed to multiply from carcasses, much like a gremlin from water. I felt defeated, with no choice but to resign myself to their presence, waiting for the ant phase to pass, which it eventually did. But the damage remains, to my karma and to the walls because there's actually still a few ant carcasses way up high where I can't reach to clean them up.
Six months later I'm still haunted by what I've done.
Just kidding. Those ants had it coming.
I'm not a yogi aesthetic, isolated in my cave with nothing but a loin cloth and a bowl. Nor a Jain, who adhere so strictly to non-harming that they wear a cloth over their mouths to avoid inhaling bugs and sweep the ground before every step to ensure they don't squash any. Admirable, but not practical for most of us.
I am a modern, spoiled American. When there are unwanted being in my house, my culture tells me I should demolish them and my local Home Depot offers me many ways to do it.
The difficulties of trying to live by ancient laws of behavior in my modern existence are plentiful. But instead of berating myself for all the ways in which I fail, I am looking for ways to do a little bit better.
So here I am, 7+ months of procrastination later, starting at the beginning again, diving deeper into my study of the Yamas and Niyamas with Ahimsa.
Ahimsa means "non-harming" or "non-violence". This simple concept underlies everything in yogic philosophy and should underly every thought, word, action, and intention we make. It is the very first element of the Eight Limbs of Yoga because it is the most essential. Despite the Yamas and Niyamas appearing as a 'list' of rules they are not exactly linear, but somewhat accumulative: getting the first--Ahimsa--under some control helps one in exploring the next (Satya), and those first two help to embody the next, and so on.
So for the next few months I'm doing some deep examination of the choices I casually make (like what TV shows I watch), as well as taking actions to mitigate my personal negative impacts on other beings and myself. The first round of my study of the Ys & Ns followed Debora Adele's book and her four challenges per precept. But I was sometimes frustrated with the passive quality of Adele's challenges at the end of each chapter. I believe that truly living these concepts requires direct action--not just avoiding the action. For example, not just avoiding violence/harm, but actively working toward peace and justice.
How To Do Ahimsa:
The easiest place to start is with the self: stop internally shitting on yourself (criticizing), from the mild ("My hair is disgusting") to the more severe ("I am disgusting. I am a loser"). The next logical progression for practice is towards others, both outwardly (to their faces) and internally (judging them in one's thoughts). Next, cover all living beings: animals and pests, which could include not eating animals and not stepping on ants. And finally, consider your impact on the Earth by reducing your carbon footprint, plastic consumption, etc.
After you've reduced your own harmful effects on these smaller things, you could start to think and act in larger terms: become an activist for an important cause, contributing your skills and resources to the reduction of harm to a group of people, species, or the environment. One could spend their entire life dedicated to one of these causes and perhaps make a big impact, or hardly a dent.
But the purpose of practicing ahimsa is not to achieve the least amount of harm, or make the biggest impact with your active non-harming; it's not about achieving at all. This work is individual, done because the practitioner understands the interconnectedness of all things: when I inflict harm on another being, I also harm myself. And the converse: when I harm myself, it affects others, too. It's easy to get overwhelmed when doing the honest work of examining the effects of all the little transgressions we inflict on the world, but it's just as easy to decide not to get caught up in the guilt or hopelessness. Rather, we can recognize the behaviors and make small steps to augment them.
The toughest aspect of Ahimsa to confront is the same as with all of these rules: Flexible Morality, or, how we manipulate our values to serve us in the moment. Humans are complex creatures; sometimes we climb up on a soapbox about one thing but refuse to see our hypocrisy in doing another thing. Our personal likes and dislikes may get in the way of fair judgement of what is right or wrong: I don't like most cured meats, so giving them up is easy to do and easy to preach. I do like some trash tv, so giving that up is harder to do and easier to justify not doing. Both are toxic; both are arguably wrong or at the very least, unhealthy.
It is this flexible morality and personal hypocrisy that examining for the next few months of living by Ahimsa. I imagine it will get ugly. I'm not attempting to perfect myself or make my morals more rigid, but rather examine where I'm justifying choices that I feel conflicted about, to see if I can lessen that internal conflict and figure out a way to align how I feel with what I do.
My approach to studying each Yama and Niyama this time around is of my own design, whereas formally I followed Adele's prescription. I'm incorporating different resources that I hope will help me explore these concepts contemporarily, specifically current books and documentaries, (and other media I come across like podcasts and essays), as well as appropriate mudras and mantras for meditation. (Mudras are specific shapes made with the hands to turn "on" or "off" particular flows of energy. Mantras are sounds or words repeated for the effects of either the meaning of the words or what the particular sound--like OM--elicits from the mind/body on a subconscious level). I'll then come up with a number of "challenges" of my own like Adele offers in her book, but more active and particular to my personal needs and shortcomings. Although these concepts are universal, the application of them should be highly individualized.
Following this layout my deep inquiry into Ahimsa will be supported by these elements:
Mantra: Love. Grace.
Mudra: Hridaya (heart)
Say "I love you" (internally) before interacting with anyone--from my husband to the grocery check-out person.
Stop eating animals and animal products.
Keep in touch with my sister even though the relationship is tough.
Reach out to 4 people (or 1 per month of this segment?) to tell them I appreciate them and tell them why they mean something to me.
Stop gossiping in my 90-Day Fiancee private Facebook group about the people on the show. Stop gossiping about anyone.
Stop watching reality television altogether. Rough.
Stop poking fun at others in a "joking" manner. Even if my intention is not cruel and my tone is light, it could still be received as mean and cause harm.
Not harm myself by overtraining or neglecting my rest and recovery. Also by not verbally shitting on myself all day long like I usually do. Also not let anyone else shit on me. Be my own best friend.
Give grace to others but also stay in integrity by calling out potentially violent behaviors/words.
Don't swat at flying bugs or crush crawly ones. But it's winter so this should be a gimme.
Well damn, that's a lot of challenges! Probably way too many to tackle in a mere few months, but I'm giving myself lots of time and space to go deep, deciding which one have the greatest effects and which ones don't.
Suggestions of contemporary resources and/or feedback always appreciated!