Last week Michael wrote about ahimsa and it got me reflecting on my own messy, awkward attempts at trying to incorporate ahimsa (non-violence/non-harm) into my own life. As I sit down to write this, I realise that I can’t avoid talking about my relationship with vegetarianism; more specifically my departure from a vegetarian lifestyle. This feels very uncomfortable, because I know it will be a great disappointment to some people I hold very dear.
To set the context – Up till summer 2015, I had been vegetarian for around about ten years. There were a few years at the beginning where I called myself vegetarian, but would occasionally eat a bit of meat. Not good quality meat and not with much/any thought of where it had been sourced from. I’m afraid to say that I’m talking Sunday morning low-quality pork sausages from a greasy spoon in East Belfast.
Going to my yoga teacher training (October 2006) changed all that. I resolved to be strictly vegetarian and I was – for a very short while! I don’t remember when I went back to eating fish, but I don’t think it could have been very long. Actually, only a cursory probe into my memory banks reveals at least one memory of eating a fish taco in Mexico, less than a month after my YTTC.
I started to admit to myself that I was really pescetarian. About 11 months after that first fish taco, I ate fish and chips at a renowned joint in St Ives. An hour or so later, I had agonising abdominal cramps. That was the sign from the universe that I needed – (I was big into that at the time!) – and so I gave up fish as well as meat.
This continued on for years and years. When I met my husband Michael (at the ashram where I had originally taken my YTTC) I had assumed he was vegetarian too. We were committed yogis after all and since all the food at the ashram was vegetarian, the issue just never came up. So I was genuinely horrified and angry to discover that he was a devoted omnivore with zero intention of giving up meat – again! It’s up to him to tell his story, but he had been vegetarian and even raw vegan in the past, and he wasn’t anymore.
The first of the yamas is also the most difficult to attain to in many ways. (For an introduction to the yamas and niyamas, please see our previous blog post.) Ahimsa means to abstain from causing harm, and besides being difficult to live up to, is also difficult to fully comprehend. How we understand harm and how we determine fault when harm inevitably arises are both cultural and deeply personal processes.
In order to better understand the concept, let’s look at it in its historical roots. The concept itself appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest religious text still in use today. In the Rig Veda, the concept is mentioned in reference to Indra, the god of thunder and warfare, being ‘innocent’ or peaceful towards his worshippers.
Despite being in a context entirely foreign to our modern lives, this idea of innocence is actually very revealing of the character and quality of ahimsa. From a yogic perspective, ahimsa is not merely an ethical must, but, as with all the yamas and niyamas, a practice in itself designed to catapult the spiritual seeker further along the path. The innocence of ahimsa is fundamental to its use as a practice, and as a metric for determining what is and is not ahimsa.
In the modern world we currently navigate, innocence is a hard ask. The systems around us require savvy and the streets cannot abide a fool for long. Nevertheless, the yogi intent upon self-realisation must maintain a sense of purity and connection with all beings, even should it put them at risk. To the mind, this may seem insane. We are taught from a young age to distrust strangers, maintain solid boundaries, read the fine print, and so on.
For the person who is not practicing ahimsa, these are all very important, but for the truly pure yogi (a rare thing indeed), it is understood to be unnecessary. In the yogic worldview, we are all one being, with the separation between us being the effect of Maya, the illusion caused by the filtering of ultimate reality through the mechanisms of mind. Being all one, the distinction between the internal and external is quite fuzzy. It is sometimes said that a yogi who practices ahimsa perfectly will have no violence done to them, even by a hungry tiger.