“Primum non nocere.” Do no harm. The motto for emergency medical services and medical students alike, this simple phrase nicely sums up the first “Yama,” or restraint, of the yogic path: ahimsa, or nonviolence. No matter what you do, just don’t make the situation worse.
For emergency medical professionals, this principle guides treatment in the field under less than optimal conditions when advanced testing isn’t available. Because definitive testing isn’t available and some treatments are risky or injurious if not absolutely necessary, it is essential to only administer treatment when withholding it would lead to a worse outcome for the patient.
In our everyday lives, however, the stakes are rarely so high and the decision points so clear. We tend to value action and indeed only through consideration, action and observation can we learn. We have more time to consider the nature of “harm” and we have more people to consider than one intended target of treatment. So what does it mean to practice nonviolence in our lives and practices?
Nonviolence can seem to demand superhuman consideration, and indeed, acting with integrity has proven a tall order for generations of us human beings. Is nonviolence not killing anything or lessening any life force? And if so, what about vegetables? Even iceberg lettuce is alive when it’s in the ground! And what about living things that are harming us? You don’t even have to go to the extent of considering other people trying to harm you; what about Influenza and other microbes: viruses and bacteria we kill all the time with antibiotics? Don’t they count if we only consider “alive”?
One way to navigate this issue is to limit your consideration only to other sentient beings, or to other beings capable of motion. There are people who refrain from eating meat or the flesh of any animal because since animals are capable of pain, and others who will not harm an insect in their paths because killing anything that moves violates the dictum to do no harm.
But what if violence means more than killing or causing pain, and pain alone is not harmful? Pain, in fact, can be helpful as when it tells us we’re about to burn ourselves, or go too far in a yoga pose. Having pain after a broken bone is a sign that our body is functioning properly, and feeling pain after an important loss is a poignant part of meaning in our lives. Defining “violence” becomes more difficult and fine grained the less of it we have in our lives.
One way to define nonviolence is to look at the full list of Yamas. Nonviolence is the broadest of the restraints and each of the other four detail methods for avoiding harm to self and others. The other four Yamas are truthfulness, non-grasping, intelligent use of life force, and non-stealing.
By applying each of the four narrower restraints first to oneself and then moving from that place of clarity in applying it to our relationship with others we are able to cultivate non-violence from the inside out and make discriminating choices in the context of our lives.
Truthfulness refers to honesty: our ability to be clear with ourselves first regarding motivations, feelings and memories so that we are able to see situations and others clearly and see how we are connected and similar rather than separate and divided. This is the basis we need to creatively address all the situations that challenge us to be kind, compassionate and honest at the same time.
Not grasping or stealing help us to respect outward boundaries without becoming to attached to things we could use to emphasize difference and divisions, differences which lead to harm and suffering.
Brahmacharya, or intelligent use of our life force, invites us to observe our own internal conditions, needs and boundaries and to use our time, attention and energy for what is most in alignment with our real interests and needs. With so many inputs competing for our energy, it’s easy to get lost and become confused about our true nature and loose clarity.
The internally supporting nature of each of the restraints together describe a method and a path for acting nonviolently in our lives. By starting with any one of the restraints, you can check any decision or impulse by considering it from each of angles suggested by the Yamas. You’ll have a broader and more grounded understanding of the complex factors and be better prepared to act with kindness and compassion.