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Ahimsa, Empathy and the Meaning We Make

Beginning of Service

As a child, I took in many stray animals. Leaving food in dishes and playing with them whenever they came near. I recall having the same feeling for impoverished children. This feeling of empathy was brought forward in me particularly late at night as infomercials from the Save the Children organization tickered on.  The montage of images displaying malnourished, disenfranchised children, pulled on me heavily. The next day, I’d ask my mother how I could help them and though she didn’t have much money, she always comforted me and sought ways to support my concern. Her kindness regarding my feelings validated me. Being seen by her gave me strength. And from that strength, I was able to extend even more understanding to others.

The Meaning We Make

According to the dictionary:
‘Empathy is the ability to understand and share another’s feelings.’

Sometimes Yogis offer us support by going into our confusion with us, into our suffering, but they don’t make the same meaning. It seems people often think that going into another’s suffering could possibly make that specific suffering their own, as though it may stick to them.  They seem to feel that they will be harmed, but actually that’s not the case. By extending authentic ahimsa, kindness and understanding, we not only offer healing to others, we also experience healing ourselves.

When we are willing to see others fully, we reaffirm our desire and readiness to be seen. We also build intimacy between that person and our self.  Being empathetic and understanding towards others is also a practice for being compassionate towards our selves. As we practice, we learn how to go into our own pain and one-day lead ourselves out.

The yogi offers healing through understanding, he/she walks alongside us in the darkness, studying the meaning we made and then works to help us see a new meaning. New meaning here means seeing from a yogic perspective, one that shows us how to grow through the experience. As Yogis do this, they help us dissipate our sufferings and ultimately dissolve them.

‘I Just Can’t Relate’

Last year a friend said something funny to me.  She said, “Ya know, I just can’t relate.” Though she said it quickly and without much thought, the words themselves struck me as strange. A yogi spends his/her life studying the union. Said another way, a yogi stays close to interconnectivity. So, the idea of ‘I just can’t relate’ would not occur to a yogi because that is their very training, to come into relationship with all.  How can a yogi-in-training remain connected if he/she fears sharing in the feelings of those they contact? From this perspective, empathy is a tool for greater harmony and fluidity.

Exploration of Ahimsa

Ahimsa means being grounded in reality and seeing clearly from that place. It is often translated as non-violence. Violence can only happen when we perceive otherness.

So ahimsa, as a yogic principle, means being grounded in oneness where there is no sense of other and therefore no possibility of inflicting violence. Ahimsa is not only the recognition that we are all interrelated and interconnected, but it is actually living within that reality and extending out from it.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.35 says:
ahimsa-pratishthayam tat-sannidhau vaira-tyagah,

“When the yogi is firmly established in physical, mental, vocal and spiritual non-violence, ahimsa,  there is abandonment of enmity by those who are in his or her presence.” (PYS 2.35, transl. by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)

The sutra teaches that the more we ground in understanding, the more we are a conduit for kindness and compassion.

When we express empathy and kindness to those around us we reveal our depth of yogic understanding, and show through our actions that we stand firmly on the ground of yogic reality.

Ahimsa, non-violence, is the first step of Lord Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Path. This path is a road that the yogi-in-training follows to experience the freedom, known as union. Placing ahimsa as the first rung on the ladder, is Patanjali’s way of saying that ahimsa is a foundational character element that must be developed within the individual for him/her to be able to fully live in the light of yoga, the unified field.

© 2014 Luminous Soul/Sanskrit Studies & Manorama