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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Turple

Do No Harm

"Blood-thirsty tyrants may be vegetarians, but violence is a state of mind, not of diet."

B.K.S. Iyengar

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, basically the bible of Yoga, he outlines eight limbs that constitute the complete practice of yoga. The first two, the Yamas (universal moral codes) and Niyamas (personal disciplines), consist of five elements each. Ahimsa, which means non-harming, is the first of the Yamas, therefore the very first concept of this yogic view of the world and how to best live in it. It's a simple concept: do no harm to others. Simple, and yet, in practice, not so easy because it applies not only to our actions but to our words and thoughts as well. Basically, say no evil of others, think no evil of others, do no evil to others.

When I look at it that way, it's pretty humbling because I'm immediately reminded of the innumerable gossip fests I either started or in which I was an enthusiastic participant; the obsessive "imaginary" angry conversations I've had with friends, family members or work colleagues who really got under my skin, and selfish actions that were intentionally or unintentionally done to hurt someone. Yep, I've got some work to do. But I also remind myself that I'm not uniquely one-dimensional and have said, thought and done very positive and caring things too. It's a journey, and I'm still on the path.

The words of one of my spiritual teachers will always echo inside me. She said the best way to guide one's behaviour towards the beneficial is to align head, heart and gut. Or, in other words, intellect, emotion and intuition. In short, acting from a place of complete integration, at my very core, seems to produce sound decisions and cause the least harm to others in my immediate surroundings.

In my fourth year Philosophy specialization, I wrote a paper about the fracturing of the modern individual and how this compartmentalization of our rational thought from our more ancient instinctive and emotional selves only served to produce an individual who could, in essence, function as a sociopath, cut off from any sense of empathy toward others, someone who could present one self in public, and a completely different self in private and feel no remorse about this deception. I'm not talking here about those forced to lead a double life due to discrimination or outdated societal norms. I'm talking about intentional deception to do harm. This kind of internal fracturing isn't only reserved for politicians and celebrities. The only difference with them is that we know about it. But a disconcerting number of us do suffer from this inner fracture, and therefore we tend to make decisions based solely on either intellect, emotion or intuition which tends to produce results that are insensitive, lopsided or harmful.

That same spiritual teacher said: "We keep hearing this axiom to "'follow our hearts". If you fell in love with an axe murderer and only followed your heart, you'd run away with him." That pretty much captures what happens when we choose to act from a place of disintegration. In this case, our intellect might have indicated to us that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to run away with an axe murderer, and our instincts might have warned us that our personal safety was probably at risk, despite the fact that we may be in love with this person. Using head, heart and gut would have produced a balanced decision.

Another common error that is highly encouraged in our modern society is removing emotion from the decision-making process. How many times have we heard "Don't be so dramatic"; "You're so emotional". However, our emotions are what bring the "human" element to our actions, thoughts and words. It's where we feel empathy. We certainly wouldn't be destroying each other and our planet if we were encouraged to include emotions in the process. This doesn't only apply to personal interactions but also to business, political and economical decisions. We've been living far too long cut off from emotion and are now living the consequences.

As for our intuition, or "gut feelings", there is a theory that we have a "belly brain". As Tias Little states in Yoga of the Subtle Body: "The belly brain, called the enteric nervous system, has the capacity to process independently of the cranial brain. [...] The belly is a primary resource for intuition, processing information below or outside the radar of the cognitive mind. Yogic discipline along with other contemplative spiritual practices nurture an intuitive self." Unfortunately, the rational mind has been elevated to such heights for so long, that we've forgotten about our other inner resources, and have essentially cut ourselves off from emotion and intuition. So basically, we're functioning with only one-third of our full capacities at any given time.

How can we come to a place of integration and start behaving in a balanced, non-harmful way? As mentioned above, yoga and other contemplative practices allow us to slow down enough to begin to feel and intuit. This isn't an easy process which is probably why yoga is so ridiculed in mainstream media: because it points to our soft underbelly, to those dark places we'd rather avoid, to taking responsibility for our words, thoughts and actions and understanding why we choose to harm. Being truly "awake" to what motivates us and guides our behaviour requires constant effort, mindfulness and vigilance.

There must be a letting go of blustery egos, of "climbing the ladder at all costs"; of "for the sole purpose of creating profits for shareholders". These types of sociopath behaviours can only exist in a world where emotion and intuition have been repressed. These times especially demand that we begin to do the essential work of turning inward, of acknowledging intellect, emotion and intuition as inseparable and indispensable if we are to truly live in a "civil" manner. Ultimately, this is what leads us to self-empowerment, to developing personal agency and to treating everyone and everything around us with respect and kindness.

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