Four Ways to Practice Non-Violence

by | Jul 2, 2024 | Blog

Insights from Buddhism, Science & Yoga

As context for the below ways of practicing non-violence, it may help to understand that many wisdom traditions see non-violence, or ahiṃsā in Sanskrit, as a cornerstone of both ethical living and personal happiness. Rooted in ancient teachings and reinforced by modern science, learning ways to practice non-violence can help incline our lives and worlds toward more harmonious, integrated circumstances.

A search engine query on ‘non-violence’ reveals that contemporary use of the word focuses on organized social action, one powerful and important aspect of ahiṃsā. Here though, I highlight the intention of non-violence as a guide in everyday, personal living. How we live day-to-day really matters, even if/when those around us misunderstand what underlies our choices, and when choices made from an inention to be harmless entail less wealth or social status.

Each of the three disciplines that inform these ways of practicing non-violence complement and support one another. After reading, I hope you will choose a practical way what fits well into your situation and helps you make the attitude of non-violence a clear and conscious part of your days. In my own life, I see constant room for growing into this. I also find great happiness from aligning my energy with the wish to refrain from harming myself and others. I find the intention of ahiṃsā strengthens me. It does not mean being a doormat. It does not mean allowing those who are misguided or lost in unconscious malice to have power over me.

1. Cultivate Mindfulness

In Buddhism, mindfulness is the key practice for ending our own suffering. Cultivating moment-to-moment awareness fosters wisdom and compassion. The Buddha’s teachings encourage mindfulness practitioners to live an ethical, non-violent lifestyle because it frees the mind from the torment of recalling unskillful past actions. This makes it possible to settle in to seeing life more clearly, thus learning firsthand about the nature things. In a sense, mindfulness naturally leads to all other ways of practicing non-violence because it helps one clearly know the way things are.

Contemporary interest in mindfulness has grown so strong that it is now seen as valuable on it’s own. Much research suggests mindfulness reduces stress, increases emotional regulation, and promotes prosocial behavior. Recent studies indicate that regular mindfulness practice can help transform reactivity into more thoughtful, peaceful actions. There is much still to learn, and you can read more about the study of mindfulness here.

Mindfulness in yoga is cultivated through asanas (physical movements and postures) and pranayama (breathing methods). It enhances body awareness and helps practitioners connect with their inner selves, inspiring non-violent behavior. That said, like the Buddha’s teachings, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras recommend that a practitioner establish an ethical foundation simultaneously with the physical practices of yoga, as a holistic system of human development.

Whichever method you choose for practicing mindfulness, it will give you many opportunities to discover the peacefulness of a non-harming attitude towards yourself and others.

2. Foster Gratitude

According to Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, ‘A life without gratitude is a joyless life.’ Gratitude shifts our focus from what we lack to what we have. This shift reduces feelings of envy and aggression, making it easier to let go of needing to get our way and so live in peaceful coexistence with others. If your co-worker gets a promotion you wanted and you have a happy family life, why not focus on the fact that you avoided the stress of a new role and so can continue to enjoy your time at home more easily? Read more on gratitude from Ajahn Sumedho here.

Contemporary research also highlights that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression. Evidence suggests grateful individuals are more likely to experience positive relationships and less likely to engage in conflict.

And in yoga, gratitude is most specifically practiced through remembering the potential of contentment (Sanskrit, saṃtoṣa). Choosing to be content with what we already have fosters a sense of inner peace and reduces harmful desires. It also empowers us to be generous toward others, even when they are lost in meanness or other pain induced mind states.

3. Develop Equanimity

While experiences like excitement and passion seem fun, they also easily create unconscious harm. Think of a time you or someone you know made a joke that hurt someone else’s feelings. Equanimity, though, while it sounds staid, deeply supports non-violence. You might have heard the word in Pali, the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were written down, which is upekkhā. The term describes a cool, balanced state of mind amidst life’s ups and downs. It helps us remain composed, even when we are not entirely calm, and so reduces the likelihood of violent reactions. In this recent blog post, I wrote more on how equanimity supports ethics.

In contemporary research, wisdom tradition qualities like equanimity are often studied under the heading of mental health or psychology. Psychological resilience, akin to equanimity, has been found to help with better stress management and lower aggression. In other words, it enables us to respond to challenges with stability and peace. Here you can explore the notion of resilience.

And in yoga, we nuture equanimity through consistent, regular practice over a long time. While the most popular practices of yoga are physical, achieving a balanced state of mind is one of yoga’s main aims, so the physical practices have mental/emotional outcomes. Balancing the mind by working with the body brings equanimity and helps us steer clear of reactive behavior.

4. Engage in Self-Reflection

Self-reflection allows us to understand our motives and behaviors, uncovering underlying patterns that may lead to actions that don’t align with our deeper intentions, such as non-violence. It empowers us to make conscious, non-violent choices. In a way, you might say self-reflection is an aspect of mindfulness, broadly understood, however, it is worth distinguishing, since in the Buddha’s teaching mindfulness practice steers clear of over-analyzing, while self-reflection invites thought about past experiences. The two practices complement each other.

Self-reflective practices, such as journaling, have been shown in contemporary research to improve emotional intelligence and self-awareness. These qualities are crucial for managing conflicts non-violently. The Reflectors’ Toolkit from the University of Edinburgh shows the range and possibilities of this kind of practice, and how to use them.

In yoga, self-reflection is encouraged through svādhyāya, Sanskrit for self-study. Here, regular self-inquiry helps us understand our true nature (thought to be compassionate and awake) and cultivate non-violence in attitude and action. Here’s a helpful piece for those interested in deepening into this aspect of yoga practice.

For more guidance and support in your personal practice of non-violence, join one of our Middle Path Healing Arts weekly practice groups. On Tuesdays, we offer Insight Meditation and on Saturdays, Mindful Movement. Go here to sign up for either one.