How to Practice Non-violence in a Violent World

I received a message today from a friend on, asking me the following (it’s in the shorthand used on twitter):
“Someone doublecrosses u 4 the 3rd time now, since u always accept + say, there is nothing to forgive!  am I missing something?”

My friend's concern is a very good one:  How does one practice the most basic principal of yoga, ahimsa, when someone is mistreating you?  It is common for yoga practitioners to get confused about this. We’re told that ahimsa means “non-harming” or “non-violence” and naturally think that we have to be nice and loving no matter how people treat us.  Based upon this misunderstanding, it is reasonable to not object when someone wrongs us, to say “it’s ok” when it’s not ok, and to suppress anger and irritation so as not to upset others. 

But this isn’t the proper way to practice ahimsa.

The idea of Ahimsa is to cultivate a “non-intention to injure”, in ourselves.  But one cannot practice this as if in a vacuum.  While a very strict interpretation of ahimsa might be appropriate for a monk living in an ashram where few others live, a different interpretation has to be applied when living in a crowded world where the behavior of others can cause harm. 

Once, while in India, I asked my meditation teacher, Swami Veda Bharati, about the application of ahimsa in such situations.  He said "to use the minimum force necessary for self or other protection."  In other words, if a whisper is enough to stop the harmful behavior, whisper. If a shout is required, shout.  Leaving a dangerous situation might be what is best, or calling for help.  The idea is to take action to protect yourself and others, being mindful to avoid unnecessary harm to the perpetrator. 

Author Stephen Levine tells the story of a spiritual Master finding a snake who is all beaten up.  The Master says to the snake:  “What’s wrong?  Why are you all beaten up?” The snake says: “I am trying to practice non-violence and not bite but people keep abusing me.” 
The Master says: “Nobody told you not to hiss.”

You have a duty to protect yourself, both for your welfare and the welfare of those depending on you, and it’s not consistent with ahimsa to allow someone to abuse you.  It harms you, harms those who are depending on you, and actually harms the perpetrator too by allowing them to do a harmful action and creating "bad karma".

In this specific situation where someone wronged you, saying “there is nothing to forgive” not only is not true, but it teaches the perpetrator that it’s ok to harm you--so why would they change?

A far better approach would be to use the least amount of force necessary to protect yourself. Perhaps you’d very clearly tell the person how his behavior violated your trust and that it must not happen again. If the perpetrator does it again, you'd have options. The most important point would be to choose your options consciously, with an intent to use the least necessary force.

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