When I was 21 a friend took me to a free movie series at The University of Delaware. The first movie we saw was Gandhi, and I don't think I blinked or breathed throughout the entire film. What most imprinted on me was how he constantly brought his hands together in the sacred gesture of love, prayer and reverence. This expression was so genuine, so honest. It was the definition of kindness. After the movie, as we walked around the campus, my friend asked me what I was thinking, for I had been silent. I remained silent for quite a while after he asked the question. I finally turned to him and he held me while I cried. I knew in that instant that my life would never be the same.
The very next day I went to the local bookshop and got a used copy of Gandhi's autobiography. I couldn't put it down. I learned that Gandhi had dedicated his entire life to the practice of ahimsa, a Sanskrit word translated as non-violence or non-harming. As you might imagine, this practice didn't come without inner-conflict and oftentimes failure, for there were many times early on in his life when he was tortured by how to proceed with this practice without bringing harm to himself or to others.
After reading his autobiography, I desired to achieve a deeper understanding of his mind, so I read everything that Gandhi read: Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy. These men spoke of civil disobedience by living simply and away from dominant culture. I soon moved to Colorado and lived in my tent on the side of mountain. And yet, a question continued to raise itself: How could I live in this world and not be part of the violence and hypocrisy that seemed to permeate every aspect of living?
Ahimsa is the first of five yamas, which are ethical explorations on "right living." They are the infrastructure of living a life in harmony with ourselves and with the world around us. It's easy for us to say off the cuff, "I'm not violent," but the practice of ahimsa invites us to dive deeper and to see the ways in which we are creating harm to ourselves and to all living beings, including the Earth. It is unlikely that any of us will achieve a state of perfect practice of this foundation. There is no such thing. There is only the vibrant and constant movement towards being more conscious.
Ultimately, Gandhi believed that if you fill your heart with love so that nothing else can fit, then the practice of ahimsa will become a natural way of being.