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Reflections on Self-Compassion, Intuition and the Practice of Ahimsa

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

Andrea Towler, Jan 2019

‘Once your abuser stops abusing you, who continues the abuse?’ was a central reflection at the sweatlodge which formed the core of my spiritual practice for many years. Speaking to the violence inherent in abuse or attachment trauma, as well as the more insidious internalization of violence that can occur as a result of abuse and trauma, this question allows us to recognize and challenge the self-destructive tendencies which occur as a result of internalized violence. I like to think of ahimsa as a way of recognizing the violence we have internalized from the outer world (whether through outright abuse or through the absorption of violence inherent in our cultural environment) and as a way of refraining from engagement with these internalized forms of violence. First and foremost, the deliberate cultivation of self-compassion is the practice I turn to as an alternative to the self-criticism, minimizing and denial which often accompany emotional suffering. Self-compassion allows me to respond to my own suffering with an active form of non-violence.

Restraint is implicit in the practice of ahimsa (‘a’ - not ‘himsa’ - violence), a cornerstone of classical yoga practice. However, we might conceive of ahimsa as an active practice as well as a practice of restraint. Any practice of restraint that targets negative habits or characteristics including anger, self-criticism, guilt, shame, self-doubt or ‘violence’, might be approached with the idea of adding something positive into the mix, rather than simply eliminating what is deemed ‘unwanted’, since the idea of challenging something head-on will always contain a trace element of violence within it. The practice of self-compassion (which I see as the practice of self-love in the context of suffering) allows me to refrain from internalized forms of violence in a very gradual and non-violent way. In this way I can respond to self-criticism, for example, with the deliberate cultivation of understanding and kindness, holding both the criticism and the kindness in my awareness, until I feel a shift from the violence implicit in rampant and often unconscious self-criticism to the conscious and sustained cultivation of self-compassion and self-love.

Self-compassion is consistent with the idea of radical self-acceptance, in which every aspect of one’s experience, including internalized violence, is met with mindfulness and acceptance. And while destructive tendencies such as self-criticism and self-doubt might ultimately be subsumed and transformed within the sustained generation of kindness, compassion and love, this might be considered as a secondary effect rather than as a primary goal of the practice, since the starting point in the practice of self-compassion is unconditional self-acceptance, and includes those elements we might perceive as ‘unwanted’, 'unhealthy', 'negative' or even ‘evil’. In self-acceptance as in self-compassion, there is no rejection. “Do not turn yourself into a battlefield;” says Thay Thich Nhat Hanh, “with good fighting evil. This is not the practice.” Though it might not always be the best option, embracing violence with non-violence is one possibility on the spectrum of possibilities that fall under the rubric of ahimsa.

If self-compassion is an active form of ahimsa, we might also consider violence in its passive form. Passive violence involves the withholding of elements necessary for health and life, such as food, air, water, shelter, security, attention, human rights, love, compassion, self-love, self-compassion. In confronting these passive forms of violence, ahimsa operates like a double negative (which is interesting to consider given Patanjali’s expertise in Sanskrit grammar). Ahimsa as a double negative would translate as: stop withholding love, stop withholding compassion, stop withholding basic rights, stop withholding food, stop withholding power. Translate these double-negative forms into their positive counterparts: share love, share oxygen, share food, share compassion, share power; and they begin to read as acts of generosity rather than as needs or basic rights. So when does 'withholding' or 'not sharing' constitute violence?

Ahimsa challenges us to see the violence inherent in the withholding of basic needs and rights, and to recognize not only their absence, but also their interruption. In the context of self-compassion, this would mean identifying situations in which self-compassion and self-love begin to waver or collapse altogether. In my own life, do such interruptions in self-compassion occur after yelling at the kids? While wasting time on the internet in order to escape from daily stress? While noticing eating habits that are less than ideal? Other examples, of course, might be even more extreme, but the practice would be the same: rather than challenging the unwanted habit or behaviour head-on, focus on preventing any interruptions in the flow of self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-love, and on sustaining this flow in the most continuous manner possible, regardless of the circumstances. By prioritizing an environment of sustained self-compassion and acceptance, we are less likely to become hijacked by self-criticism, self-judgement and self-hatred while attempting to set goals and create positive change. Self-compassion allows us to more effectively refrain from internalized violence by recognizing the suffering inherent in violence itself.

“The power of compassion”, in the words of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, “is the power of the divine…. Compassion is the sole cause of the initial pulsation - the power of compassion is itself the puslation - (anugraha shakti). Thus spiritually speaking, the power of compassion is our origin. Following satkaryavada - the cardinal doctrine of Sankhya Yoga, which holds that the cause always remains present in the effect- we see that every nook and cranny of our personal life - as well as the entire universe, is pervaded and sustained by the power of compassion.” (The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada, p. 39)

In one of my favourite talks on ahimsa, Panditji took the practice of ahimsa out of the social context in which it is often understood, and focused on the effects of self-inflicted violence. In particular, he highlighted the damaging effects of self-destructive tendencies such as self-criticism, self-doubt and self-hatred on our higher intelligence, known in the yogic scheme of the mind as Buddhi.

I was first introduced to the concept of Buddhi by my teacher Rod Stryker, who distinguished Buddhi from other faculties of the mind in two ways. First, Buddhi has the potential to access pure spiritual intelligence directly. Secondly, Buddhi constitutes the 'decision-making faculty' within the mind, and is responsible for making choices that are both mundane and inconsequential as well as complex and far-reaching. When I was first exposed to these teachings, I was feeling quite ‘stuck’ in my life and felt overwhelmed by some major decisions that I was facing. At that point, learning techniques to access my higher power in order to 'make decisions' was enlightening, empowering, and useful to me on a very practical level. Eventually, connecting the practice of ahimsa and self-compassion with the capacity to access and protect the intuitive potential of Buddhi became a great insight for me on my path.

One of the questions I have grappled with as a result of this insight concerns the relationship between Buddhi and ethics. In a nutshell, the conclusion I have drawn is two fold. First there is the distinction between Buddhi and ethics. Ethics form part of a larger social contract and are informed for better or worse by existing social norms, ideally contributing to predictability, stability and harmonious social relationships. Depending on how much we value a particular set of ethics, our decisions will be tied to some degree to a pre-existing moral code. Buddhi, on the other hand, is not in and of itself constrained by ethics or social norms, and puts the decision-making power more squarely in the hands of the individual.

While decisiveness correlates with a strong Buddhi, its strength is independent from its alignment with any particular set of values. In other words, whether Buddhi is strong or weak is separate from whether its decisions are primarily influenced by an elevated system of values and ethics, immediate self-gratification, a given system of reasoning and logic, unconscious held beliefs, or the living force of pure spiritual intelligence.

If Buddhi were perfectly aligned with this universal intelligence and we were able to access this spiritual force 100% of the time, we would have no need for ethics, since our actions would always be aligned with the universal law of dharma. However, since Buddhi is generally accessing pure spiritual intelligence on a sporadic basis, there are often many instances of confusion in which we are unable to discern universal intelligence and our most deeply held values from other factors such as strong emotion, social pressure, addictive tendencies and the drive for immediate gratification, as well as unconsciously held systems of belief. When the driving forces behind our intuition are unclear, ethics provide us with a necessary fall-back position and course of action that will safeguard harmonious social relationships with others and maintain consistency in our actions. But while ethics offer a degree of safety, stability and predictability to our decision-making, in the yogic scheme of things, Buddhi ultimately has the potential to access information from a higher order altogether. In addressing the incongruities that might arise between a given system of ethics and Buddhi, when the clear voice of conscience aligns itself with the living force of pure spiritual intelligence, Buddhi trumps all.

It is interesting to consider the role of intuition in decision-making, and to view intuition both from the perspective of neuroscience and Western psychology as well as from the perspective of classical yoga philosophy; to see where these systems intersect and support each other, as well as to recognize the limitations in their mutuality. Ultimately, although I think it is fascinating to see the connections being made between interoception and intuition, for example, or to consider the way in which self-identity begins to take its shape in childhood through right brain development in the context of attachment, these perspectives are limited by their fundamentally materialist orientation, and by their inability to explicitly integrate the role of Spirit into their discussions. Ahimsa is a concept that arises out of the spiritual practices and philosophical systems of India, in which the role of Spirit is not only acknowledged but takes center-stage. From my own perspective, holding space for the role of Spirit is essential in the development of a holistic and ‘non-violent’ understanding of trauma, and of the human experience more generally.

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