‘Do no harm’ – ‘take no shit’

In the past we have discussed ‘ahimsa’ the practice of non-violence. Ahimsa is an important ethical stance taken by many students of the Buddha. To practice non-violence is to try to do no harm, or at least to minimise the harm we cause to ourselves, to other beings and to the planet.

However, it is important to understand that the intention to ‘do no harm’ does not mean accepting, or agreeing with, anything, or everything, that happens. It is not a doctrine of passivity. Taking action grounded in non-violence, is to take action that will help to reduce suffering, resolve conflict and increase the wellbeing of ourselves, other beings and our planet. Standing up for one’s ethical values is a vital part of applying the understanding and composure that arises from doing mindful meditation. This may, at times, involve taking a stand to counter delusion, anger and greed that we encounter in our daily lives. But the stand needs to be taken from a position that is itself mindful, caring, non-violent – in other words peaceful.

Expressing and defending an ethics of non-violence, may involve acknowledging in oneself, and pointing out to others, that a thought, a statement or an action, is causing harm; and, working to change minds and behaviours towards non-violence and peace.

Harmful words and actions may require robust responses – this can be challenging and require courage and patience. Being attentive to harmful words and actions – noticing that they are occurring – is always the first step. Awareness of the context in which they occur is another step. This often involves setting aside one’s own views in order to see clearly what is going on. Communicating to others that harm is being done, may be all that is needed. Enabling others to see what is happening may lead to understanding and conciliation. However, sometimes it is necessary to go further – to intervene in a situation and defend those who are being harmed. This may not be an easy thing to do – particularly if you are a lone voice of kindness, or if others disagree with your ethical standpoint. How far one goes in this process depends upon commitment, confidence and courage.

Sometimes the key action that is required is to ‘take the heat’ out of a situation – to defuse mounting tension, escalating arguments or aggression. This may require a creative response – for instance, employing humour, keeping calm, or just asking everyone to step back and take a breath. The important thing is to try to act in a mindful way – if possible, without anger, greed or misunderstanding. On the other hand, sometimes, one’s own anger needs to be acknowledged and channelled towards understanding and helping to resolve a conflict situation – or the energy of the mindful anger one feels can be directed into defending oneself or another. Again, this requires a combination of self-awareness and composure, understanding of context, and courage. Ranting and raving is the expression of a clouded mind and is rarely helpful – however much it may feel good to ‘let off steam.’

Sometimes, the path of non-violence is a path of resistance – resisting the self-centredness or aggression in oneself through self-awareness and understanding – resisting the desire to add fuel to the fire of a developing argument or conflict – or by resisting the harmful words or actions of someone else. ‘Calling out’ what you perceive to be harmful words and actions in others, is part of the responsibility that comes with being mindful of what is going on. Sitting back while someone else is being harmed, or when someone expresses hatred or deluded opinions, only prolongs the harm and suffering. Calling someone to account for their hateful speech or aggression is an important part of the process of reducing suffering, both for the victim, and for the aggressor – who needs to realise what they are doing and learn that there are other ways of being in the world.

By observing our embodied minds without attachment, the practice of zazen or mindful meditation can enable us to think more clearly, be aware of our emotions, maintain composure and act more decisively – even in situations of conflict, stress and suffering. The presence of someone who is calm, clear-headed and decisive, even when they are angry, can be a powerful force for good – perhaps helping others to understand and let-go-of the anger, greed or delusion that grips them. The practice of zazen, or other forms of mindful meditation, can help us to ‘do no harm,’ and to ‘take no shit.’