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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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On my lower back I have a tattoo. It is written in sanskrit and says "ahimsa".

Ahimsa can be loosely translated as 'non-violence' or 'not-harming' and is one of the fundamental "yamas" described in the yoga sutra. I've generally thought of the yamas as something like the ten commandments, precepts for living a right life. But a very wise yoga teacher wrote a book about the yamas and helped me understand that they are more like declarations of what we are when we are connected to our true nature

I've had this tattoo for more than a decade and it has long been a reminder to me of the path that I chose to walk. Now, with Donna's wisdom, I can also think of it as a reminder of my true nature, when I get the other distractions and misconceptions out of the way.

When I went to Gaza I wore this word on my back and I often reminded myself of it, a permanently etched message to myself about how I wanted to conduct myself in that place where so much violence has already been perpetrated. But I overlooked one area of my life.

Near the end of my time in Gaza I got involved in a difficult situation where I agreed to buy a car off a friend and then resell it to another of her friends, at the same price. I would have the use of the car for two months until he could get the money together to buy it, and it got around a diplomatic restriction which prevented her from selling it to him directly. She sold me the car and then left the country. We had been very close friends for most of my two years in Gaza, living together for more than 18 months.

When the time came for me to pass the car on to her friend he reneged on the deal, insisting that the car was not worth what I had paid for it and that he was only willing to pay me a significantly lower price. I had been working for two years on a salary roughly equivalent to that of my Palestinian colleagues and needed the money from the car to buy my ticket home to New Zealand. I couldn't afford the ticket at the reduced price.

I was very upset and worried about the change in the deal and I told a third friend. He offered to buy the car off me instead, at the originally agreed price, and my problem was solved. But I was angry at my friend, when the problem developed and I contacted her she did nothing to put pressure on her friend to fulfill our deal. She was gone and it felt to me that she was no longer concerned.

That was ten years ago. In the intervening ten years I had no contact with her. I stayed in contact with all my other friends in Gaza, both the internationals who eventually moved on and the Palestinians who have remained. Often when I met or talk with one of them they ask me about her, "How is she, where is she?" they ask, assuming that I would be in close contact with this woman with whom I shared my home and life for two years.

I've been ashamed to admit that I didn't know. There has been a discomfort whenever I have thought of her all these years. I have felt something unsettled.

Two weeks ago I got an email from her. Her first words to me, after ten years, were "I have always felt bad about the way that we parted. I am very sorry. I would love to know how you are." In the instant that I read her message I felt any residue of my anger or disappointment melt away, all I was left with was a wonderful sense of relief and warmth. In an instant I had back all the best of what we had shared together. I wrote to her immediately telling her how sorry I also was about how things had ended and from there a gentle but lovely exchange began.

So when I read Donna's explanation that "ahimsa" is not something that we strive to be but something that we are, a part of our true nature that hurts when we act against it, I knew she was right. She quoted one of her own teachers who had told her that it is because of our true nature of ahimsa that when we kick someone out of our heart we develop a hole in ourselves and that hole cannot be repaired until we invite this person back in.

I thought of my friend, her email after ten years and the peacce I experienced when I accepted it, and I knew that this was the message of my tattoo. Not a reminder to try to resist my basic violent nature and force myself to be compassionate, but a reminder to be brave enough to let distractions and delusions fall away until I can sit quietly and consistently in my true nature, which is compassionate and does no harm.


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5 Responses to "Ahimsa"

  1. very cool. it’s awesome to have a tattoo (and i have them also) that reminds you of what you are and what you believe in ….it keeps you moving forward i think

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    I struggle with ahimsa – it is a challenge for me to bring it in to my life. It’s easy to speak peace but often so hard to live it every day! You relating your story about your friend reminded me of an argument with a friend I had recently. I reflected afterwards that I had not acted with ahimsa. But when I thought more, I realised that this friendship had been extremely toxic and I was actually glad she wanted nothing more to do with me. What I worked on was letting her go with out anger and I think I’m almost there.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do enjoy reading your blog.

  3. tiny noises says:

    this is beautiful and true. so glad you have reconnected with your friend and that you are so aware of your true nature.

  4. Swirly says:

    You have such a gift…this is beautiful…YOU are beautiful.

  5. Emma says:

    Beautiful story and I love this way of looking at the yamas!

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