Ahimsa: I Will Do No Harm (Except, Can I Squash that Bug?)
“Do bugs count?” someone asked one day as I was giving a lecture on ahimsa—the principle of non-violence. I laughed, remembering my own experience with the insect world. I used to have a morbid dread of insects in any form—even if they were tiny. When I moved to New York City years ago, my biggest fear was that I’d have to live with cockroaches. The mere thought terrified me. But as luck would have it, I was spared. I lived in three different apartments in New York, all cockroach-free.
“Do bugs count?” someone asked one day as I was giving a lecture on ahimsa—the principle of non-violence.
But not bug-free. One night I switched on the bathroom light, and there it was—a big, ugly, black water bug. My heart racing, I ran from the room, jumped under the bed covers, and waited for my roommate to go to the bathroom. llsa has a compassionate streak and takes kindly to all living creatures, and I knew she would calmly rid us of this intruder. But by the time she reached the bathroom, it was gone. That, I thought gratefully, was the end of that—the bug felt unwanted and decamped.
Wrong. The next night the scenario repeated itself. Again I panicked and ran, and again the water bug was nowhere to be seen by morning. This went on night after night. Then one day it appeared ahead of schedule, crawling up the living room wall as I got home from work. I pointed frantically, but Ilsa saw nothing. “It was there just a moment ago!” I cried. And then, as if on cue, it appeared again. She calmly took a towel and, talking quietly to it, picked it up and took it outside.
“Now why can’t I do that?” I wondered. “Why does a bug create so much fear in me that I lose all sense of compassion and equilibrium?” No answer came to mind and the bug was gone, so I let the question fade without further contemplation.
A few months later Ilsa went to an ashram for Guru Purnima, the day set aside to honor the teachers in the spiritual lineage. I stayed in New York alone and decided to devote my evening to spiritual practice, as a way of connecting with the celebration. As I lay on the floor, doing a relaxation exercise, a serene energy enveloped me. I found it a bit peculiar that the energy on my right arm was more pronounced than the energy on my left, but thought no more of it as I slid deeper into relaxation. Then the energy jumped onto my chest. I opened my eyes and came face to face with—you guessed it—a water bug! I jumped, throwing off my blanket, and the water bug went flying. My heart was racing and I was crippled with fear. All because of a bug!
I calmed myself as best I could and thought of my roommate. What would Ilsa do? Remembering her example, I went to the kitchen to get a jar to transport the bug outside, but on the way back I met it crawling toward me. This sudden encounter shattered my calm veneer. Without thinking, I hit it with the jar and killed it. So much for ahimsa.
Feeling bad—after all, it was Guru Purnima—I returned to my room, turned off the light, and sat to meditate. No sooner did I start to go inward than I heard a faint scratching. Something was crawling near me. Oh, no, not another one! I turned on the light and there it was. I tried to be calm and catch it in the jar, but because I was so frantic the poor bug became frantic too. Fear engendered fear. Every time the creature raced toward me, my panic grew. I squished that one too.
Feeling bad—after all, it was Guru Purnima—I returned to my room, turned off the light, and sat to meditate.
I was devastated. Here it was Guru Purnima, the day I should be honoring my teacher, and what was I doing? Killing! I accused myself of being an unfit student, unable to practice even the first of the yamas. Ahimsa had always seemed simple to me in theory, but I was discovering it was not so simple in practice. Outdone by two bugs, I was feeling sorry for myself and equally sorry for my teacher for being saddled with such an unworthy student. On that doleful note I went to bed.
The rest of my stay in New York was uneventful, bug-wise, but the lesson wasn’t over. When I moved into a small house in the country a short time later, I quickly realized that this meant living with bugs—bugs of all kinds. There was no end to them. Obviously my lesson wasn’t over. At first I battled them outright, engaging in wholesale killing. Then slowly I learned tolerance. I began catching the critters in jars and carrying them outside. After all, as far as the bugs were concerned, I was in their space. How were they supposed to know that according to my rules they weren’t supposed to be inside? They probably wanted to be outdoors as much as I wanted them out there. Whenever my roommate heard me talking in my room, she knew I was coaxing yet another bug into a jar for the trip outside.
During the months that followed, as I began to make peace with myself—learning to accept myself as I am and others as they are—my fear of bugs subsided. After a while I was too tired from my day’s activities to catch them and take them outside. So I began to bargain with them: “If you don’t bite me, you can stay.” We seemed to have reached a happy compromise. Then I went to India.
In Delhi I had no problems, but Rishikesh was another story. I arrived around 1:00 a.m., dirty and tired in the aftermath of a bumpy, dusty, six-hour drive. After the usual pleasantries, I was shown to my room. Stumbling into the bathroom, I was greeted by the King Kong of spiders. And it was sitting right over the toilet! It was so huge I started to panic. I had made peace at home with regulation-sized insects, but I wasn’t up for this. Still, I was too tired to fight. So I mentally told the spider that I meant it no harm. I only wanted to use the toilet; I would leave immediately afterward; and I would be most grateful if it wouldn’t move. It didn’t. I did what I needed to do quickly, and left.
The next morning it was still there. It was too big to stomp and I had no other suitable weapon. I didn’t know how fast it could move, but I wasn’t up to finding out. I guess I could have asked one of the servants to kill it, but I didn’t want to cause a fuss. So I decided to observe it for a day or two. It seemed friendly enough, so I let it stay. We got into a routine. Every morning I looked to see where it had moved to during the night. I soon noticed that it always stayed in the same spot during the day. I could live with that. After a while I found that I rather enjoyed the spider’s company. We spent the next six weeks together without incident.
But one morning I entered the bathroom to find the spider wrapped around the toilet paper roll on top of the tank. Now I had a problem. So, not knowing what else to do, I quietly told the spider that I needed it to move, and gently tapped the top of the roll to get its attention. To my amazement, the spider crawled slowly off! It seemed that as long as I remained calm and centered, all was well.
Not knowing what else to do, I quietly told the spider that I needed it to move, and gently tapped the top of the roll to get its attention.
But then the weather changed. Winter was over, and as I walked into the bathroom one fine spring day, I saw my usually lethargic spider zipping across the walls and ceiling like a race car driver. Would it stop or was this the new pattern? Even if it stopped, how was I to know it wouldn’t start racing around again without warning? This I could not live with, and I watched my old panic resurface. My instinctive reaction was to strike out and kill the spider, but as I frantically looked for a suitable weapon, I caught myself. “What am I doing?” I thought. “I’ve lived peacefully with this spider for six weeks, and now I’m going to kill it just because it’s changed its rhythm? Am I a barbarian?”
So I centered myself and had another talk with the spider, telling it that I wasn’t comfortable with its new mobility, that I’d enjoyed the time we had shared, but we’d come to a parting of the ways. I found an empty box and, pointing to it, I told the spider that if it would crawl into the box, I would take it outside and free it in the garden. To my astonishment, it complied.
As odd as it may sound, this spider was a kind of teacher. It made me look at my fear—not only of bugs, but of other relationships as well. When it moved according to my expectations, I felt secure and could allow it to be, but when it changed its pace and pattern, I became so uneasy I wanted to kill it. Although I’ve certainly never been tempted to take out a gun and shoot someone, I have been known to snap at people when I’m off center and feeling the need to control my outer environment.
As odd as it may sound, this spider was a kind of teacher.
How can I practice non-harming when I am afraid? The culmination of ahimsa is the spontaneous expression of universal love. If I am contracted in fear that someone may hurt me, then I can hardly be filled with love; the two cannot co-exist.
In thinking about my history with bugs, I came to understand that if I act from fear, I’ll strike out to protect myself, as I did with those unfortunate water bugs. But if I center myself and stay calm, as I learned to do with the spider, I feel a connection with the universe and all its manifestations, including bugs. From this center, I can accept myself as I am and others as they are. This is where ahimsa begins.
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at HI.