When I was twelve, I travelled with my family in a small Volkswagen to Yugoslavia, a few years before the country would erupt into bitter civil war. With its rolling hills of corn fields and Soviet-era cars, it was like a country that had been frozen in time.
Not far from Ljubljana, now the capital of Slovenia, we lost our way. On a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, we suddenly found ourselves in a traffic jam. There was shouting and cars honking. As vehicles gradually moved, I saw a large and strong man in his sixties, in a fading military uniform. He had set up a make-shift road block and was giving directions and guiding traffic onwards. As he waved a truck on, he saluted in military style - although the driver of the truck was cursing angrily at him.
This man somehow believed he was still in the Great War in the 1940s. What amazed me was how seriously he took his role as he waved vehicles on, periodically stepping into the road to bring the traffic to a halt with utmost certainty in his own authority. He paid no attention to the irate drivers or to the risk to his personal safety.
I wondered what story he was living out. Had he been an officer responsible for roadblocks during the War? Surely the man was senile or mad? I tried to forget the incident, but couldn't. There was something oddly striking about it. What was it that seemed so uncomfortably familiar?
Ten years later, while living as a monk in a temple monastery in India, I finally understood: we are each living out a story we have created. Like the old lieutenant, we carry our story with us wherever we go, forgetting that it is just that - a story. We will invest an entire life building and propping up our story and fighting to defend it.
The problem arises when we believe these stories so passionately, when we take them so seriously, that we lose ourselves and forget they are just stories. When this happens, these narratives can lead us to do some fairly absurd and destructive things.
It's easy to forget that the lead character in our life story is simply our own creation, a figment of the mind. In ancient India, the sages had a name for that imaginary character in our personal narrative. They called it ahankara, which in Sanskrit literally means "I-making".
Examining Our Own Life Story
"They all have more than I do. I am not good enough. I must work harder."
"I must show that I'm doing well. I must make myself attractive and lovable."
"I must not lose this. Without this, I am nobody."
"This person is helping me get what I want. She is my friend."
"That person is my competition. I must overcome him. What if he gets there before I do? I mustn't allow that to happen."
These are just some of the voices of the mind in our personal life story. We repeat and reaffirm these messages. Our thoughts become actions, our actions become habits, and we build our life with these habits. Rarely do we stop to ask ourselves whether these thoughts are even true. Nor do we stop to consider how unkind, even violent, these messages are.
It's easy to notice violence from an external source. It's much more difficult to perceive the internal habits of violence we inflict upon ourselves. We are violent to ourselves every time we think negative thoughts, speak negative words, or otherwise act against ourselves.
The best life story we can possibly write for ourselves is one we write with love and kindness. This is the most beautiful work of art we are capable of creating. Writing our story in this way is an art; and it begins by letting go of our unkind and hostile self-talk.
The Dharma Principle of Non-Violence
In ancient India, the sages considered ahimsa, Non-violence, to be one of the four universal building blocks of a well-lived life. It is the foremost principle of the Dharma Code, a powerful system formerly used by kings and queens to make enlightened choices.
By engaging in violence, we make violence a design principle in our life. The result: a hardening of the heart, a lack of compassion for the suffering of others, an inability to love beyond our own narcissistic self-interest. When we reduce our footprint of violence, the heart is no longer hard and indifferent, but tender and caring. This is its optimal state.
One of the secrets to cultivating Non-violence in our life is to start by being kinder and less violent to ourselves. We can do this by treating our story less seriously and seeing the beautiful foolishness of life. If we are continually judging and punishing ourselves through the lens of our ego, how can we expect not to judge and punish others through that lens also?
We truly see a person before us only through eyes free of violence. We are then able to respect others unconditionally, at the level of the "sacred self", whatever their outward circumstances and whatever stories they happen to be living out. This is when we become a healing presence rather than a hurting presence.
By releasing the grip our story has over us, we learn self-kindness and are able to see and honour others also. Self-kindness fosters kindness to others. Non-violence therefore begins at home, with ourselves. That is why the Mahabharata, a key Dharma text, affirms, "Non-violence is the greatest friend."
Simon Haas is the author ofThe Book of Dharma: Making Enlightened Choices. He lived for ten years in temple monasteries in India, studying the teachings of Dharma, and apprenticed for 16 years with an elderly master practitioner in the Bhakti tradition.