The poem called the Wiccan Rede is a long one which offers many bits of good advice about living and suggestions about honouring lunar and solar cycles. It ends with the couplet, "Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill/An ye harm none, do what ye will," and certainly this is the meat of the poem; it is also the phrase commonly called the Wiccan Rede. It is a simple statement of ethics that actually has a lot to it.
Not all witches adhere to the Rede; certainly it's something we know was written by inspired humans rather than directly by God/dess, so no one would give it the stature that the Christians give the Bible...that of a writing to be accepted without question. Most witches, however, follow some sort of similar ethical principle, knowing that what we put out eventually comes back to us. The Rede is something I've always seen as a good starting point.
It's actually, to my mind, more demanding than "Treat thy neighbour as thyself." Some people treat themselves pretty badly, and might take this as permission to be as judgmental and critical of their neighbours. One of the strengths of the Rede is that it demands that we harm *none*...human, animal, plant or elemental...including ourselves. In this way, it avoids becoming a formula for martyrdom. Witches generally hold their bodies, minds, hearts, souls, and lives as sacred gifts from the Gods, and believe one appropriate way to show gratitude for our gifts is to take good care of them.
That said, given that we need to nourish ourselves, it is impossible to live without harming other creatures...the human body just doesn't do well on a strict diet of milk and honey. Even vegetarians kill plants to eat. We walk across a field and we will probably step on any number of insects and plants. So the Rede is probably impossible to follow in the strictest sense of doing no harm to anything. But it *is* a useful standard to work toward, and a good reminder to think about the consequences of all our actions.
This, I think, is what the Rede basically asks....that whatever we do, we avoid doing it carelessly. All our actions will have consequences, and we must be responsible for those consequences. Whether "everyone does 'it' (fill in the blank)," or not, the Rede asks us to analyse the likely results of our actions. So if we spend some time thinking about what those consequences might be, decide on a course of action, openly and honestly observe what actually happens as a result, and take those observations into account the next time we need to make a decision, I believe we are following the Rede to the best of our ability. As long as we are sincerely learning and adjusting our behaviour to do less harm and more good, I think we are doing what God/dess asks.
It is easy, in a culture permeated by the guilt orientation of Christianity, to flog ourselves for our imperfections. In my opinion, this is one way we can do serious harm to ourselves. We are not perfect; one can argue that not even the Gods are perfect. If we were perfect, we wouldn't be here on Earth to learn. If we can see each experience in our lives as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than an opportunity to shame ourselves for our mistakes, then we will be more willing to take the kinds of risks that allow us to keep stretching our limits and breaking down our limitations. It's certainly possible to do harm by omission as well as by action.
And this is where we get into the second part of the Rede...if it harms nothing and no-one... "do what ye will." This isn't about drifting through life bouncing off one circumstance into another without plan or direction. Neither is it about existing from day to day, grateful when nothing bad happens, filling in time in front of the tube and hazing everything over with beer or pot. Doing one's will implies having goals and working toward them; it implies taking the reigns of one's life firmly in one's own hands. The Rede empowers us to be the motivation and the drivers in our own lives. There is more to this principle than doing what one "wants," it implies knowing one's will and not only working toward it, but also being true to it by not doing those things we might feel pressured to do which aren't truly our will.
Some witches speak of "Higher Will," a sense of what the purpose of one's life is and a willingness to work toward it; the implication of this idea is that it's a quality of will that taps into the Divine within us. When we are acting according to our Higher Will we cannot do harm to others, for our Divine Will sees our connection to all living things and sees our purpose in terms of how we can serve the whole.
A very powerful extension of the Rede is that addictive actions violate it. Even the addictions that don't do harm physically by damaging our bodies damage our wills and spirits, for true addictions become things we cannot prevent ourselves from doing...whether we will or not. Allowing ourselves to act on such compulsions rather than our will seems to me one of the things the Rede was written to cover.
Okay...now for some murky ground. As witches we believe our thoughts and emotions have power. We can use visualisation and mental focus to nudge energies in that place where the energetic blueprints for manifest reality are kept...and thereby make change in the physical world. We know that if we have strong emotions behind our magical work, it is more powerful. We know that the energy we put out effects the world around us...certainly it has an effect on other people and animals if they aren't adequately shielded. So are we responsible for any harm our thoughts and emotions might create?
Well, firstly, our emotions are energy that flows through us...all emotions have a purpose and no emotions are bad in and of themselves. Anger alerts us to some sort of violation of our boundaries. Fear alerts us that something may be a threat. These energies flow into our system and give us their message. If we are alert to our feelings and decipher them quickly and accurately, we can do something appropriate about the situation they came to let us know about, and they simply flow on. It's when we ignore them...or don't do anything about the situation...or choose to hold onto them and dwell on them...or even let them change into chronic emotional states like resentment or helplessness...that they can do harm. Both to us and to others.
These things we do have the ability to control if we will. Similarly, we can learn to discipline our thoughts...not by forbidding ourselves to have angry or jealous thoughts...but by learning not to dwell on the ones that could be harmful...thereby giving them energy and power.
Again, I see the Rede not as something to measure myself against for the purpose of indulging in guilt...but for the purpose of seeing where I can grow and improve.
For many years, I thought the Rede insufficient; I felt I should aim higher than just doing no harm...I wanted to do something positive. Then I realised that the second half of the Rede looks after that; if it's my will to leave the world better than I found it, nothing is holding me back but the limits of my courage and resourcefullness.
Like many simple but powerful phrases, this one will grow in meaning for you as you grow with it. If you accept it as a way of measuring what you do and prompting growth and change where you don't live up, it can empower you to find your own will, hopefully your Higher Will, and bring it about.