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Monday, June 03, 2002

Aparigraha: Non-Attachment or Non-Possessiveness

While FJB's away on retreat, I'm stepping in this week to write on the fifth yama, aparigraha. Sanskrit purists say that the "a" should be pronounced closer to the English "u," as in up. So perhaps we should say this word more like "u-puri-gru-hu" and know that it has many connotations.

Traditionally, it is interpreted as non-greed, non-hoarding, non-attachment to goods, or non-possessiveness. Its roots are: "a" means "not" in Sanskrit; "pari" means "about or around;" and "gra-ha" may be a root that has descended into English as "grasp." Some Jain monks take this yama so seriously that they refuse to own anything at all, or even wear clothes. These "skyclad" monks seem to feel that to own anything -- even a bowl, a loincloth, or a fly-swatter -- creates karma, and may be a form of theft (steya). They consider this yama to be the key to all the others.

A Jain fable relates the story of a monk who is walking down a road when he comes across a pack of starving dogs gathered around a bone. One large dog grabs the bone and begins to run off with it; the others immediately follow, snarling and snapping. As a group they attack the dog with the bone, tearing at his flesh, their teeth gnashing and dripping blood. Badly wounded, he cannot defend himself, and another dog steals the bone from his mouth. The pack immediately wheels upon the second dog. This dog is crafty; he outruns the pack, goes into a barn and hides the bone in a bale of hay. Then he runs around outside the barn, sniffing as if looking for the bone. But the pack isn't fooled; driven with blood-lust, they likewise tear the second dog to pieces as well. Thus hunger and greed beget himsa (violence), steya (theft), and asatya (deceit).

Of course, we don't have to go naked to practice aparigraha in our daily lives. It's easy to see some of the ways to practrice aparigraha: conserving energy, recycling, living more simply, buying a used car instead of a new one, giving away more money to charity, buying a smaller house, etc. Other ways are also obvious: stop judging others by their material goods, believing that what you own is tantamount to what you are, that buying more and more brings happiness. . .all the beliefs of American consumerism.

Everyone has experienced, even as a child, the let-down of acquiring things. Almost everyone at one time or another has thought: if only I had that, my life would be better, I would be complete. If only I had a Lexus, or a liposuction, or a better job, or the perfect boyfriend. . .If only I wore a size 6 dress, had a better golf game, a double-scoop of ice-cream. . .If I only owned. . .and we all know that once we get these things we feel the same misery we felt before.

The Sivananda school of yoga explains why material things can never satisfy us: they are fundamentally "false." Understanding the falsehood of material things is called mithya drsti. The idea seems similar to that of the Buddha's insight of emptiness. Material things are inherently empty, and so cannot satisfy the heart. Of course, when we think we are yearning for "things," we are in fact yearning for a closer connection to ourselves and other people. By continuing to mindlessly gather things, to invest needless things with emotional meaning (to cathect them), we are only starving ourselves of what we most need -- more authentic human relationships.

But of course this principle can apply to other people as well. Thus many people run from one person to another, always seeking to acquire a "better" romantic partner. A cuter one, a funnier one, a more successful one. . .This is a painful form of grasping, as it reduces the other people in one's life to objects that can be readily discarded. And it's very harmful to the person running; they fail to see that by relating to others as objects, they are slowly but surely also coming to regard themselves only as objects. Thus their feelings of alienation and anxiety grow, since with every interaction they become more distant from their true selves and more unable to feel joy. Their cure re-inforces the cause of their disease. (Here's where the brahmacarya (mindful sexuality) comes in.)

A subtle form of grasping, one that I often fall prey to, is the kind turned inward. It's self-doubt and self-hatred. If only I could learn some fancy pretzel-asana! If only I weren't so stupid, so ugly, so fat. This is also attachment to a needless thing. To lust after the perfect bakasana is meaningless; since after i achieve a picture-perfect pose, I'll only feel more dissatisfied: having mastered crane pose, what's keeping my worthless carcass from doing the crane-to-tripod-headstand vinyasa? Here I am only using my supposed yoga to destroy myself in a greed to be somehow better, to be someone I'm just not. Like the dogs in the Jain fable, my grasping for meaningless attainment only leads me to harm myself, steal happiness from myself, and deceive myself as to who I really am.

B.K.S. Iyengar says in his Light on the Yoga Sutras, "Knowledge of past and future lives unfolds when one is free from greed for possessions." I think what he means by this is that once we have stopped grasping cars, Calvin Klein models, perfect asanas; and once we have realized that holding on for dear life to our anger, our shame, our delusions, is severely limiting us, only then we can then see for the first time who we have been, who others have been to us, and realize how we truly are in the now. This frees us to create a more genuine life. It would actually give us knowledge of what a future life of joy and contentment could be.

The interesting thing, according to Thay Thich Naht Hahn, is that we don't have to wait for the future to have this life of joy. We can achieve this future life now by simply being mindful of our actions, of our breath, just this very instant. Mindfulness and aparigraha meet in Thay's Fifth Mindfulness Training: "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am determined to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming." Thus we see the link between compassion and aparigraha.

Or as yoga teacher Erich Schiffmann says "Love is what is left when we let go of everything we don't need." The only way to know if he is right is to experiment. Perhaps we should all look for something we don't need right now and let it go. Do you feel different? What happens if you try it again?

Missed FJB's Notes on the other yamas? Check out: ahimsa, satya, asteya, and brahmacarya.

.: posted by fortune 3:52 PM

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