The art of removing and creating habits – part 4
Last month, DAAJI explored the yogic wisdom around creating the habit of truth and authenticity, by studying the second Yama, known as satya. This month, he focuses on the third Yama – asteya, meaning to remove the habit of stealing and taking anything that is not ours.
GENEROSITY & NOT STEALING
Previously, we have explored ahimsa, the removal of all forms of violence, forcefulness and imposition in our character, and satya, the removal of the programs of falsity that prevent us from being authentic and truthful. This month we explore the third Yama, asteya, the removal of the habit of stealing from our lifestyle. Initially, this seems so simple and straightforward – most of us would say, “I don’t steal” – but when we go into this Yama in depth, we realize that it impacts many aspects of our life.
What does it mean to steal from others?
Stealing is taking something without permission or legal or moral right. The obvious examples of stealing are the theft of another person’s property, their possessions, or their intellectual property, but there are so many ways we steal from each other and from our environment. For example, our current environmental crisis, including climate change and the mass extinction of species, is a result of us not following this third Yama; we treat our planet Earth as a resource to be pillaged without restraint.
A little study highlights the fact that non-stealing is an important principle in all cultural traditions and religions. For example:
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, three of the ten commandments relate to asteya:
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s spouse.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.
Of the five precepts of Taoism, the second is:
Lao Tzu said, “The precept against stealing is:
Don’t take anything that we don’t own and is not given to us, whether it belongs to someone or not.”
The second precept of Buddhism is:
Theft is prohibited along with related activities such as fraud and forgery; basically, taking anything that is not given.
The Greek philosopher Plato says:
“He who steals a little, steals with the same wish as he who steals much, but with less power.”
The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant proposes:
There are human duties that conform to unconditional moral laws, including:
Kant thinks that lying, cheating and stealing all involve treating someone or something else as a mere means to an end. This is a central notion in his approach to ethics.
The Harvard Law Professor, Michael Sandel, challenges us with thought-provoking ethical dilemmas around stealing, which we will explore later. He also summarizes the different philosophies on the ethics of stealing, and groups them into two fundamental classes. The first is a totalitarian approach, which is concerned with maximizing the welfare of all and bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Within this framework, the legendary heroic outlaw Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He redistributed wealth in a society where there was a great class divide.
The second is the rights-based approach, which depends upon the fundamental belief in individual rights and individual freedom. In this view, Robin Hood had no right to steal from the rich, no matter how oppressive they were in keeping working people in poverty. Sandel says that there is another view, which transcends both these – that civic virtue and the common good matter much more.
Osho challenges us even further, asking us to examine our own behavior, and saying that most of us are stealing most of the time. It may not be money, land or possessions – we also steal other people’s thoughts and words. He goes so far as to say that most of our knowledge and opinions are stolen.
Osho also agrees with Plato when he says, “The act of theft is total. If I steal two cents, then I am just as much a thief as when I steal two hundred thousand.” He points out that in our society different types of theft have different consequences – some theft lands the thief in jail, whereas clever thieves who are part of the establishment continually get away with thieving. He makes a very bold statement: Our modern societies are based upon theft and corruption. If Osho is correct, then we have to examine the fundamental fabric of our tendencies and habits very carefully.
The first Guide of Heartfulness, Lalaji, says, “Taking more than what is rightful is also stealing. If we hoard something that is not useful in the present, but we keep it for the future, that is also stealing, because it may be useful and necessary to someone else when it is useless to us. Collecting for the future more than is necessary for the present is also stealing.”
And finally, Swami Vivekananda writes, “Receiving is just as bad as stealing, because when receiving gifts the mind is acted upon by the giver, destroying the independence of the mind of the receiver.”
It all goes to show that this third Yama has much wider implications in our lives than it first seems.
There is a very sweet story about my first Guide, Babuji, which shows how we steal the thoughts of others. In his autobiography, Babuji writes, “I became interested in philosophy and began to think out the problems in my own way. It was at the age of fifteen or sixteen that I wanted to read philosophical books. I ordered Mill’s Utilitarianism and went through a few pages of the book. A thought arose in my mind that if I studied such books, I would write their thoughts as quotations, and originality would be lost. I closed the book, put it aside, and developed my own thinking.”
The implication of this is that our education system is based on stolen learning. It depends primarily on book knowledge and rote learning from a very early age. Can we say that this is wrong? Not necessarily. Borrowed knowledge is often very helpful, like when a parent teaches a child not to cross the road without looking both ways first. When we read great thoughts from others and imbibe them, is it so very wrong? Not at all, but we need to ask ourselves, “How am I using that borrowed knowledge?” There is a clear distinction between understanding what others are teaching so that we can learn from them, and simply stealing their thoughts. The first involves discernment and verification, whereas the second is blind. It pays to ask, “Am I cognizant of the extent of the stealing in my life?”
For example, what will you do with the thoughts presented in this article? Ideally, any thoughts I am sharing with you are catalysts for reflection, introspection, experimentation and observation, so that you can decide for yourself whether you agree or not. They should evoke your own experience and knowledge. Otherwise, like Babuji, perhaps it is better to remain original.
Another type of stealing is when we aspire to become like another person to the extent that we are no longer authentic. As with education, we teach this habit to children from a very young age. Parents and teachers often tell children, “Become like Mother Mary,” or “Become noble like Lord Rama,” or “You should aspire to be rich and successful like Warren Buffet or Mukesh Ambani.” They may all be wonderful role models, but what about the original purpose of that child’s soul? We teach children to deny their own authenticity, their own satya, and to steal the identities of others. We are indirectly telling them that they are not worthy as they are, trusting their own heart, whereas when children are allowed to be authentic their inner self shines forth, and they develop self-acceptance without the need to steal thoughts, feelings, personalities and behaviors from others.
Many major industries rely on our compulsion to steal from others, for example the world of fashion and designer clothes relies on us wanting to look like someone else so that we feel we belong. Even in spiritual organizations, if the leader adopts a certain dress code or grows a beard, others automatically copy and adopt the same. We want to be like someone else, and have what they have – preferably someone we admire – so we feel good about ourselves. One of my associates once told me a story about an incident that happened when she was a small girl. A friend at school used to stroke her arm. When she asked, “Why do you keep doing that?” the other little girl responded, “So that whatever you have rubs off on me.” These are all manifestations of a stealing consciousness.
How can we transcend the habit of stealing?
Stealing arises because of the feeling of inadequacy that “What I am and what I have is not enough.” In some cases it is a genuine need, as when a person steals food for their family’s survival. In other cases it is desire-based or because of a psychological compulsion like kleptomania. Instead, let’s imagine for a moment that all we need is being given to us; we lack nothing. Would we then be interested in stealing from others? This inner acceptance that we lack nothing is the state of contentment known as santosh in Sanskrit, which is so highly valued in Yoga.
By letting go of the pulls and pushes of
prejudices, worldly worries, sensuality
and passion, guilt and shame,
we come to a state of equilibrium
and balance where we are no longer
buffeted by wishes and desires.
We first encounter it when we master the journey of Chakra 1 of the Heart Region with the help of a capable Guide. By letting go of the pulls and pushes of prejudices, worldly worries, sensuality and passion, guilt and shame, we come to a state of equilibrium and balance where we are no longer buffeted by wishes and desires. This preliminary state of acceptance is known as Vairagya, and it is one of the four main pillars that lead us to the goal of Yoga.
As we journey further, we eventually encounter an even lighter state of desirelessness known as Uparati, which no longer carries the weight of running away from worldly things. Here there are no longer any pushes and pulls. The soul is now untethered from the ballast of worldly charms and attachments. In this subtle state of acceptance and contentment, where is the need to steal?
How do we arrive at this extraordinarily carefree state? Only a practical approach can bring this about, which is why Patanjali tells us in his Yoga Sutras that we need to do a spiritual practice – abhyas – as well as to live in a state of Vairagya.
Experiencing the sequence of Yamas so far, we also learn that when we are able to master ahimsa and satya, filling our hearts with love and truth, honesty will naturally manifest in everything we think and do. Our very presence will set the moral compass of everyone around us. In fact, stealing is a kind of violence, and it is also dishonest, so by cultivating both non-violence and truthfulness we will naturally cultivate asteya. We will have no interest in coveting or stealing anything.
But is asteya enough on its own? Not taking from others or hurting them is only the beginning. We also need to climb higher to the next level of expression of this principle – that of developing generosity and a giving nature. For example, if we are empathetic, compassionate and loving our presence will be of greater value. Others will be comforted. We will give more than we receive, and in that respect we will become progressively more in tune with Nature.
In spiritual terminology, generosity of the heart is associated with completing the awakening of the chakras of the Heart Region and embarking upon the awakening of the chakras of the Mind Region. This is already a high stage of spiritual advancement, which requires practice and the support of yogic Transmission and a capable Guide. In fact, it is almost impossible for someone without such support to reach this stage. So, for our societies to become non-stealing in nature, it is incumbent on us as individuals in those societies to take up a spiritual practice that allows us to develop the true generosity of a giving nature.
If we are empathetic, compassionate and loving
our presence will be of greater value.
Others will be comforted.
We will give more than we receive,
and in that respect we will become
progressively more in tune with Nature.
Such a level of generosity is often illuminated through stories. Here is one such story about a sage and a thief:
A thief once broke into a sage’s humble hut in the dead of night, but after entering he was dismayed to see that there was nothing to steal. The sage woke with the noise but pretended to still be asleep, lying still and watching what was happening. He soon realized that the poor thief had nothing, so he quietly dropped his blanket onto the floor so that the thief could take it away.
From that time onward, every evening before going to bed the sage offered a simple thought that, “All my possessions are common property.” This way, if any thief came to his home again, they would not be guilty of theft. The sage was generous-hearted. He not only felt for the thief, he also did what he could to help him. This attitude goes beyond simple asteya to that higher perspective where the intention is to remove the need for thieving in the first place through generosity.
Is asteya always the right thing to do?
In his book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Professor Michael Sandel asks, “Is it all right to steal a drug that your child needs to survive?” This highlights the fact that there can be situations where there is an ethical dilemma around stealing, for example stealing food and clothing to help starving children. Generally, most people accept that saving human life is a higher principle even than asteya, bringing into play the idea of an ethical hierarchy. How to decide what is the right thing to do in such situations?
Any ethical dilemma will have its own specific circumstances, so we can only arrive at the best solution by listening to the heart with a clear mind. This capacity for heart-based discernment and wisdom is known as Viveka, and it also develops through meditative practices. Like Vairagya, it is one of the four main pillars that lead to the goal of Yoga. Both Viveka and Vairagya depend upon spiritual practice, which results in moderation of desires and refinement of the ego. We lose Viveka under the spell of egotism, remaining adamant about our personal views. Similarly, strong desires and a lack of moderation also blur our capacity for Viveka.
One basic principle is to give more than you receive,
and another is to do everything in life
without force, violence or imposition.
These qualities shine through in a person
who has evolved through spiritual practice and self-study.
I hope that these few thoughts offered on the topic of asteya will encourage you to examine your own life and see where you are on this spectrum of giving to receiving to stealing. One basic principle is to give more than you receive, and another is to do everything in life without force, violence or imposition. These qualities shine through in a person who has evolved through spiritual practice and self-study. Such a person develops that exquisite level of character that automatically attracts us and makes us feel so joyful and wonderful to be in their company.
Article by DAAJI
April 01, 2021
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