DAAJI continues his series on refining habits, in the light of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga and current scientific and yogic principles and practices. Last month, he shone a light on the habit of moderation, brahmacharya, exploring the way our senses interface with our feelings and desires. This month, he focuses on the final Yama, the virtue of aparigraha, which means not being possessive, attached, greedy, or focused on material gain.
What do we really need?
Minimalism and sustainability
In the last few decades, there has been a growing movement away from indulgence and hedonism toward simplicity, minimalism and living a sustainable lifestyle, centered around the 5Rs of refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. We see this in building, architecture and interior design, for example, with the many TV and streaming programs showing us how to live in smaller homes made with recycled and natural materials. We have been wowed by Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and TV show, Tidying Up, challenging us to buy only those things that we need, and that bring us joy, and encouraging us to clean up our living spaces. And as a result of the obesity epidemic in the developed world, we see this trend also with food and diet. In general, we are moving toward “more and more of less and less” in the words of my first teacher, Babuji.
This principle of taking and using only what we need has been followed by yogis since time immemorial, and it pertains to all areas of life. In Yoga it is known as aparigraha, and it is the fifth and final Yama.
As we face the dangers of climate change, environmental destruction, mass extinction of species, and the vast inequality among people from different social and cultural walks of life, this Yama is truly the need of the hour.
Aparigraha is the culmination of the other four Yamas – love, truthfulness, honesty and moderation. It is an important underlying principle in all cultures, as well as all religious and philosophical traditions, even though it is not always fashionable. Over the centuries, we find that many seekers have renounced material possessions to live the lives of medicants. And during the last 50 years, many people have chosen to live off the grid, to escape the rat race, to simplify their lifestyle, and to actively denounce the throw-away culture of modern urban life. While these choices can be seen as aspects of aparigraha, this Yama is not only about renouncing material acquisitiveness. It also means that even when we live in the world and have possessions, we are not so attached to them that we are affected by their presence or absence.
The Sanskrit word aparigraha is made up of three components: a, a prefix meaning “non,” pari, meaning “on all sides,” and graha, meaning “to take, grab or seize.” It is the opposite of parigraha, which means to focus on gain and acquisition, and generally refers to material gain. Aparigraha means to rise above a “taking” attitude, and to accept what is truly needed at any stage of life. This involves self-restraint, avoiding overindulgence and covetousness, and removing the greed and possessiveness that bring destruction in their wake. Another definition of this principle is to give more than you receive. It is to live in the consciousness of abundance instead of scarcity.
And perhaps it is even more than that, because Swami Vivekananda once said that aparigraha means not to accept any gift from anybody, even when you are suffering terribly, because when you receive a gift from another person your heart becomes attached and beholden. You receive the vibrations of the person who has given. You lose your independence.
This is an interesting perspective that is worthy of reflection. Does Swami Vivekananda mean that we should remain so aloof from one another? Let’s try to understand it further.
A natural etiquette of care emerges in our behavior
because our thoughts and actions are no longer based on personal desires.
We are no longer pulled by likes and dislikes for people, places or things.
We simply live our life with devotion,
developing an unattached state naturally and spontaneously.
It is not that we are detached in
a heartless way – instead we love everyone and everything, universally.
Possession versus belonging
One way to approach this is to explore the emotional difference between belonging and possessing. Imagine the scenario in childhood of your mother cooking meals for you every day and serving you with so much love. The times when you went to a friend’s place for dinner, you were so thankful for the meal, but did you show a similar gratitude toward your own mother every day? Or imagine it is raining, and you find shelter under someone else’s roof. Again, you are thankful to the homeowner, but are you so grateful to your family members for the shelter your home provides every day? No, because you take them for granted. You have the sense that they are yours! You belong together. Belonging brings us closer; it is fundamentally different from the attitude of possession, which is transactional.
So, going back to Swami Vivekananda’s statement, when there is love and belonging, there is no longer the transaction of giving and receiving, of possessing. What is mine is automatically yours. In fact, there is no longer any “mine” and “yours.”
As a result, our sense of human duty to each other and all other forms of life develops naturally, because we put others first as the result of an inner generosity of the heart. A natural etiquette of care emerges in our behavior because our thoughts and actions are no longer based on personal desires. We are no longer pulled by likes and dislikes for people, places or things. We simply live our life with devotion, developing an unattached state naturally and spontaneously. It is not that we are detached in a heartless way – instead we love everyone and everything, universally.
There are many great ancient kings whose lives can teach us a lot about aparigraha – one among them is Raja Janaka of India. It may be easier for a poor person to be unattached to wealth and possessions, but what about a wealthy king who has everything? Still today, these men are known for their wisdom and generosity of heart rather than for their wealth, even though their material success was staggering. There is a wonderful story about Raja Janaka that exemplifies this quality of aparigraha, which is so often misunderstood by those on the path of Yoga.
A young seeker was instructed by his teacher to visit Raja Janaka to continue his spiritual training. The teacher said to the youth, “I renounced the world – I know nothing of worldly life – so you must go to a teacher who knows about the world if you want to continue to progress. The next step in your training will be with him.”
The student was baffled. He thought, “If this Raja is so enlightened, why does he live in a palace surrounded by opulence and possessions? Surely he would have renounced all that if he is a serious spiritual seeker and no longer has any interest in possessions.”
But because his teacher had insisted, he decided to be open-minded and travel to the palace of Videha.
He arrived in the evening, and Raja Janaka invited him to the court. Everyone was having a good time, and there was a lot of overindulgence, so the seeker wanted to leave immediately, feeling quite disgusted with whatever he saw. Raja Janaka persuaded him to stay the night and leave the next morning, so that he could also speak with him one-on-one about why he had come.
The young seeker was well cared for. He ate well, bathed and was ushered into a beautiful room with a grand bed and stunning views across the lake and the forests. He was tired and decided to turn in early, but when he lay on the bed he looked up and saw a sharp sword hanging by a thin thread just above his head. Needless to say, he didn’t sleep that night! He didn’t enjoy the bed, the room, or the view, as the sword took all his attention.
The next morning, Raja Janaka asked, “Did you sleep well?”
The youth answered with some frustration, “Your Highness, how could I sleep with that sword hanging above me all night?”
The king smiled and asked, “You were in the most beautiful room with the most luxurious bed, and still you could not sleep?”
“No, your Highness, because of that sword I was unaware of my surroundings. I have never been so afraid.”
So the king replied, “Stay here a while with me. I may live in this grand palace, but the sword of death is above me every second of every day, and the thread holding it is thinner than the thread holding the sword above your bed. Any moment I may die. Would you like to learn how to live like that in the world?”
The point Raja Janaka was trying to make is that when we are aware of the fragility and transient nature of this worldly life, we lose any sense of possessiveness, as death does not allow us to take anything with us in our onward journey. In fact, the very idea of possessiveness becomes ridiculous. Our attention is inward, not outward. No matter whether we are poor or wealthy, when we understand the natural cycles of birth, life, death, and our existence beyond the physical plane, we become free of possessiveness.
The circle of life
In his Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explains it like this:
2.39: Aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathanta sambodhah
When established in non-possessiveness,
the yogi understands and sees the truth of
earthly life and rebirth.
Looking inward, we become aware of the Center of our existence. Having let go of all possessiveness, in the resulting purity we also become aware of the nature of our past lives, our comings and goings from this mortal dimension. This spurs us on toward a higher goal, beyond the physical dimension – toward the ultimate goal of life.
Looking inward, we become aware of the Center of our existence.
Having let go of all possessiveness, in the resulting purity
we also become aware of the nature of our past lives,
our comings and goings from this mortal dimension.
This spurs us on toward a higher goal,
beyond the physical dimension – toward the ultimate goal of life.
How do we achieve this?
We live in a world where marketing professionals and advertisers try to inflate our desires to look beautiful, wear the latest fashions, own a fabulous house and car, amass wealth, and have health, a successful career and a happy family life. FOMO (fear of missing out) is constantly pulling us outward in the belief that we need all this to be happy, otherwise we can easily see ourselves as failures. Social media intensifies this outward focus even further by posting photoshopped images and fake personas. In such a lifestyle there is little connection with the Center – everything is outward-focused instead of inward-focused. It is no wonder that people continue to grasp for more and more, hoping it will bring the happiness that will always be elusive through this outward quest for materiality, until eventually our attention turns to focus on the innermost.
There are two aspects to how we achieve aparigraha: the first is to remove the existing attachments we have, and the second is to maintain the purity of an inward focus so as to continue to be free of the pull of possessiveness.
By this, I don’t mean that we have to give up all our material possessions and attachments. Here we are talking about inner attitude. It is within us that the solution lies, not in the possessions themselves, no matter how much or how little we have. It is all about non-attached attachment. Otherwise we may become obsessive with pride at having no attachment to possessions. It is possible to become attached to non-attachment!
By maintaining and enhancing the condition
and attachment to the Center we experience
in meditation every morning, throughout the day,
we are vaccinated against the pull of desires.
This is the ultimate spiritual protection
we can keep alive through a regular daily practice.
Here are some of the Heartfulness practices that help us to transcend possessiveness and live in a state of constant belonging and aparigraha:
Meditation: takes us inward to our Center, and trains the mind to ignore external stimuli.
Cleaning: removes the underlying habitual attachments we have based on our likes and dislikes from the past and present. Done daily, the practice of cleaning continues to maintain our purity of consciousness.
Prayer: connects us with the Center of all existence, and allows the flow of Grace to continuously move from the Center into our hearts.
Point A Meditation: cultivates the feeling of belong to the same family. We develop the sense that everyone and everything are our brothers and sisters. This way, we remain in a constant state of “belonging.”
Meditative state: by maintaining and enhancing the condition and attachment to the Center we experience in meditation every morning, throughout the day, we are vaccinated against the pull of desires. This is the ultimate spiritual protection we can keep alive through a regular daily practice.
As we develop the attitude of belongingness,
and let go of the attitude of possessiveness,
the circumference of our giving will continue to expand,
until eventually our hearts will become generators of generosity,
giving to all who are in need.
Once we are able to remain in a state of aparigraha, we will no longer be buffeted by the ups and downs of the outside world, fame or fortune. We will be contented no matter what. We will have no need to beg, nor any need to flaunt our wealth and success. Everything will remain focused on the Center, which is beyond the material existence. We will be happy with whatever the universe provides.
Does it mean that we should not strive to excel in this world? Not at all. Is it okay to earn to provide for our families and friends? Of course. As we develop the attitude of belongingness, and let go of the attitude of possessiveness, the circumference of our giving will continue to expand, until eventually our hearts will become generators of generosity, giving to all who are in need. It reminds me of the famous Quaker saying:
“I expect to pass through this world but once.
Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness
I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”
Article by KAMLESH PATEL (DAAJI)
Kamlesh D. Patel
Kamlesh Patel is the world teacher of Heartfulness, and the fourth spiritual Guide in the Sahaj Marg system of Raja Yoga. He oversees Heartfulness centers and ashrams in over 130 countries, and guides the thousands of certified Heartfulness trainers who are permitted to impart Yogic Transmission under his care. Known to many as Daaji, he... Read more