As we continue our exploration of the yama-s—the ethical underpinning of yoga practice—I’d like to ask you a few questions…
- Why do you think you were born in this particular era?
- Into your particular family?
- What’s the true purpose of your existence?
OK, I know, I know. These questions are more-than-big. On some level, they might even feel ridiculous. But I know you’ve asked some version of them before. We all wonder about the meaning of life. We all search for our unique purpose in this world. It’s questions like these, big questions of meaning and purpose, that lie underneath every great tradition, including, of course, yoga. And in the context of the yama-s, the Yoga Sutra-s tell us that we can understand the purpose of our birth if we persevere in aparigraha.
Aparigraha can be translated as non-grasping, non-possessiveness, non-attachment, or greedlessness. Sutra 2.39: aparigraha sthairye janma kathantā sambodhah tells us that if we release our attachments, if we become steadfast and firm in greedlessness, if we stop grasping for things, stop trying to possess things, the nature and purpose of existence becomes clear. This is an incredible teaching. If we stop grasping for things, stop trying to possess things, we can understand the purpose of our birth. It might be an incredible teaching, but it feels like a far off reality. Possessiveness and attachment dominate our lives.
If we’re going to try and approach non-possessiveness, non-attachment, we have to explore the root of our grasping. So let’s back up. Let’s begin our exploration with another teaching. Let’s dive into the very basic idea of yoga.
The Yoga Sutra-s begin with a definition. We’re told that “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” That yoga is “complete mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind.” And we’re told that once we reach this state of yoga—this state of mental stillness—we are established in our essential nature, in the truth of who we are.
Describing this truth, Pandit Rajmani wrote:
Our core being is Consciousness: pure, eternal, and unchanging. Consciousness is luminous and all-pervading. Yoga philosophy calls it Purusha, “that which resides in the city of the body.” The body is finite, but the Consciousness residing in it is infinite, for it is unconfined by space. The body is mortal, but the Consciousness pervading the body is immortal, for it is unconfined by time.
Those of us trained in Western traditions might hear these words, these words describing an aspect of ourselves that exists beyond space and time, and be tempted to find some sort of connection between this Consciousness and our personality. We might want to interpret these teachings to mean that our ego, our sense of self, continues beyond death. But that’s not what these teachings are telling us. We have to watch out for our habit of grasping and attachment.
These teachings tell us that the state of yoga—the state of a silent mind—allows our being to settle into itself, into pure awareness, pure existence. This consciousness, this unbounded consciousness, is utterly different from the ever changing nature of our habituated mind and our conditioned personality. As Pandit Rajmani says, “…it is neither male or female, human or non-human, virtuous or non-virtuous. It is pure being—nothing more and nothing less.”
We could spend a lifetime—in fact, according to this tradition we could spend multiple lifetimes—trying to understand the depth and meaning of these teachings. Trying to comprehend pure being. But right now, in this moment, in this lifetime, we can understand the next teaching, which tells us that “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”
“Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”
We are constantly sensing and perceiving and thinking. Our minds are busy and full. They’re jam packed with knowledge, some of which is correct, and some of which is not correct. Our minds are constantly day dreaming and fantasizing. We are imaginative creatures. And, of course, our minds are full of memories—some we cherish and some we wish we could forget. Our minds are constantly at work. One thought leads to the next and the next and the next. And in these unceasing fluctuations of the mind, our essential nature gets lost. We forget the truth of our being—pure, eternal, unchanging consciousness. And we mis-identify ourselves with the ever changing nature of our moods and our desires and our ideas.
And this is where we get into trouble. This is where we cause ourselves, and each other, pain. We forget the truth of our being and get lost in the river of our thoughts. We get lost in the changing nature of this life. And we work hard, really hard, to stabilize our lives in the face of constant change. We do our best to ignore the reality that death will come. Through experience, habit, and conditioning, we build our personality. We decide what we like and what we don’t like. And we spend most of our energy on acquisition. We do our best to acquire anything and everything that will help us feel safe and worthy and important.
Some of this acquisition, this possessiveness, is inherent. Our brains are wired to focus on safety and survival. We are driven—by a force deep within us—to avoid pain, injury, and death. But our inherent need for survival has become the main tool of our political systems and the marketing industry. We are bombarded everyday with messages of the amazing thing—and then the next amazing thing—that promises to make us safe and happy. We’ve been conditioned by society to want more and more. And through our own habits—of thought, feeling, and action—we’ve trained ourselves to dedicate most of our life’s energy to acquiring what we think we want and need. Listen to that statement. It’s a big deal. We dedicate most of our life’s energy to acquiring what we think we want and need.
Which brings me back to our study of aparigraha. How can we possibly gain clarity on the true meaning of life if we’re spending most of our life’s energy on the acquisition of our desires? In one way or another our thoughts and feelings and actions are dedicated to our desire for material objects, material wealth. And people. And projects. And work. And ideas. And experiences. How can we settle into our essential nature—into pure being—if our minds are overrun by unceasing thoughts of lack and need?
And, of course, we can’t forget that aparigraha is a yama—a moral restraint. Which means we have to investigate how our constant need for acquisition keeps us from living in right relationship with the world. Pandit Rajmani tells us that:
Behind violence, dishonesty, stealing, and indulgence lies one clear objective—gaining greater control over the objects of our desire and eliminating those with the potential to stand in our way. This phenomenon can be described in one word: possessiveness. We want to have enough to fulfill our desires—and desires know no limit.
My teacher often describes desire as unceasing. Once we acquire something, our desire simply moves onto something else. The desire itself, no matter how much we acquire, is never fulfilled. And in our never-ending search for fulfillment, we justify our violence, dishonesty, stealing, and indulgence. As we give ourselves over to the flow of desire and craving and attachment, our minds get louder and louder and we get farther and farther away from the truth of our being, from the true purpose of life.
The practice of aparigraha is inviting us to hold everything—absolutely everything—lightly. Because nothing remains the same. The practice of aparigraha, non-grasping, invites us into a sense of ease. A sense of freedom.
Donna Farhi writes: “Holding on to things and being free are two mutually exclusive states.” She says that:
The ordinary mind is constantly manipulating reality to get ground underneath it, building more and more concretized images of how things are and how others are, as a way of generating confidence and security. We build self-images and construct concepts and paradigms that feed our sense of certainty, and we then defend this edifice by bending every situation to reinforce our certainty.
Spiritual teachers from every tradition tell us that as we are able to release our sense of possessiveness, as we are able to accept the reality of change, our hearts can open to the true nature of things. In the Gospel of Matthew a young man asked Jesus what he must do in order to have eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. The young man said he did and wondered what he still lacked. Jesus said to him: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19.21) In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna told Arjuna that “Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.10) Again, Yoga Sutra 2.39 tells us that if we stop grasping for things, stop trying to possess things, we will understand the purpose of our birth.
These teachings are not easy… And they are wildly counter-cultural. But they are clear. The search for truth isn’t about acquisition. It isn’t about looking outward for an external answer. It’s about peeling away all the conditioning, all the habitual thought, all the material possessions, all that encumbers us, and moving toward simplicity and silence. It’s about looking inward and discovering that all we need is always and already within.