"all the people
sharing all the world"
Restrain from stealing. The third ethical restraint, asteya, offered by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras seems easy enough to follow. Simply, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. But, consider this … how often have you justified, as I have, parking in a restricted parking space, for just a few minutes while you run into a store for a couple of items? Is it stealing? Have you ever lifted a pencil from the office? What about forgetting to scan a small item in the grocery store and rationalizing upon discovery that it isn’t worth going back to pay for it? Are you stealing?
In our culture, there are laws that protect from theft of intellectual property, material goods, even parking spaces. Some would say that adhering to the letter of the law is the same as practicing asteya. I suspect that Patanjali would see it differently. Asteya asks us to be mindful of our self-serving actions, even the simplest ones.
I have encountered in the yoga studio some humorous exchanges between students that, upon deeper reflection, call to mind the opportunity to practice asteya. Here’s an example:
Student A: (arriving somewhat late to class, approaching student B who has positioned herself toward the front of the room) Excuse me, you are in my spot.
Student B: No, I’m not. You weren’t here when I put my mat down.
Student A: You’ve seen me in this spot every week for almost a year! You know it’s where I like to be.
Student B: That doesn’t make it your spot. You weren’t here. I put my mat down. You’ll have to find another spot.
Student A: Hmmphh! (squeezes her mat into a space between student B and another, causing the third student to scooch her mat over)
Me: (as teacher, from the front of the room, silently thinking) This is absurd. This is my studio. If anyone owns that spot, it’s me. I need to get on with class.
(Students A & B practice side by side, darting offended glances toward each other throughout class. The tension in the room is palpable.)
From the perspective of Student A, her “spot” was stolen and she was justified in demanding it back. From the perspective of Student B, the “spot” was available and she took it. From my perspective as the teacher and “owner” of the studio, the “spot” was actually mine and no one could justifiably lay claim to it. In reality, the studio space was rented. The “spot” belonged to none of us. From the perspective of asteya, that which was really stolen was the ambiance of an otherwise peaceful and cooperative community. Everyone in the room suffered that theft.
Asteya directs us to ask ourselves,” If I claim ownership to something that isn’t, in actuality mine, am I stealing?” Moreover, “In what subtle ways might I be depriving others of something they are entitled to?” In the example above, it seems obvious that there was no theft, yet, each individual involved could have examined her thoughts and actions more deeply. Had everyone been consciously practicing asteya, the scene could have unfolded with no negative impact on others. Here’s one scenario:
Student A: (arriving somewhat late to class, quietly finds a spot at the back of the room, gestures an apology and joins the practice)
Student A: (to student B) Excuse me, you are in my spot.
Student B: Oh, sorry. Let me move over and make room for you.
Some of you are thinking, “What pettiness! This isn’t even worth thinking about.” But, that’s exactly why I chose the example above. The practice of asteya can keep us from becoming entangled in such petty exchanges. Vowing not to steal, according Patanjali, reaches beyond the obvious, into the subtle and can have powerful effects on an entire culture.
Asteya, practiced on the world stage, by powerful leaders could result in a radical change in politics. Imagine a world in which heads of state consciously practice asteya, refusing to take possession of that which is not rightfully theirs. John Lennon put it this way, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace … Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.”
Practice asteya in small ways. The next time someone cuts in front of you to take a parking spot you’d been waiting for, consider whether the spot was yours to begin with. You can avoid unnecessary conflict and aggravation by realizing that you do not, in fact, have ownership of that spot. Simply find another. Let go of the self-righteous need to correct or punish the other. It’s a small contribution to peace and civility. With every act of asteya, small or large, the world becomes a better place. Imagine. That.
In my last post I introduced the ethical foundation of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, suggesting that these ancient “dos and don’ts” offer a timely guideline for behavior, even today. I explored the practice of “ahimsa” or non-harming and its relevance to life, as we know it, in the early 21st century. Come along with me now, and consider the second of the yamas, satya (truthfulness) and its importance in today’s world.
Sometimes I wish I were a brilliant satirist. I’d love to approach the topic of satya with the wit of Stephen Colbert. Remember his bit on the Colbert Report on “Truthiness?” He was poking fun at our 21st century interpretation of truthfulness. His implication was that we dwell in a time when truth is “fluid.” The very word “truthiness” exemplified his point. Any one of us, at any time, can invent a truth, present it with conviction, and fully expect to be believed. This has always been the case, of course, but it seems pandemic today.
It seems to have become second nature to so many of us, in this era of Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, to present our opinions, our profiles, our “selves” just slightly (and in some cases, wildly) skewed from truth and toward some imagined ideal. It seems that our obsession with being “liked” by “friends” and “followers” takes precedence over authenticity. After all, earning the admiration of an unknown internet populace powerful enough to make us “go viral” feels powerful. Imagine hundreds of thousands of hits, likes, and comments. It’s intoxicating. Don’t you think?
Wow! I cannot imagine that ancient yoga masters could have divined the state of affairs we find ourselves in today. It’s almost unbelievable. We have a sitting president who seems to disregard truth in favor of praise. Public figures are coached in the art of "the spin." We witness flurries of internet activity that pronounce such a wide variety of realities that the mind boggles. Yet ... breathe with me, here ... we find in the Yoga Sutras, a challenge to live a life of truthfulness. So, in the twenty-first century, how do we understand and rise to that challenge? It ain’t easy, folks, but it is pretty simple when it comes right down to it.
Consider your typical day. Upon awakening, what is the first thing you do? If you are concerned with satya (truthfulness) you take time to recognize that you have awakened from sleep. That is true. You connect with your breath, that which delivers your life force, your prana, to every cell in your body, including your brain. You take time to recognize the improbability of your very existence. (For an enlightening and entertaining video on this, see “Galaxy Song - Monty Python's The Meaning of Life” on YouTube.) And then, you touch your feet to the floor. This is a powerful moment of truth. Here you are, a biped, with a highly complex and sophisticated brain, standing … responding to powerful biological needs. You probably shuffle to the bathroom and begin your morning ritual. Right here, right now, you are at risk of straying from satya, that which is true. Why? Because we are creatures of habit and habit gives rise to a form of unconsciousness. In this state of unconsciousness, we enter a world removed from truth. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Seinfeld used to say, just that it’s worth noting.
When we take time to notice even the small ways in which we remove ourselves from what’s true we practice breaking the habit of being untruthful in larger ways. It could be argued that small untruths are harmless, even helpful in certain social interactions. For example, it may be true that your in-laws irritate you, nevertheless you smile and nod your way through visits, “keeping the peace.” But, ask yourself, is there another, more truthful way? Might you learn to respect your differences and come to appreciate the endless variety of human behaviors? Is there a possibility to more closely examine your irritation and learn from it? Is it possible that the irritation runs both ways? What if you were able to see your in-laws as a mirror, of sorts, into your own behavior? Fearless self-examination is a form of truth seeking.
As with all the yamas and niyamas, satya is a practice, a practice of noticing falseness in ourselves and correcting it. The point of the practice, it seems to me, is to journey through life with self-awareness and integrity. When individuals behave with integrity, the social fabric of the culture is woven with strong threads of truthfulness and wisdom. A culture of integrity is a culture that values truth, not truthiness. And, in the words of the Dalai Lama: (When there is a) "... lack of moral principle, human life becomes worthless. Moral principle, truthfulness, is a key factor. If we lose that, then there is no future."
Today, more than ever, co-creating a culture of integrity is critical. Truthfulness ensures our future. Practice satya every day as a way of contributing to the future. Notice when you stray from the truth. Make an effort to correct it.
Inner Reaches Blog
Dee Gold M.A., ERYT-500
Dee is owner and director of Inner Reaches Yoga & Health. She has been teaching yoga and practicing healing arts for over 40 years.