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Aparigraha or Non-Coveting

Aparigraha or Non-Coveting

We continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with a look at the fifth yama, aparigraha or non-coveting. As with our previous principles, we’ll look at aparigraha in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.

“Non-Coveting” vs. “Non-Greed:” Understanding Aparigraha from Material to Mental

As with many other yamas and niyamas, the principle of aparigraha clearly parallels the Judeo-Christian tradition, in this case the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” As for many spiritual traditions, the Yogis realized longing for the possessions of others has a powerful tendency to create enmity between us and them – at least in our heads and hearts if not in actuality. Further, it tends to foster discontent in our own lives – that is, the more we focus on what others have, the less we appreciate our own blessings.

But again,just like the principles of non-violence or non-stealing, the idea of aparigraha actually extends far beyond the material.This is why,where some translators define aparigraha as “non-greed,” we feel non-coveting comes closer to capturing the full implications of this ideal. The Yogis realized we can create every bit as much enmity with others and dissatisfaction within ourselves when we covet or are jealous of skills or opportunities others seem to enjoy as actual material things. For this reason, aparigraha is as much about staying mindful of more “abstract” or subtle forms of longing as it is objects themselves.

Coveting vs. Appreciation & Inspiration

But of course, much like non-violence or honesty, even this subtler understanding of aparigraha can benefit from some clarification. Just as a superficial view of satya could lead us to take it as an excuse for ruthless honesty, at first blush aparigraha could be seen as discouraging desire, but we feel a deeper understanding actually reverses this. As we discussed in our article on brahmacharya, the Yogis actually believed the pursuit of pleasure is not only not bad but is an invaluable part of our spiritual path. The key in the Yogic view is to discern how to purpose our desires in a way that is healthy and constructive both for ourselves and those around us. In other words, to feel desire – whether for sexual connection, possessions or even experiences – is itself completely natural, the key is to look at the desire, ask if it’s healthful for all involved, and if so to make sure we then pursue it in a mindful, balanced way.

Understood in this fashion, aparigraha clearly does not mean suppressing or denying desires that may be inspired by the activities or accomplishments of those around us, rather it is an encouragement to watch those desires and assure they unfold in a healthy way. To understand this better, if you’d like take a moment to try the following experiment. Think of a person who has something you are attracted to – a possession, ability, or an experience. Now compare what it feels like to think the following two thoughts: 1. “I wish I had / could do that….” and 2. “How wonderful he/she has that/has been able to experience that. I’d love to see if I can accomplish that, too.” If you’re like most, you probably notice these two thoughts feel radically different. The first thought tends to foster feelings of regret or deprivation or even “injustice,” ultimately creating resentment toward others and toward our lives. By contrast, the second tends to foster both positive feelings about and between ourselves and the other person as well as more constructive energy around our goals – constructive energy which in turn greatly increases the likelihood of achieving it. Simply put, when we think of something from a position of appreciation and respect rather than frustration or resentment, the achievements and acquisitions of others become inspiration to learn and grow rather than grounds for sinking into remorse and bitterness.

A last subtle but equally important point about the distinction between coveting and aspiration is aspirations tend to be both “softer” and less all-consuming. In other words, when we act out of inspiration rather than obsession, since we are not telling ourselves: “I can’t be happy without this,” but simply: “I’d like to see if I can do that, too,” if we don’t succeed it is much easier to say: “Okay, I did my best – clearly I’m meant to enjoy/achieve something different.” And because we are not allowing ourselves to be consumed by our undertaking, we maintain our capacity to enjoy who we are, where we are, and what we have right now, even while striving our best.

Beyond Literal & Figurative: The Psychological Foundations of Aparigraha

Of course, once again, beneath the material and psychological forms of coveting, the heart of aparigraha ultimately resides in our mental focus and the ways our thoughts can lead us to or away from peace. Simply put, the Yogis realized when we start to define ourselves in terms of what we do not have, we distract ourselves from the joy and beauty of here and now. When we focus on our neighbor’s Ferrari, we miss out on how nice our own car is, as simple as it might be; when we envy our co-worker’s island vacation, we steal our focus away from the simple but wonderful times we have had – opportunities not shared by many on this planet….

Further, when we focus on these things in the life of another we often become blind to the challenges they may have faced to acquire or achieve them or the “cost” they may pay for their talents. For example, when we admire how direct another person is, we might fail to see how it comes hand-in-hand with being less sensitive to the feelings of others – a cost he or she is paying in ways we probably can’t see. Similarly, in criticizing ourselves for not being more like him or her, we also dismiss our own gifts, perhaps that very skill of empathy and compassion. In this sense, again, when we allow ourselves to fall from aspiration to longing, we lose enjoyment of what we do have – including the opportunity to appreciate those around us as well as ourselves – in the name of something we may or may not achieve.

Ultimately, this leads to the foundation of aparigraha as with all our principles, and that is realization of the misconceptions that obscure our inherent peace and joy. When we think: “Ice cream might be nice,” or “I think I’d like to try a different career,” these are simple, constructive thoughts. But when we shift to: “Ice cream will make this better,” or: “At my age, I really should be doing x, y & z and am a failure if I’m not,” we not only rob ourselves of our current joy but set ourselves up for future suffering – when the ice cream doesn’t make everything better, we then crave more ice cream or “better” ice cream or ice cream in Bali, or whatever we convince ourselves might be the “missing improvement,” amplifying the cycle of craving and disappointment. Through awareness of aparigraha, we can learn to watch for this very natural pattern, see it when it begins, and help prevent this shift from aspiration to attachment/dependency, ultimately learning to experience and maintain our inherent joy and contentment even while (mindfully) striving for our goals….

Aparigraha On the Mat & In Our Lives

To conclude with a brief look at some of the practical applications of aparigraha, again we can start with asana. As with brahmacharya, because asana practice is physical, it can be easy to fall into comparing ourselves with others and wishing we had their capacity. Again, when we do this, we deprive ourselves of the chance to appreciate what we are capable of, as well as the blessings our challenges might provide. The great Ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman often speaks of “the blessing of stiffness,” reminding his students the more tight or limited we are in a given pose, the less effort it takes to experience the benefits. Further, by limiting our vision of others to what they “have” that we wish we did, we blind ourselves to all the other aspects of their lives and ours, including having compassion for what may come hard to them that comes easily to us. Finally, when we learn to let go of fixation on “improvement” in our poses, we in fact finally allow ourselves to cultivate the true purpose of asana, which is learning to “be here now.”

Beyond the mat, of course aparigraha has numerous applications throughout our lives – especially in this day and age. We know we live in a world that emphasizes comparison and competition, whether in the material or even the cultural. Chogyam Trungpa spoke of “spiritual materialism,” and again this is a good reminder we can unconsciously fall into coveting even spiritual experiences – a coveting which in fact often prevents us from having them. Again, it’s worth noting in the Yogic view, this desire itself is in no way bad, it is only when we begin to define our potential happiness or “worth” on whether we achieve these goals that we cut ourselves off from our inherent happiness and worthiness as we are.

Finally, it’s worth noting this tendency not only harms us but potentially the very people we want to support. For example, it’s natural to want to be “successful” so we can provide for our family. But if we tell ourselves we and they cannot be happy unless we are, we set ourselves and them up for suffering – if we “fail,” they will suffer through our frustration with ourselves of the world, and even if we are lucky enough to achieve our goals, our example teaches them they must do the same if their loved ones are going to be happy. But since success is never actually under our control – we cannot control the economy or the fact our material success is profoundly influenced by literally countless others who likewise can’t control the impact of their choices – we set our loved ones up for pain rather than contentment. By contrast, when we focus on staying in touch with the blessings and gifts of our lives, even when dreaming and striving, we support those we love in building lives that are filled with both growth and contentment….