Aparigraha is non-grabbing, non-attachment, non-possessiveness. This is a mental attitude of not being addicted to or dependent on one’s possessions and relationships. Suffering comes from attachment, in craving more of what we want and fear we’ll lose what we have.
What do you want more than anything else? This is an important question that many of us haven’t explored in great detail. We get lost in living our daily lives and forget about questions like: Who am I? What am I here for? What are my core values? What do I believe to be true? What is most important in my life? What is my philosophy of life?
Am I living in accordance with my philosophy of life?
When we align our daily life with our philosophy of life, we experience deep satisfaction and joy. Our life has integrity. We don’t feel pulled in several directions and we have nothing to hide from ourselves.
When we are out of alignment, we feel disconnected, like we’re spinning our wheels. Things don’t work out. Life feels like a struggle. We may experience pleasure but seldom joy. We pursue what makes us feel good. We often ignore what would bring lasting joy in favor of momentary pleasure. Yoga philosophy has two terms to identify these two types of pleasure. Shreya is long term good. Sometimes it is pleasurable in the moment, sometimes not. Shreya is when we cultivate healthy habits, reduce conflict and look after the welfare of the whole. Preya is short term pleasure without regard for long term consequences. Pursuing preya pleases the senses but fades into the opposite. Shreya would be training the mind to enjoy healthy food and exercise choices, preya would be eating whatever we please, ignoring the long term detriment to our health and well-being.
When we lose touch with ourselves and what is really important to ourselves, we become willing to abuse our bodies with food or drugs in order to get a chemical reaction that ‘feels good’. We may go into debt to buy a certain car because we feel ‘like a winner’ in the car. If we’ve identified our self-worth with the value of our car, we feel personally damaged when someone puts a big dent in the car.
A major theme of the teachings of yoga master Swami Rama was to learn to live skillfully. We are not meant to be ascetics, to avoid or deny ourselves beauty and pleasure. The things of the world are here to be enjoyed. The key is to do so without attachment and clinging. Attachment and aversion are two sides of the same coin.
Sensual enjoyment of our bodies, of food, of cars and beautiful art is appropriate and healthy. Attachment to those experiences is not. Valuing momentary pleasure over long term health is not. Living skillfully means fully enjoying the world without attachment. Do your best without attachment to the results. Align your life with your values and philosophy.
Yoga philosophy doesn’t have a concept of original sin. We are all divine at our core. We are perfect. We don’t have to become something else or find anything. We don’t realize our perfection because of habit patterns and faulty thinking. Avidya is ignorance of our true Self and is the closest concept to sin. Self-realization is like turning on a light. The ignorance is dispelled by the light of knowledge. The word Guru means dispeller of darkness.
Grasping at momentary pleasure to feel valid or good about ourselves or just to get through the day creates a thick cloud obscuring our true nature. Abusing food creates sickness in the body. Not exercising and keeping our body fit is tamasic, it creates a cycle of sluggishness and low energy. We need more and more of our chosen drug to feel good. This ‘drug’ could be substances like food, drugs and alcohol. It could also be watching romantic or adventure movies for the ‘rush’.
What else do you use as a way to feel good? What do you grasp at? What are you attached to? Co-dependency is a term for people who value other people’s approval more than our own values or health. This could be at work, at home or with friends. Perhaps we’re attached to our children’s accomplishments because their success makes us feel worthwhile. Maybe we work 60 hours a week to get a promotion to buy a certain type of house because that is what makes us feel we’ve arrived, like we are a success.
The happiness we experience from fulfilling this type of desire is short lived. Like any drug, we need more and more to satisfy and create the same feelings of satiety. Feeling driven and being controlled by our desires is not exactly freedom.
Everything we think, speak and do creates a groove in the mind. These add up to give our life a direction or momentum. Part of changing our direction is to stop and allow ourselves time to reflect on what is really important.
When making a change, resist the urge to crank the wheel. Don’t make change such a big deal. Slowly turn the wheel a few degrees, let go of a few things and add in some others that are important to you. Watch your life transform as you bring your actions in line with your philosophy of life.
It is not the house or the success or the food that’s the problem! It is our level of attachment to the feelings those create. The pleasures of the world are to be enjoyed. Ironically, it is only when we are truly unattached emotionally that real enjoyment is possible. Attachment is present when we are not able to relax until we ‘achieve’ what we feel will make us happy. Once we get it, we worry it will be taken away. It is completely possible to let go of our attachments to ideas, people and things and to be free.
Emotional / observation focus
Write a list of goods or experiences to which you feel attached. This could include foods, success, your car, love, opinions or your reputation, cars, children etc. Once you have a list, contemplate why you feel attached to these people, things or ideas. What needs do these things fill? How do you feel when you have them and when you don’t?
Give away something you feel you are hoarding and observe your reaction.
Observe your mental and emotional reaction to when you do get something you want and when your desire for something is thwarted. Think of something you could let go of. This could be letting someone else have the last piece of cheesecake or choose a movie. Try it and observe how you feel. Why do you think you had that response? Was it what you expected? Different?
Get out your journal and finish this sentence “I am a …”. Write as many answers as you can think of. Eg I am a mother. I am a writer. I am someone who loves to walk in the rain. I am a kind person. I am smart. When done, read slowly through the list, observing how you feel and what thoughts pop into your mind. Remember ahimsa! Do this with a spirit of friendliness towards yourself.
Look at your patterns and change them a bit. If you always speak up to contribute your ideas at meetings, try remaining silent sometimes. If you usually sit back too shy to contribute or mentally criticizing others, try speaking up next time. If you’ve been coveting a certain outfit, buy it for someone else and enjoy their pleasure. If you usually buy for others, then buy it for yourself and observe your response to that.
Observe your emotional responses when you shake things up a bit. Sometimes we’re so ingrained in habit that we don’t realize what we’re getting out of what we choose. Often we’ve stopped receiving any enjoyment out of something but still do it out of routine. Maybe something that ‘worked’ for us when we were a vulnerable teenager is no longer necessary now that we’re an adult and have a more mature, long term view of what is really important.
People generally try to do their best. As they see it. The reasoning may be totally screwed up but the most destructive act is usually justified by the person doing it. ‘Well, I may have been mean to him tonight, BUT after all, I never got that promotion I deserved or my teacher’s always picked on me and I … Or I may have hit her but it’s really her fault. She knows I get angry when she argues with me. Why can’t she just agree for a change?’
People don’t always have rational reasons for their opinions. That doesn’t mean they are wrong or that they don’t deserve to have them. If you can detach your ego from the process of having other people confirm your worth through agreeing with you, you’ll be able to remain calmer and listen better.
Before I began to meditate, I used to think of myself as a fairly calm person. In reality, I was a total control freak about a lot of things. I didn’t really know and love myself and was always trying to manipulate people and situations so I felt safe. It wasn’t until I truly became calm that I realized how uptight I had been. People had a hard time expressing themselves around me because I had such strong opinions. I would fight for justice at the drop of a hat but I wasn’t a very good listener to what people really felt. I was confrontational and not very able to see the common humanity of everyone, from all ‘sides’.
Explore a time when you felt in the grip of a strong emotion like anger. What was going on at the time? What were your (perhaps hidden) expectations in the situation? What desire or need was being thwarted? What made you ‘feel better’?
How does attachment feel in the body? Where is it felt in the body?
Alcoholics Anonymous has a term ‘stinkin thinkin’ which refers to thought patterns which are false, or that we use to justify unhealthy choices. As we observe our thoughts, we get to know what certain thought patterns signify. Interrupt ‘stinkin thinkin’ by acknowledging it for what it is and replace it with something healthier. It might be that you notice that whenever you are in a certain situation you feel resentful. Observe other times you feel resentment. What is the common theme under feeling that way?
Explore a time when you basked in a strong positive feeling, like being loved or approved of. What was going on at the time? What were your expectations (open or hidden) in the situation? What desire or need was being satisfied? How long did the feeling last? Compare this to feeling that you know and love yourself. How long does that feeling last?
Do a small service for someone and observe your motivation and emotional response to their gratitude or lack thereof.
When you’re ‘in the grip’ of a desire or compulsion, ask yourself if there is anything else to focus on. Is there someone present you would enjoy talking with? Could you go to the playground with the children or go for a walk instead of sitting around eating? Make your environment a support to your decision to transform your patterns. If you make a choice that doesn’t fit with your philosophy, analyze the situation and change the situation so your choice is easier next time.
We can never eliminate all the things that trigger our compulsions. Eliminate what you can and work on changing your attitude and response to the rest. We can come up with all kinds of creative ideas to do what we’re committed to.
Often we reject things out of hand. It is interesting how tightness in the mind translates into the body. Many people have trouble relaxing the back of the legs enough to enjoy forward bends yet if the same people are under anesthetic, the doctors can easily bend their body. Drugs like Valium and Atavan can ease the cycle of tightness and spasm in the lower back yet they are not muscle relaxants. They relax tightness in the mind. Would pruning some stiff branches out of your mind improve your view?
Dump that attitude of waiting for some condition to be met before life really begins. This is real life. It doesn’t start when you lose weight or have a relationship you want. It takes courage to be authentic, to express and live as the person you really are. Begin with a kind, gentle approach and let it evolve. You may not end up with what you thought but it will be satisfying.
Trust that you want to be happy. This is an important point. We don’t need to be harsh with ourselves thinking that if given the chance, we’ll choose negative behaviors. When we truly know, accept and love ourselves, we automatically make life affirming choices. Using substances as a ‘drug’ is all about hiding out. When we become willing to be in the present moment, life transforms and so do our choices.
To live an authentic life, we need to spend more time in the present moment. This means limiting the time we avoid life and change our mental state through addictions and substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs and eating. We are meant to live life, not just watch other people and experience all of our emotions second hand through television, movies, books and gossip.
Most of us in this culture are hooked on the chemical, hormonal rush we get from distracting and stimulating ourselves. It is both exhilarating and exhausting. Gradually replacing harmful choices with healthier ones is a gentle way to withdraw from the addiction.
One of my nieces had childhood epilepsy. It developed when she was five and lasted for a few years. I was fascinated when the doctors explained that the seizures are like candy to the brain. Once the brain starts to experience them, it wants more and more. The medication interrupts that process for a few years and for most children, the seizures don’t reappear when the medication has stopped.
A similar process is at work when we’ve been really stressed or busy then have an opportunity to have a weekend retreat or silent period. Most of us are so hopped up on adrenalin that we find we are either antsy or bored for a day or two until we begin to ‘unwind’. Once the mind comes off the constant cycle of over-stimulation, we relax and are able to enjoy quieter pleasures.
As you experiment with change, observe when you mentally clutch at something. But that’s mine! Work in a way that creates sustainable change. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Experiment with small moves and observe the results. Enjoy the freedom that comes with purifying ourselves of emotional attachments to temporary enjoyments.