Most of us don’t steal outright or think of ourselves as thieves. Asteya can refer to stealing physical things or be more subtle, like taking credit for something we didn’t do or giving an impression that we are someone we aren’t. We can use food as an example of how to work with asteya.

People in the affluent societies of this world make up a small percentage of the global population yet consume a much higher portion of the world’s food. Many of our health problems and deaths are caused by over consumption of food and our sedentary lifestyles. Human bodies evolved over millions of years to be efficient with food storage because it gave our ancestors an edge for survival. Due to the dramatic and unprecedented increase in production of food in just two generations, these very survival mechanisms have begun to work against us.

In our culture, it is considered normal to overeat, at least occasionally. People who don’t get fat because they have the ‘discipline’ to exercise regularly are admired but over-consumption is the same whether or not it shows up on the body.

Our western society is built on the concept that it is our right to consume as much as we can. We deserve to eat what we want, when we want. Nobody has the right to comment on it and certainly not to impose any restrictions on us. Ironically, many people in economically developed countries also suffer from too little good quality food coupled with too much poor quality food. There is a proven direct link to many of our chronic and fatal illnesses like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Before we go further, let’s link back to ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truthfulness). We cannot allow the truth in when we judge ourselves because self-condemnation is painful. Acknowledging the truth about something is more possible when we keep a spirit of open curiosity and friendliness towards ourselves and all beings. Often with uncomfortable feelings we shut them out and shut ourselves down emotionally.

It is both difficult and necessary to turn and face how we benefit from systems that oppress other beings. It takes courage to let it in to our awareness and allow it to transform us without moving into depression or rejecting it completely because we feel guilty and helpless.

As you reflect on the ideas and questions below, observe your reactions. Do you want to turn away from it? Do you feel yourself hardening and making someone else ‘other’? This is dangerous, because it allows us to justify harmful behavior. Slave owners didn’t think of themselves as evil people who were abusing other human beings. They justified their behavior through their belief that ‘their’ slaves didn’t have feelings and were not really human beings like themselves. Men of less than 100 years ago didn’t think of themselves as controlling or abusive. They believed women were incapable of rational thought and therefore needed guidance, like children. That is how they justified their control over money, denied the right to vote, etc. It is commonly acknowledged now just how wrong these self-serving ideas are.

People who happen to live in richer countries don’t think of ourselves as greedy or as thieves who destroy other people’s lives with our over-consumption of the world’s resources. Yet we are part of a system that does just that. Our willingness to sit with that and allow it to change us will make system-wide change possible.

Connect with someone in a similar situation in a less economically advantaged part of the world. If you are a woman with two grown children and a couple of grandchildren, think of a woman of your age and family situation in sub-Saharan Africa.  What hopes would she have for her family? What does she deserve compared to what you deserve? Television has brought images of people from all over the world into our homes yet with all the disaster reporting, we often have difficulty experiencing our common humanity. If lack of food and water is an issue for her and her family, what impact will that have on her life? Based on what you know about how your grandchildren respond to life, what would her grandchildren be like?

By gently looking into our current situation and lifestyle, we’re able to soften. With clarity and kindness, we are able to be undefended with ‘what is’.