Friday, June 01, 2007

Off the Mat -- Asteya

Asteya -- non-stealing

(Another installment in my series of dharma talks with my yoga students)

At its most basic level, recognizing that we should avoid stealing isn’t headline-grabbing news.

Yoga, though, asks us to look a little more deeply into the subject: how does our relationships with things, both those we “own” and those “owned” by others affect our mind-body-spirits?

Just for a minute, remember the last time that someone took something from you that you hadn’t offered to the person, whether it was someone breaking into your apartment and taking your valuable, someone grabbing a Hershey’s Kiss out of the bowl on your desk, a co-worker taking credit for an idea you came up with, or an acquaintance calling you on the phone and launching into a long story without asking if you had time to talk. Remember, specifically, how you felt when that happened. If you’re like me, you actually felt something pretty distinctive – like you’d been disrespected. That’s when things start to get interesting. There are few experiences in my life that engender a more clear a sense of myself as a concrete “ME” than having something I think of as mine taken from me.

If you’ve had that or a similar experience before, then the following may make some sense to you. If you haven’t, or you’re not sure of what you felt the last time something like that happened, feel free to read on, but if you can, please let me know what your experience has been. I’m interested in such things, and I suspect that they aren’t uniform for all people.

Why should yoga tangle with ideas like that? Because yoga looks at what happens in our minds when we take what is not offered to us, and what happens in our minds when we have things taken from us that we have not offered to others. What are those mind-events? Feelings of separation, alienation, anger, violence. All of those feelings reinforce our mental images of our Selves. Weirdly, being deprived of something makes our concept of our Self stronger. Similarly, taking something that is not offered to us manifests two different weirdnesses – the first kind is “this isn’t mine, but I’m taking it anyway” – a kind of assertion of one person’s importance over others’. The second kind is the lack-of-boundaries sort of thinking that makes a muddle of things: “I don’t think clearly enough to recognize that cutting flowers from my neighbor’s garden might relate to my own subconscious notions of right/wrong/mine/yours, nor to consider the impact of those actions from another’s perspective. … And isn’t that just beautiful?”

As I was considering what to tell you about non-stealing, a friend came into my office and told me about how unhappy he was to find a neighbor with her dog in his backyard at 6:30 one morning, letting her dog “play” with his. He went out, a little disturbed at the intrusion, but quite angered by his neighbor’s presumption and oblivion to his feelings. He spoke sharply to his dog, which was barking, and took the dog inside, leaving his neighbor behind. He came to the office and told me of the experience and his frustration at not responding well, but also concerned that he didn’t want to alienate his neighbor entirely.

The next morning, he came back into my office to report the perfect solution. Very early that morning, just like the prior one, his neighbor came into his backyard so her dog could play with his. As he was getting enough clothes on to go down and confront his neighbor, his four-year-old daughter opened the back door, and both dogs ran into the house. The four-year-old helped the neighbor catch her dog, and, once the dogs were sorted out and the neighbor was out of the house and on her way, the four-year-old came upstairs and told my friend, “I got her dog for her and I told her that it wasn’t polite to come into our yard early in the morning.”

As I’m a word-person, I did a little investigation: “polite” comes from the same Latin root as “political” – polis – the word relating to culture or people. The neighbor was taking something – access to my colleague’s backyard and dog and privacy – that wasn’t offered. He saw the affront to himself and got mad. His daughter perceived all the same things and saw a lack of knowledge – a kind of ignorance on the part of the neighbor – and educated her about what was and wasn’t polite. A remarkable lesson in how ego gets wrapped around the axel when things get taken without permission.

So how to practice asteya? Like every other yoga practice, just notice it. A couple of easy-to-find opportunities:

1. Notice what happens in your own mind when someone cuts in front of you on the freeway. Notice where in your body you feel the sensations of anger and indignation. Notice how long those feelings last. Notice them subside.

2. Notice when you take something that isn’t offered to you – whether it’s candy out of someone’s dish at the office, a space in traffic, or credit for an idea. (These situations are harder to notice because our minds often start from the assumption that we’re entitled to things, but see what you can come up with, anyway.) If you’re lucky enough to be able to see such a situation occur, notice your feelings about the action before or as it occurs, then notice your feelings and (re)actions after it has occurred.

3. Obviously, not taking what is not offered is a simple way of preserving a basic level of respect among people and keeping a basic level of peace and trust among them. But it’s always interesting to ask why it works that way. For me, I tend to think of the human responses as built upon and into ideas and feelings of ego.

4. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.