Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Hello Dear Yogis,

Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last few weeks will be familiar with the yamas and niyamas. I've been highlighting a different one each week as an exploration of the yogic lifestyle. If you've missed any, simply click on the "yama" label below and it will bring up all those previous posts.  I invite you to comment, and share your reflections.

Today we come to the last of the yamas, or restraints, that are part of ethical yogic conduct. Aparigraha means non-possessiveness, or refraining from hoarding. It involves a letting go of greed and attachment to wanting or owning. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't own anything, but rather that we cultivate non-attachment to the things we do own. We practice being content with what we do have and be willing to let them go if necessary. We practice generosity and willingness to share what we have without expecting something in return.

The ego, by nature, keeps us in a state of perpetual wanting, craving, and not-enoughness. Greed and possessiveness are woven into the fabric of our Western consumer-driven culture. Our economic system depends on dissatisfaction. Environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill speaks of our societal mantra, "bigger, better, more, now," as a reflection of the human ego's functioning on a collective level.

In the yoga sutras, it is said that when we are free from greed, the mind begins to open to receive insight about greater spiritual knowlege. A mind that is contracted around holding on to possessions, relationships, status, or experiences cannot be spacious enough to see the "big-picture." Aparigraha invites us to release clinging and fear and asks us to trust the Universe. In the classical teachings, it is said that through practicing aparigraha, we will come to know the illusion of death and the cycles of rebirth. We trust that we have nothing to lose, and so we can let go of grasping. The great Sufi poet Rumi expresses this beautifully:

Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round
in another form. The child weaned from mother's milk
now drinks wine and honey mixed.

God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

~ excerpt from “Unmarked Boxes”by Rumi, Trans. Coleman Barks

Living by the principle of aparigraha, we do not identify with, or invest our ego in, our possessions. I'm reminded of the woman who was known as Peace Pilgrim (1908-1981), a great American sage who truly embodied the spirit of aparigraha. She devoted her life to living simply and walking across the United States spreading her message of peace.

Before she began her pilgrimage, Mildred Norman Ryder led a “normal” American life. She enoyed the comfort of a large home in the suburbs, was married to a successful businessman, had a job, money, fancy clothes, and expensive furniture. Then, when she was thirty, she went through a personal spiritual transformation in which she no longer saw that lifestyle as having any meaning for her whatsoever.  She received a calling to give up all her material possessions, her job, her home, and all her money. She even renounced her name and became known simply as Peace Pilgrim. She vowed to walk across the United States, never accepting rides in vehicles.  She carried no money or possessions, except a toothbrush and a comb. She fasted until she was freely given food, and walked until given shelter, with an unwavering trust in Spirit that she would be given exactly what she needed. In her words:

Just after I dedicated my life to service, I felt that I could no longer accept more than I needed while others in the world have less than they need. This moved me to bring my life down to need-level. I thought it would be difficult. I thought it would entail a great many hardships, but I was quite wrong. Now that I own only what I wear and what I carry in my pockets, I don't feel deprived of anything. For me, what I want and what I need are exactly the same, and you couldn't give me anything I don't need.

I am not burdened by unnecessary possessions or meaningless activities. My life is full and good, but not overcrowded, and I do my work easily and joyously. I feel beauty all around me and I see beauty in everyone I meet - for I see God in everything.

No one is truly free who is still attached to material things, or to places, or to people. We must be able to use things when we need them and then relinquish them without regret when they have outlived their usefulness.

From Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words

To learn more about this inspiring woman, visit www.peacepilgrim.org . And, if you don't mind me tooting my own horn a bit, I invite you to watch an 8-minute documentary about her life that includes me singing a song I wrote about Peace Pilgrim. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVRC3sPctCM. Enjoy!

To conclude, I offer some suggestions for inquiry around aparigraha, and how it might apply to your own life:

--Do you have possessions that no longer serve you but that you have been reluctant to give away? What fears come up when you think about letting them go? As a concrete practice of aparigraha, go through your closets and give away some of those items. Notice how you feel when you lighten up.

--Are there people in your life that you feel attached to in a way that causes pain or stress for you or them? Are you being overly possessive? Can you practice letting go and simply loving them without clinging or controlling? What would that look like and how would it shift your relationships?

--Is there a role or position that you hold in your work or social circle that you have been attached to keeping? Are you digging your heels in or defending your status even though it may no longer be serving you or others? What if you "passed the baton" and trusted that you would be led to the next right situation in which you can offer yourself to others?

Blessings and Namaste!

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