This last yama is usually translated as non-greed or non-possessiveness. But a better way to think of it might be learning how to deal with our innate desire for more – or at least, to sit with the desire, observe it in a nonjudgmental way, and, hopefully, watch it subside, says Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, who has long studied the yamas. She points out that aparigraha is tricky to live out for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that we’re constantly bombarded with images of excess from the media, which essentially works to “whip up our desire for more.” And this becomes a vicious cycle.
But why is wanting more a bad thing to begin with? After all, it’s sort of the basis for our economic system and a natural feeling for most of us. The problem is that the “more mentality” is self-perpetuating and it doesn’t have an end. Once you attain something, there’s always something better to shoot for. Why have a plain car when you could have a fancy one? Why have five pairs of shoes when you can have 20?
Lasater points out that greed, or wanting more, comes from two misapprehensions. “One is that ‘I lack something,’” says Lasater. “The other is that ‘you have what I need.’ I’m not saying we don’t have physical needs. It’s not about basic, fundamental needs. The problem comes from the sensation that ‘I don’t have enough,’ or ‘I’m not enough.’ And that’s where it can be destructive.” It’s a paradoxical effect, she adds, because getting more almost always stimulates wanting even more.
So that’s where aparigraha comes in. Like some of the other yamas, it’s tricky because on the surface it seems to ask us not to do something – but here, it’s to not experience a feeling, rather than not execute an action. After all, as Lasater says, “you can’t do a ‘not.’” This is what makes aparigraha almost an impossible undertaking if we think of it like a commandment.
So there’s another, more useful, way to think of aparigraha. If instead of denying or trying to stamp out the feeling of wanting more, it’s better to simply observe the feeling when it arises. Aparigraha has more to do with “awareness of process of what greed is about – and letting it arise in us,” says Lasater. “Observe it with out judgment,” sit with it, and allow it to dissipate. You don’t actually have to feed it. This idea might sound familiar, since it’s also the essence of mindfulness, and what the eight limbs of yoga are all about.
Going a little deeper, says Lasater, aparigraha also points out the problems with the Western mindset. She reminds us that in parts of China, “The question after meals is not, ‘Do you want more,’ it’s ‘Have you eaten to contentment?’ We don’t have that mindset here. Aparigraha has us really thinking about the nature of what is enough? We’re stuck in this loop, but we know on some level that the things we crave are not the answer.”
She urges people to think deeply about what “need” means to us. “We use more resources per capita than any country in the world,” she points out. We also have some of the highest rates of mental health disorders in the world, which might not be a coincidence. “It’s time to be more self-reflective,” she says. “We need another, a newer way of thinking.”
Do you find yourself in the “more” cycle? How do you get yourself out of it?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.