Aparigraha – Non-grasping
The fifth and last of the yamas that Patanjali lists as ethical disciplines for interacting with others is aparigraha – non-grasping. Written in positive terms, aparigraha is “letting go.” It’s not always easy for me to consider letting go as a way of interacting with others. To be sure, it’s central to much of yoga, asana practice, and 12-step programs everywhere, but in those contexts, it’s easier to think of as a way of steering ourselves away from self-destructive behaviors rather than a way of interacting with others.
So how can letting go affect interactions with others?
One teacher I practice with regularly likes to repeat the phrase “everything you need is already inside of you.” That belief, I think, is at the center of aparigraha, precisely because grasping and clinging – aka “covetousness” – are fed by a deep sense of lacking. If you watch commercial television for fifteen minutes this evening, you’ll see at least a dozen displays intended to convince you that what you need for happiness is, in fact, not inside you, but can be readily found inside a car dealership, a fat retirement account, a can of beer, a promotion, a lipstick tube, whiter teeth, a Quarter Pounder, or, possibly, a weekend in Las Vegas. Aparigraha teaches us otherwise.
When it comes to material possessions, letting go is the beginning of generosity, and the beginning of the end of the “I don’t have enough to…” or the “all I need is…” thought processes. When I experience those desires, whether they’re conjured by advertising or whether they come from my own desires for something external to change me internally, I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, I tend to contract around the perceived need/want/desire. My attention narrows, my awareness of broader experience dims, and I start to focus, instead, on all the reasons I’m not complete without whatever it is. In short: I start, and then continue, suffering. But the experience doesn’t usually stop there. Next, I start devising ways to solve my problem, whatever it may be. Sometimes the fix is as easy (and dangerous) as heading down to the fridge late at night, or running up a tab on my credit card, or popping a pill to get to sleep. Sometimes it’s as complicated as lying to get someone to think something good about me falsely. At other times, it’s as life-consuming as devoting my life to accumulating a particular amount of money. But whatever the specific application, every one of those cases defines me by what I lack and focuses me on getting something to make myself more complete.
And all of it focuses my attention – and, for that matter, my life, my very being – on “I,” “me,” and “mine.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote this:
The Buddha once said that the core message of all his teachings – he taught continually for 45 years – could be summed up in one sentence. On the off chance that that might be the case, it might not be a bad idea to commit that sentence to memory. You never know when it might come in handy, when it might make sense to you even though in the moment before, it really didn’t. That sentence is:
“Nothing is to be clung to as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘mine.’”
In other words, no attachments. Especially to fixed ideas of yourself and who you are.
It is a hard message to swallow at first blush because it brings into question everything that we think we are, which for the most part seems to come from what we identify with, our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships, our values, our work, our expectations of what is “supposed” to happen and how things are “supposed” to work out for me in order for me to be happy, our stories of where we came from and where we are going and of who we are.
But let’s not react quite so quickly, even though at first blush the Buddha’s counsel may feel more than a little scary or even stupid or irrelevant. For the operative word here is “clinging.”
p. 53, Coming to our Senses, Kabat-Zinn
For a long time, I really resisted this teaching myself. It sounded to me too much like some kind of self-destructive notion, the sort of thing someone with no self-respect or self-worth might accept. But, like a few other teachings I’ve received in my life, this was one that has grown on me with time. In part, because of what Kabat-Zinn points out – the operative instruction is “don’t cling,” not “reject yourself.” Realizing that opened the door a tiny crack, and let in some light.
A dear yoga teacher frequently reminded me during practice, “let go of what you don’t need right now.” And every so often, maybe one time out of fifty that she gave that instruction, I realized that, in fact, I was clinging to something that I really didn’t need at that moment. And when I relaxed that grip, the yoga practice improved. Realizing that nudged the door a bit further, widening the crack. And a little more light came in.
Then I read a book by a sensible author who pointed out that the instruction to not grasp or cling could easily be mistaken for an instruction to reject, to stand apart, to avoid engaging with the world. In fact, he described such an attitude as the “near enemy” of non-grasping – something that looks more than a little bit like the practice, but in fact embodies the exact opposite of it. That idea took me a bit to digest. How was avoiding entanglement with something the opposite of non-grasping? It sure seemed similar.
I think it works like this: grasping/clinging is really rooted in exactly the same internal state as aversion and avoidance. Aversion is simply the way that internal mind state manifests when we experience the opposite of what we cling to. If I cling to the pleasure of a full feeling in my belly, I avoid being hungry and feel an aversion to the experience of hunger. If I cling to a belief that I’m more important than others, I may avoid letting myself perceive ways that other people are important. And I may feel aversion toward the people who threaten my notions of my own importance. If I cling to a belief that no longer serves me, I may feel aversion toward the situations or persons who show me how the belief is incorrect. Each of those situations, and the gazillion more that we could probably come up with if we started listing all of those we’ve experienced ourselves – we’re just clinging to something, whether a feeling, a view of one’s Self, or even something as abstract as a belief. And the clinging manifests as aversion.
When I read that author and realized that aversion and clinging are the same thing, a lot of light suddenly made it through the door. In response, I formulated this as a way to try to live aparigraha in many, many settings:
And the “it” can be almost anything — whether a feeling, a yoga pose, a headache, a beloved friend, a belief, a thought about myself, a threat to my safety, a work opportunity, a dollar bill.
Refusing to receive something present before me is simply aversion. Allow it in, no matter what it is – good, bad, pleasant, uncomfortable, quiet, loud, delicious, disgusting. And then take it a step further: embrace it, seek to fully engage with it, whatever it may be. Once you have experienced it, honor it: acknowledge its being, exactly as it is. Then, no matter how wonderful it may be, release it. Allow it to be exactly what it may be. Allow it to change in whatever manner it changes. And then apply the same practice to yourself, after you have released whatever “it” might have been.
Aparigraha – non-grasping – absolutely does not mean never to embrace. Rather, it reminds us that we should embrace, and then release. This doesn’t mean that we should bounce from one relationship to another, unstable and flitting. That, itself, can be a kind of grasping/aversion. Applying aparigraha to a long term relationship can be very salutary. Are there ways that we are clutching to a prior version of our companion, one that really isn’t there any more? Fear works against this kind of practice. What might happen if we release the first embrace? Will s/he still care for me? If I cling tightly enough, can’t I prevent that risk from ever arising? Yoga challenges us to live with both our eyes and our arms open. Sometimes, we’ll have the opportunity to embrace a new version of the old person, one that has changed and developed, grown into something more amazing than s/he was before. But sometimes there won’t be such an opportunity. Can we risk it? If I cling tightly enough to what I want so desperately, can I keep it from changing?
* * *
Practicing yoga allows us to perceive the energy that flows through us. The asana and breath practices enable that energy to move more smoothly and freely. That much of the experience of yoga is available to anyone who is willing to practice consistently and with a mind open enough to feel what we feel when we practice. Aparigraha reminds us that if we are willing to open our minds and hearts, to release the various clutches we hold, there are many, many more ways that we can allow energy to move through us as we interact with others.
There is more – so much more – to say about ways to apply the yama of non-grasping in our lives, on and off the yoga mat. But it’s probably best to end here:
I like to think of rivers.
You never see a river clutching the water that flows through it.
Perhaps the river knows that it is the flowing water.