Karmacology: Mindful Living, Sacred Practice

Save and Savor the World

A friend told me that each morning when we get up we have to decide whether we are going to save or savor the world. I don't think that is the decision. It's not an either-or, save or savor. We have to do both, save and savor the world.
-- Kate Clinton

We Lift Ourselves by Our Thought

We lift ourselves by our thought, we climb upon our vision of ourselves. If you want to enlarge your life, you must first enlarge your thought of it and of yourself. Hold the ideal of yourself as you long to be, always, everywhere - your ideal of what you long to attain - the ideal of health, efficiency, success.
-- Orison Swett Marden (1850 - 1924)

The Sky will Bow to your Beauty

Brother stand the pain; Escape the poison of your impulses. The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do. Learn to light the candle. Rise with the sun. Turn away from the cave of your sleeping. That way a thorn expands to a rose. A particular glows with the universal.
-- Mevlana Rumi, 13th century sufi poet and mystic

The Perfect Oneness of Dance

Dance is the only creative act in which there is perfect oneness of the creator and his creation. Unlike a painting, a poem, an invention or any other artistic impulse, when the dance is over there is no product, no thing to save and enjoy. As with life, we may perceive the dance, never possess it. One cannot separate the dancer from dancing, just as one cannot separate God from the world or from ourselves.
-- Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

The Great Spirit

For the Great Spirit is everywhere; He hears whatever is in our minds and hearts, and it is not necessary to speak to Him in a loud voice.
-- Black Elk

Crisis and Opportunity

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity.
-- John F. Kennedy (1917 - 1963), Speech in Indianapolis, April 12, 1959

Devotion with a Pure Heart

Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart -- a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water -- I partake of that love offering. Whatever you do, make it an offering to me -- the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.
-- Bhagavad Gita 9:26-28

Isvara Pranidhana: Relinquishment

If we concentrate more on the quality of our steps along the way than on the goal itself, then we also avoid being disappointed if we perhaps cannot attain the exact goal that we had set for ourselves. Paying more attention to the sprit in which we act and looking less to the results our actions may bring us -- this is the meaning of isvarapranidhana.
-- TKV Desikachar, Heart of Yoga

Isvara Pranidhana is the fifth and final niyama, or observance towards ourselves, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This sutra is tricky for some, as it alone among the yamas and niyamas appears to be overtly religious. Isvarar is translated to mean "Lord," "God" or "the Divine Creator," depending on your religious context. Pranidhana implies a release of burdens, giving up, or relinquishment. Isvara Pranidhana is most often written in English simply as "Surrender to God."

In my mind, surrender is often analogous to failure or defeat, and so sets the wrong tone for the process of progress. A more helpful definition may be that which is the founding principle of Islam: submission to God. In addition, the Torah and Bible are full of teachings based on salvation through submission to the will of God. It is as if Patanjali has encapsulated a core concept of many of the world's religions in this single sutra.

Yet the closest word in English that I can find to illuminate this concept is relinquishment. In it's purest form, it is simply, "Jesus take the wheel."

Through Isvara Pranidhana, we are taught to cultivate the correct intention, live and act to the best of our abilities, and then relinquish all attachment to the final outcome.

A man's heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.
-- Holy Bible, Proverbs 16:9

Only by releasing our fears and hopes for the future can we really be in union with the present moment. To surrender the fruits of our actions to God requires that we give up our egotistical illusion that we know best, and instead accept that the way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex for us to understand.
-- Judith Hanson Lasater

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.
-- Holy Bible, Proverbs 3:5

We must set our goals, focus our intent, be disciplined in our actions, but yet balance this with an openness to the limitless possibilities around us. Change is the only constant in our universe.

And it is our reaction to change which is the predominant cause of stress, frustration and worry in our lives. The human mind is an amazing organizer and planner. Every action begins with a thought and a planned outcome. Anger and frustration appear when real outcomes do not match our projected outcomes: when the traffic jam throws off our schedule, for instance. Stress and worry appear when the final outcome is out of our hands, and yet the mind struggles to exert its influence. We worry and fret and obsess over getting the job and loosing the job, the end of the world and the ending of Harry Potter. Some people -- and I know many -- live their entire lives in endless cycles of worry and stress. Isvara Pranidhana teaches the way out:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
-- Reinhold Niebuhr

Svadhyaya: The Study of the Soul

We inherit from our ancestors gifts so often taken for granted... Each of us contains within... this inheritance of soul. We are links between the ages, containing past and present expectations, sacred memories and future promise.
-- Edward Sellner

Svadhyaya is the fourth of the niyamas of the Yoga Sutras, and has acquired two meanings over the centuries. The classical thought translates Svadhyaya as "study sacred texts," and has become the observations of "investigate the Divine," and "learn continuously." The more modern concept, looking towards the intent of this sutra, is "study the Self," or -- still wrestling with the limitations of the English language -- "study the soul."

There is the story of two arguing students who went before the Zen master to plead their cases. The first presented his argument, and the master replied, "Yes, yes, this is true." The second student spoke up and likewise gave his appeal. After a moment's reflection, the master said again, "Yes, yes, this is true." The first student, feeling cheated, exclaimed, "But Master, both of our arguments cannot possibly be true!" The Zen master smiled and replied, "Yes, yes, this is true."

In our Western, scientific way, we like to take things apart and look for the intrinsic minutia to give us insight into how things work. We disassemble and dissect: "Sva" means "self" or "personal possession;" "dhy" is the root of "dhyana" which means "meditation;" "ya" is an activation suffix; but also, "adhyaya" means "study" or "inquiry." We take apart the clock, examine the gears and springs, and see the intent of the clockmaker. But are we any closer to understanding the concept of Time?

To keep this text short I won't pull supporting quotes, but suffice to say that every major human religion contains a common core concept: purification of an intangible, non-physical inner self, or soul, as the way to the Divine. Definitions of these words and concepts and the prescribed paths to follow fill the volumes of the sacred texts.

If we believe that Svadhyaya is the study of these holy works, then "this is true." But each golden path is exclusive. If Islam is the one true religion, then Hinduism is false. If Christianity is the sole way to heaven, then Buddhism is heresy. An adherent to each religion knows that their path is the one true way. And the Zen master, hearing us exclaim that all these mutually exclusive beliefs cannot possibly be true, calmly replies, "Yes, yes, this is true."

Paradox illuminates what isn't there. We take the watch apart, but fail to find Time. We surgically dissect the tissues of the body and brain, but the soul eludes us.

Paradox shows us where there is a gap in our understanding. Think of all our definitions for the word "light." But if we dissect light, we find that sometimes it is a wave, and sometimes it is a particle, all dependent upon how we observe it. And yet light is mundane, everywhere, from the cosmic cradle to the bedside lamp. We know it, but yet we don't.

Our search for the elusive Self, through the vehicle of the sacred texts, may be likened to the blind men and the elephant. Feeling the trunk, the blind man discovers the elephant to be like a serpent; at the leg, it is like a tree; at the tail, a rope. "Yes, yes, this is true," we are told. Until we are no longer blind, what we know is true. When we can see, we may find that what we know is both true and not true.

All that lives, dies. This is the grand paradox of human consciousness. Everything that we are and do is impermanent and will be washed away. So what is the point of living? When we ask these questions, "Who am I?" or "Why am I here?" we find ourselves in the company of students and sages, prophets and priests. It is our discovery of Self and our search for meaning that gives bloom to the flowers of religion and philosophy.

Study, Patanjali tells us. Examine existence. Question everything. Learn from those who have asked these questions before. Look within.

Svadhyaya is not the answer. Svadhyaya is the question being asked.

Tapas: The Way of Disciplined Effort

He who cannot obey himself will be commanded. This is the nature of living creatures.
-- Friedrich Nietzche

The previous discussion of Santosa included mention of our modern versions of the five kleshas. A klesha is literally an affliction, just as we would describe blindness or a spinal problem as an affliction. In the yogic tradition, the five afflictions are avidyā, asmitā, rāga, dwesha and abhinivesha. These can be translated as ignorance, egotism, attraction, aversion, and fear.

The way to overcome these afflictions, we are told, is through Tapas. In Sanskrit, Tapas means "heat," but in the context of the niyamas -- or observations -- of the Yoga Sutras it is usually translated as "disciplined effort." Tapas implies self-discipline in restraining our desires, controlling our senses, and focusing our actions towards pursuing a higher purpose in life. Through disciplined effort, we can "burn off" the negative aspects of life and clear a path towards happiness.

In the sixth teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, it is explained this way:
When a man disciplines his diet
and diversions, his physical actions,
his sleeping and waking,
discipline destroys his sorrow.
-- The Bhagavad Gita

Effort equals action, and action is the root of Karma. Action is both the rush through traffic to make the three o'clock meeting and the act of restraint to keep your cool and not descend into road rage. This first layer of Tapas, then, is Karmic: our choice of correct effort. The next step is the addition of discipline.

Disciplined effort can also be thought of as "doing what must be done," plus one other dimension: consistency. Often our best intentions guide us to go to the gym, eat healthier, put down the cigarettes or turn off the TV. We often start the new year with an abundance of actionable resolutions and great intentions. But old habits die hard, and it is consistency which allows us to overcome our habitual inertia and turn our intent into practice.

Consistency replaces old habits with new ones. It is putting the cigarettes in the trash and never picking up another, ever. It is being mindful of the food we put in our bodies at every meal. It is repurposing a piece of every day for practice, prayer, exercise, or whatever brings your personal life closer to a pursuit of your higher purpose.

Now let's add that subtle third layer, because this is where the transforming "burn" of Tapas comes in. It is not enough to be consistent in your correct efforts; your discipline must carry your actions through the difficult times as well. A friend just failed in his third attempt to stop smoking. "I had a stressful weekend," he explained.

The transcendent power of Tapas comes when we no longer allow any excuse or justification to stop us from doing what must be done. When the going gets tough is when we discover and forge our resiliency.

The single thread that weaves its way through all of these layers of Tapas, however, is Love. It is Karmic Action taken because it is the right thing to do, not born of fear, guilt, or aversion. This is such a delicate concept that my words could never express it as eloquently as does this quote:

Perhaps one of the most clear examples of the practice of tapas is marriage. Marriage requires commitment, consistency and love. Without any of these three things, marriage does not work. When these qualities are present however, we can celebrate the good days and hang on through the bad ones.

Tapas requires the same things. When we bring a commitment born of love to our consistent practice of yoga, we are practicing the niyama of tapas. It is with this spirit of abiding in the midst of difficulty which is at the heart of tapas.
-- Judith Hanson Lasater

Santosa: Contentment and the Embrace of Life

Realize that true happiness lies within you. Waste no time and effort searching for peace and contentment and joy in the world outside. Remember that there is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving. Reach out. Share. Smile. Hug. Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.
-- Og Mandino

Samtosha is the second Niyama -- or personal observance -- in the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is translated from Sanskrit to mean modesty, acceptance that there is a purpose for everything, or simply contentment.

That sounds easy enough. We all want to be happy and content. In fact, this is one of the foundational truths that America is based on. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Got it. Samtosha equals "pursuit of Happiness." No problem. Next?

But... From experience with the other yamas and niyamas, it's likely that Samtosha can't be that easy or that obvious. And the difference seems to be how we approach the concept of contentment. On further reflection, Samtosha isn't "pursuit" of contentment, but rather "practice" of contentment. And that's a profound difference.

Pursuit means that there is something out there -- external to ourselves -- that we can achieve. We chase these endless, transitory goals: we will be content when we graduate, when we get the better job, when we get married, when we retire. But "practice" implies present doing, or "being."

So how can we be content? It's easy to be content in certain situations, after a great meal, for instance, or upon seeing the first full blooms in our gardens. For a brief moment we are satisfied, and happy in the present. But how are we supposed to be content while sitting in traffic, or fielding calls at the office, or while rushing from dance practice to baseball practice with a SUV full of nine-year-olds?

The deck is further stacked against us because we live in a culture where our economy is fueled by discontent. We are immersed in advertising that is designed to foster dissatisfaction with our looks and our lives, promising happiness through material possessions, self-gratification and sensory or sensual experience. Cravings are cultivated, while we are simultaneously trained to avoid any form of personal discomfort. All the while, we unwind and relax by abdicating thought to passive, fantasy entertainment played out on television.

Unfortunately, this perfectly describes what the yoga texts called the five Kleshas, or obstacles, which block our path to contentment and liberation, and which are the cause of all suffering. Is it any wonder most everyone you meet is stressed-out and ill-tempered?

So how do we find freedom from this maze and experience contentment?

In the martial arts, various masters have described the natural human state of contentment and serenity as being like a still lake, smooth and calm. When it is disturbed, water responds with exact appropriateness, and then returns instantly to the calm state. It does not make a big splash over a small stone, and does not continue to make ripples long after the boat has passed. When the lake is choppy in high winds, it does not struggle to return to calm, nor fret about when the wind will subside. "Be like water, my friend," advised Bruce Lee, "be like water."

The lesson from Santosa, then, is to respond appropriately to the challenges that life presents to us, and to use our awareness to avoid the many traps of attention and attachment that surround us.

This is not easy to do, which is why it is called practice. But the other yamas and niyams have given us tools by which to free ourselves from the cravings and attachments and desires through which we can be so easily manipulated. We can turn off the TV, and tune out the noise of distraction. We can make mental decisions and moral choices.

We cannot change the traffic, but we can decide how we respond to it. We may not be able to change our workload, but we can change our attitude towards it. With awareness and consistent work, we can find our trigger points, and simply not let anyone -- even a savage pack of fourth-graders -- push our buttons.

And the best part is: it gets easier. When we exercise and stretch the body, it gets stronger. When we experience and develop awareness of contentment, even in those fleeting moments, then we can learn to expand, strengthen and sustain it. With enough practice, we find that we can return to those feelings of calm and contentment even when the world around us is abuzz in discord and disharmony. The more familiar this place of peace becomes, the easier it is to find our way back there.

When we recognize that life is a process of growth, then all experience and circumstance -- the fun and the frustrating alike -- becomes something that we can learn from. When we become aware that every action, and every reaction, has a consequence, then we become more increasingly more likely to choose the appropriate response. This is, again, where Karma comes in.

Through Santosa, a little rock causes only a little splash. We can watch the news without feeling hopeless and powerless. Our personal crises are no longer the end of the world. The loss of a job or the end of a relationship does not leave us feeling devastated. There are things that we can control, and there are things beyond our control. We experience empathy, regret, grief and the full spectrum of human emotions, but they are emotions we we have, and not emotional states that have us. As we quiet our emotional agitation, we allow the waters of consciousness to return to stillness.

Santosa means being happy with what we have, rather than being unhappy about what we don't have. It is cultivating the attitude of gratitude. It is about finding our greatest joy of self through selflessness and compassion. It is knowing our place in the universe at every moment.

And in those moments when we are content, we can know that there is a little more contentment in the world.

A Place in Life

To feel that one has a place in life solves half the problems of contentment.
-- George Woodberry

Sauca: Purity of Body and Mind, Part 2

We begin from the recognition that all beings cherish happiness and do not want suffering. It then becomes both morally wrong and pragmatically unwise to pursue only one's own happiness oblivious to the feelings and aspirations of all others who surround us as members of the same human family. The wiser course is to think of others when pursuing our own happiness.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama

The first Niyama of the Yoga Sutras, Sauca, observes that when you clear the mind and the senses, you can develop focus, concentration and the joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self. Almost every translation of the sutras are in agreement on this point. However, the preceding sutra -- which introduces the concept of Sauca -- is controversial.

The most common translation is, "From purity comes indifference for the body and non-attachment to others," but there are many other interpretations of this same line. Some see this teaching as ascetic, describing a path of abstinence and austerity. This view treats the body as "worldly," profane and undeserving of attention, while also advising cutting off contact with people who may be impure and hinder your progress. Personally, this view seems restrictive, and even punitive, where certain thoughts are considered toxic and where the eating of impure foods -- such as onions or mushrooms or garlic -- may be considered a "sin."

Yet there is another perspective which emphasizes inclusion rather than exclusion, abundance instead of austerity, and service instead of solitude. This view of Sauca is complemented by the thought, "grass does not struggle to grow." In this light, "purity" is not avoidance of the negative, but rather a focus or concentration on the positive.

The body and its senses should not be neglected; it is through the body and senses that we experience life. But the body becomes a trap when it becomes an obsession.

Most of us know people who starve themselves, take metabolism-boosting diet aids, gulp down "thermogenic" drinks, or even justify smoking in pursuit of their idealized body weight. I once knew a body-builder who seemed to spend half his life in constant recovery or rehabilitation for injuries sustained in pursuit of muscles that he had no functional need for. In these examples, each person is creating self-inflicted injury or toxicity within their body because of their obsession. They are attached to an idealized vision of themselves, and so create suffering by living in a body that doesn't match their ideal.

The flip-side is just as restrictive. Someone who stands in front of a mirror and sees themselves as heavier than they want to be may say, "I'm too fat to go to the beach," or "I'm too fat to dance," or "I'm too fat to try yoga." Similarly, someone who has experienced ill health may live in fear that illness will strike again, and so withdraws from the very things they love: the man who stops his fishing trips after his heart attack, imagining another crisis catching him on a lake far from help; or the woman who will no longer travel out of fear that she will loose her medication and not be able to replace it in a foreign country. These people have withdrawn from the experience of life out of a different, fearful obsession with the body.

Our obsessions become a kind of tunnel-vision. The body is the vehicle for our journey through the experience of life. It should be well cared for, meticulously maintained, fueled with only healthy food, and exercised to build our maximum functional strength and endurance. But if we focus only on the vehicle, then we miss the beautiful experience of the landscape passing by.

This alternative understanding of Sauca could replace the word "indifference" with "non-attachment" to the body. We have goals for our body and our health, and work hard towards those goals through diet, exercise and practice. But when we give up our attachment to our idealized self, we become concerned more about how we feel, and what we have the physical ability, opportunity and energy to do, than how we look or what may go wrong. We are a work in progress, and our intention should be focused on vitality and abundant life. In this view, the body is profound instead of profane.

The alternative view of "non-attachment to others" is also a matter of perspective, best illustrated if we add the phrase, "for purposes of self-gratification." The concept of Sauca then becomes not avoidance of other people, but rather not using other people to stroke our own egos.

The focus here is our motivations. In the Karmic sense, why do we take the actions that we take? If we are motivated primarily by seeking the praise of others, we may find the ego-building rewards are shallow and transitory. If our actions -- or lack of action -- are dictated by the fear of how others will see us, what we do will ring false and lack passion.

The actor steps on stage and asks, "What's my motivation?" It is a question we should all ask ourselves. Are we doing what we do to impress the boss, win admiration from co-workers, get approval from our parents? Why am I writing this blog? Is it so my friends will think I'm smart, or strangers will think me wise?*

There is nothing wrong with enjoying praise for a job well done, or receiving recognition for our actions. However, if our actions are only motivated by the awards and applause then we are creating the mechanism for disappointment.

And again, the flip-side is also true. How many times do we not do what we know we should, out of fear of how we'll be seen? Do we not go to the gym out of fear of being seen as weak or flabby? Do we stand silently by instead of defending a friend because of the trouble it might cause us? Do we go along with the crowd against our better judgement?

Yesterday a friend related the story of how she once served on the board of her local YMCA because she thought that this was something upwardly mobile professionals did to be recognized by their peers. But she did not go to the Y herself, and had no children, and so no real passion in what she was doing. The service was for appearances rather than for the service itself, and so was hollow.

An idealized vision of Sauca could be seen like this: actions motivated by purity, growth, striving towards enlightenment and coming closer to God should not need reinforcement in the way of praise.

But a more pragmatic, Karmic and "everyday" version is just as true. If we are acting out of selfishness, then our intentions do not have pure origins. But if we live the Golden Rule and treat others as we would wish to be treated, if we act with compassion, consideration and appreciation of others, then we are living the principle of purity. As we no longer turn to other people for self-gratification, we begin to experience self-realization, the freedom of non-attachment and the joy of Sauca.

* Nothing so grandiose, although admittedly self-serving. I'm simply collecting thoughts here so I won't have to think so hard twice. :-)

Sauca: Purity of Body and Mind

The only cure for materialism is the cleansing of the six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind). If the senses are clogged, one's perception is stifled. The more it is stifled, the more contaminated the senses become. This creates disorder in the world, and that is the greatest evil of all. Polish the heart, free the six senses and let them function without obstruction, and your entire body and soul will glow.
-- Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

The above quote from O-Sensei makes an interesting segue between the yamas (abstentions) and the niyamas (observances) of the Yoga Sutras. The last yama, Aparigraha, is a caution against materialism. It is interesting to see that the way to transcend materialism, as seen from outside the yogic tradition, can be found in the first niyama, Sauca.

Sauca is most often translated as purity and cleanliness. Interestingly -- unlike the other yamas and niyamas -- Sauca receives two sutras of explanation, observing that purity reduces our need to seek self-gratification from others, and that cleanliness polishes the lens so that we can perceive the Self without distortion.

Taking the second part first, the practice of Sauca means to keep ourselves clean on the outside by everyday hygiene, and keep ourselves clean on the inside through exercise of the body and breath, healthy eating practices, and healthy attitudes.

There is a reason that it is said that "cleanliness is next to godliness." When we are clean, we are more likely to feel relaxed and at peace. Distractions, disease, and discomfort are also less likely to present themselves. In the same way, it helps if our living, working and practice spaces are also clean and fresh. Clutter attracts our attention, distracts our focus, and steals our energy.

Building on the lessons of Aparigraha, we should clear away the stuff that we don't need, and the things that we retain should be kept clean and orderly. The warning is that the more physical objects we hold on to, the more time and effort is required to keep them tidy and organized. With so many other things pulling at our time and attention, it is easy to put off this effort and leave the house-cleaning for another day.

Most of us can see how this cycle can spiral out of control: our lives (and homes) are cluttered and so we feel uneasy and down; so we distract ourselves by seeking pleasure (let's go shopping!) and end up only delaying the work we must do, or making it worse by adding even more stuff. In my house, we call this the "Spiral into CHAOS," or Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with clutter and disorganization, but we can break this cycle with commitment and a little honest observation. Take an objective and questioning look around you, and really feel how your surroundings affect you. Then clear away the clutter, make the bed, wash the dishes, take another look around, and ask yourself that question again. How does your surroundings make you feel? How are your feelings affecting your thoughts? How are your thoughts creating your emotional reality?

The exact same principles hold true in our mental lives. If our minds are cluttered, then our thoughts are unfocused and our actions are inefficient. Most of us carry around so many worries about things that haven't happened yet, reminders of things that we haven't done yet, and nagging guilt about the things that we should be doing that we can rarely be truly conscious and present in what we're actually doing.

There is a great karmic lesson in David Allen's system and book, "Getting Things Done." It is based on the idea that if we get everything that concerns us out of our heads, and into a single trusted system, which is then reviewed regularly, we will leave our minds clearer, be better able to respond to new challenges, and actually get things done. In essence, we quit thinking (and worrying) so much about what we have to do, and start taking action.

Just as we must take the time and make the effort to bathe and brush our teeth, we must take the time and effort to clean and de-clutter our homes and our minds. These can be our kriyas, or "committed action and effort" in Sanskrit.

That's all that Sauca truly requires: commitment, effort and action.

Aparigraha: The Burden of Stuff

One who is not greedy is secure. He has time to think deeply.
His understanding of himself is complete.
-- Yoga Sutra II.39

"The more we have, the more we need to take care of it. The time and energy spent on acquiring more things, protecting them and worrying about them cannot be spent on the most basic questions of life. What is the limit to what we should possess? For what purpose, for whom and for how long? Death comes before we have had time to even begin considering these questions."
-- Translation and commentary by TKV Desikachar

There is a popular story about a university professor who went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."

Among the many lessons in this simple story is the essence of Aparigraha, which in one context, is "the burden of too much stuff."

Aparigraha is the fifth and final Yama, or abstention, in the classic Yoga Sutras. It is most often translated as "abstain from possessions," but the broader meaning encompasses the ideals of not being greedy, of letting go of our attachments to things, of neutralizing our desire to hoard wealth and material objects.

The five steps in the Yamas are considered external, and it is easy to focus on the behavior and not the intention. Aparigraha especially, with it's emphasis on possessions, evokes a primal emotional response. To make sense of it, there are two aspects of the "burden of too much stuff" that we should consider.

First contemplate capacity. When our hands are full, we do not have the capacity to hold anything more. When our homes become over-full with stuff, things no longer have a place and our living space becomes cluttered. When our cup is full, it can hold no more without running over. And when we live our lives holding pre-determined ideas and beliefs, we inhibit our capacity to discover new ideas and experiences.

The teaching, then, is to carefully consider which objects and ideas we choose to hold on to. For most of us, our homes and minds are full of things and ideas that we did not consciously choose to possess. Some we inherited from our families, others were received as gifts. Some were once important or useful but have since been outgrown. Aparigraha encourages us to look at these possessions with attention and awareness, to be consciously selective, and to keep only the things that we need.

When we lighten our burden of stuff, we increase our capacity for life.

The Action of letting go of our possessions, for most of us, is where the emotions kick in, and so is our second consideration. We love our stuff. We are attached to our stuff. And this -- every major spiritual tradition tells us -- is the root cause of suffering.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
-- Matthew 19: 20-24 (King James Version)

But it is not the riches, and not our possessions that keep us from knowing Bliss, only our attachments to them. In practice, Aparigraha is not about giving up all your possessions, or selling them and giving to the poor; it is about giving up the belief that your happiness depends on your ability to hold on to what you think you "own."

Nothing is permanent. Things flow into and out of our lives: our cherished toys of childhood, that first car, that hand-me-down orange sofa in college, and so, too, all the things that surround you now. When they pack you up for the nursing home, the majority of your possessions will flow out to family, to charity, or to garage sales.

But don't despair. The Karmic lesson is clear: You are not your stuff.

This last yama, more than any others, has a profound effect on our momentary suffering and happiness. Suffering is caused by a resistance to real or imagined loss. When we cling, we suffer. Aparigraha -- non-attachment -- is the intention to let go of the fear and clinging associated with trying to protect what we own, or protect ourselves against loss.

This lesson becomes profound when we realize that what we think we possess is not just our material belongings, but our time, our relationships, our memories and our beliefs. Most of us do not want to give these things up, or have them taken from us, because they define who we are.

It is this very way of seeing ourselves that Aparigraha gives us freedom from.

You are not your hair, your clothes or your car. You are not your skin, your birthplace or your education. You are not your religion, your marital status, and you are not who you were a year ago.

To come full circle into a lesson from Karmacology: You are not your Stuff; you are your Actions.