Karmacology: Mindful Living, Sacred Practice

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.