Aparigraha- The Yama of Trust
The Yamas, the first of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga, are the moral precepts we are encouraged to practice to reduce suffering and keep us on a path that promotes deeper happiness for ourselves and others. Aparigraha or “non-clinging” is the last of the Yamas as listed in the Yoga Sutras. It is the Yama that shows us how to relearn our fundamental trust in life.
A quick side note on the Yamas:
The Yamas are often mistaken for a method of making us virtuous, and usually this leads to self-righteous sanctimony in how they are implemented and taught. I’ve seen plenty of yoga teachers beat their students over the head with Yama inspired sanctimony and/or use the Yamas to back up their own personal political or moral views. This is a dangerous bastardization of these teachings. The Yamas are an understanding of the fundamental and universal causes of human suffering and how to deal with them. Practicing the Yamas doesn’t make us good, we already are good, practicing the Yamas makes us happy.
Now on to Aparigraha. . .
First lets break down the word:
Graha- grasp, take, grab
Pari- from all sides
The prefix “a” in Sanskrit is a negation.
So we can say as a translation “non-grasping”, or “non-grabbing”, “non-clinging”. But also notice “pari” or “from all sides”. Doesn’t this perfectly describe our clinging and grasping? When we feel disconnected we find ourselves flailing we desperately reach out for anything that will make us feel stable and secure. This flailing causes us to feel insecure, tight, fearful, stingy, and promotes a perpetual tug of war with life. Joy is rapidly siphoned and replaced with a constant sense of apprehension.
Sometimes we hear Aparigraha translated as “non-greed”. in the spiritual world greed is often misunderstood. It is not how much we have, how much money we make, or how much we accumulate that makes us greedy. It is the clinging to and fear of losing what we have that makes greedy. This is what causes us to hold back from being charitable and generous, this is what causes us to do harm in order to bring more to us. Greed is maybe the deepest and most pathological expression of clinging. Greed shuts us down and walls us off, and if we cannot practice Aparigraha, greed will see we are isolated for the rest of our lives. Aparigraha in this sense not only helps us to release the fear of clinging, but also through newfound generosity reopens our hearts and our sense of connection with our communities and the world. We become not only more generous with others, but happier with ourselves.
So why do we cling? We cling because we don’t trust. Somewhere along the road, often early in our lives, something happened that caused us to believe that we couldn't fully trust life. When we lose a feeling of trust, we cling to whatever we have that gives us a momentary feeling of security and safety. Sometimes we cling to people or relationships. Sometimes we cling to the past or cling to our imaginations about the future. Sometimes we cling to things or money, and sometimes we cling to feelings of lack or helplessness. Sometimes we cling to a substance, or sex, or drama. We usually cling to whatever makes us feel safe and familiar and whatever we think will keep us out of pain and promote eternal pleasure. This is the essence of the ideas of Raga (attachment) and Dvesha (aversion) that run so deeply through the teachings of Classical Yoga. We play a Ping Pong game between holding what we call “good” and pushing away what we call “bad”, both different sides of the same coin called “clinging”. And after we play this game long enough we come to a startling realization: it hasn't worked. For all our clinging and momentary gratifications, we are still left with feeling tight and untrusting. This is a moment when Aparigraha can swiftly take action to show us the way out.
So how do we begin to trust again? One way is simply practicing letting go in small ways that feel safe. Maybe we leave a little bigger tip at a restaurant when we get great service, maybe we let go of reaching for our phones every time we get bored, maybe we clean out a closet or cabinet, maybe we donate what we can afford to a charity we love. We do things that feel manageable to show ourselves that it is safe to let go. We build a small sense of trust back. Then, maybe we find other ways of letting go. Maybe we don’t stick with someone who treats us badly for fear of being alone. Maybe we work with teachers and professionals who can help us safely let go of an addiction. Maybe we begin to remember that as we let go, we gain, and as we gain we let go. We slowly begin to remember that life flows as a mighty river between gain and loss and one is necessary for the other to exist. All of these ideas are putting Aparigraha into action. It takes time, and it takes a great sense of compassion for our fears and the tender wounds within us. We do what we can until we can do more, and that is enough.
When we practice Aparigraha, we are practicing trust in life. We are reminding ourselves that life naturally moves through joy and pain, love and loss, light and dark, easy and hard. No human life is an exception to this truth. When we release clinging and grasping, we let the river of life flow through us. We move through the pain, and we move through the pleasure. In the process, we begin to realize that there is something beyond the pleasure and pain of life. There is a part of ourselves forever watching that is unaffected and unmoved by the duality of physical existence. Beyond grasping lies trust, and with trust comes a realization of what we truly are.