The third principle of Yama is asteya, or nonstealing. At first glance, this may seem like a straightforward ethical principle or dictate, one that we’ve all understood since we were toddlers. As Stone argues, however, asteya is much broader in meaning than, say, “thou shalt not steal.” In the Ashtanga Yoga worldview, stealing is not just taking things which are not freely given to us; it includes any act of taking more than we need. So when we act out of greed and accumulate simply for the sake of self-aggrandizement and endless pleasure, we are actually stealing from others, because we are taking things that are not necessary to meet our needs, but our wants.
This is particularly problematic for those of us embedded in consumer culture. We buy things, of course, for subsistence — i.e., we need clothes, food, shelter, as well as books to nurture the mind, music to soothe the soul, etc. But eventually all this buying becomes overbuying, and we buy not to meet our needs, but to “fill up lack”. So how can we distinguish between a need and a want? Stone does not provide a list against which we can compare our recent consumer purchases. Rather, he provides a more flexible and open-ended set of tools to help each individual decide for himself what constitutes a true need versus an unnecessary want.
With respect to any action, we can ask ourselves the following three questions:
- Will your action cause harm to you?
- Will your action cause harm to others?
- What is the quality of the intention in the choice you’re making? (Is your choice motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion; or is it motivated by love, generosity, and benevolence?)
By asking ourselves these questions, and by answering honestly, we will know whether an action is in line with Yama. Yoga ethics, then, does not issue dictates against specific actions, since the context, intention, and unique circumstances of an action will determine its permissibility. In other words, yoga ethics provides us with tools of perception and insight that allow us to make right choices. It does not tell us which choices are right.
Finally, Stone proposes that the cure or antidote for stealing is nonattachment. This is not just nonattachment to the objects of our desire, but a nonattachment to our sense of self (what Stone calls the “ego-self”). When we recognize that the self is fluid, and when we realize that the self and other are one, we will be released from the sorts of impulses that lead to stealing (as well as lying, cheating, violence, etc.).
This chapter, like the previous two chapters on ahimsa and satya, lacks focus and wanders off topic with some regularity. When I first began reading this book, my hope was that the chapters dedicated to Yama would each be a careful study of one of the five yamas. Instead, the experience of reading these chapters is more like a treasure hunt. There are worthwhile nuggets of wisdom and insight to be extracted from each chapter, but it requires a bit of digging, as well as patience.
So what are the worthwhile nuggets in Chapter 7 – Asteya: Nonstealing? I found the most compelling idea in this chapter to be Stone’s claim that asteya applies to actions in which we take more than we need. This is not how we typically understand the dictum “do not steal” or “thou shalt not steal.” We usually think of stealing as an action that involves taking something that belongs to someone else. The concept of ownership is key here. Also, the concepts of “I” and “other” are necessary components of this understanding of stealing.
In contrast, Stone presents asteya within a totally different web of philosophical and metaphysical concepts. This worldview includes the basic idea that all things are interconnected. It also includes the idea that the “ego-self” is a false construction of the mind, and that the hard line we draw between “I” and “not-I” is also a falsehood. What this means, practically speaking, is that harm done to a river is harm done to myself. Stealing from my neighbor is stealing from myself. Lying to you is lying to myself.
Here’s a concrete example to better illustrate the consequences of Stone’s view of asteya. Imagine a person, let’s call him Igor, who is poor and destitute, and who is unable to feed himself due to a rash of bad luck and poor choices. Now let’s imagine Igor is really hungry, so he walks into a Walmart and slips a few pieces of fruit into his jacket pocket, and walks out without paying. Typically, we would say that what he did is stealing. But if we adopt the worldview presented by Stone in this chapter, things may not be so straightforward. We have to consider the larger picture — e.g. it might turn out that the arrival of Walmart in Igor’s community has caused many small businesses to go under, decimating the local economy. Now who is stealing from whom?
I don’t mean to suggest that Stone supports shoplifting, or stealing from multinational corporations. My point with this little story is to illustrate the difference between two definitions of stealing. One definition relies upon a “mine vs. yours” calculus. The definition we find in Yama, by comparison, encourages us to think in terms of “need vs. want”. This way of seeing things is perhaps more flexible, taking into account a wider range of considerations than just our usual ideas about ownership and property rights.
The upshot of all this is pretty profound. If stealing is more than just taking what is not yours, then we are all engaged in acts of stealing pretty much all the time. When I go to the store and buy, for instance, a brand new pair of shoes, I am probably stealing. This is especially true if I’m buying the shoes out of ego or vanity, and not because my old shoes are so worn out that I can’t wear them anymore. If the shoes are made in a sweatshop, or under other undesirable conditions, then I am really stealing, since the low cost of my shoes is essentially being subsidized by the slave wages being paid to the worker on the other end.
Does this mean we should all stop buying things, and withdraw from consumer society altogether? Probably not. And, in any case, it might be close to impossible for us to do that in the modern world. But reflection upon asteya, and Yama more generally, compels us to think more carefully about our actions. The three questions Stone poses above can guide us see our actions more clearly. If you are honest with yourself about how your actions harm other people, the environment, as well as yourself, you may change (but not abandon altogether) your consumer behavior. Perhaps more importantly, if you are honest with yourself about your intentions and motivations, you may begin to change your mind about what your needs and wants are in life. And this shift may have an even greater impact on your choices and your actions.
- Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance (Chapter 6) (yogaisforlovers.wordpress.com)
- Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance (Chapter 5) (yogaisforlovers.wordpress.com)