The third “Yama” or code of conduct laid out in the Yoga Sutras seems straightforward enough -- Asteya: Do not steal. However, there is a lot more to this instruction than meets the eye. It turns out that we steal in the mental and emotional world just as much as the physical world, and we steal from ourselves as much as we steal from others.
It’s fairly easy to see why taking what doesn’t belong to you, or shoplifting from a store is wrong. For most, there are very limited circumstances where we need an instruction not to actively steal. However, some might think it's acceptable to fudge the weight in the bulk section of Whole Foods, or write down the number for the conventional pecans when they got the more expensive organic ones. Perhaps someone might be tempted to swipe a knick-knack from a hotel. Choices like this are often justified with the rationalization that it won't matter to a big corporate interest anyway, or maybe our logic is that the company doesn’t have policies in alignment with our values. Then these small acts might feel more like a political statement than theft. However, even these small acts violate another’s rights, putting deceitful, negative energy into the world. It doesn’t matter from whom one is stealing. A true political statement is to not frequent the establishments we don’t support, not to steal from them.
Even if you can’t relate to these small physical thefts, that doesn’t mean you don’t need Asteya. Sadly, just by living our well-intentioned lives, we are stealing from the Earth and future generations. Our consumption and waste is slowly, and not-so-slowly, destroying our planet for our wildlife, our descendents and ourselves. We can strive to keep a positive balance. Imagine if every time you took something from the Earth, you gave something back. We will be inspired to do this naturally if we take time to commune with nature. As our hearts fill with gratitude and wonder for the natural world, we will be less likely to steal from it.
Any time we accumulate more than we need, we stimulate a demand for production in an already polluted world, but we also deprive others of the use of the items we are effectively hoarding. If we think of things as on loan to us rather than owning them, we can get in touch with a reverent attitude of stewardship. Marie Kondo, in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” suggests that objects have energy and need to go where they will be most useful and appreciated. She introduces the “Sparkling Joy” test. If we hold an object in our hands and it doesn’t bring us sparkling joy, then it is time to pass it on to someone else.
When we begin to look at stealing on subtle levels, it can be surprising all the ways the concept of Asteya applies to our lives. We can begin to raise our awareness about the ways we steal energy from others. We all know people who seem to suck our energy dry if we spend too much time with them. Reflect on what specific behaviors have this effect and then notice if we have these tendencies in our relationships as well. Perhaps it is monopolizing a conversation, rather than truly listening-- inadvertently keeping ourselves in the spotlight. Perhaps we think we know the answers, rather than keeping an open and curious mind. Perhaps negativity in our speech or habitual complaining brings people down. Have you ever acted incredulous when someone didn’t know about something you thought they should have been exposed to? How do you think this made them feel? We can ask ourselves, “Does the person feel lighter and more uplifted after they have been with us?”
Time is a precious commodity in our busy, bustling, modern lives. One of the most common things we steal from others is time. By being late, we are sending the message that we do not respect the preciousness of the other person’s time, and by being in a frenzy ourselves, rushing to the next thing, we are also sending the message that we don’t respect our own time. Striving for punctuality, by planning ahead, being realistic and leaving buffers between activities for unforeseen delays, sends the message that you honor time and the people in your life.
Even the best intentioned people often steal another’s volition. This often goes in the category of “enabling.” We think we are helping, from a misplaced belief that we know better what another needs than they do. However, when we find ourselves doing for others what they could do for themselves, we are not helping them to grow as humans, we are enabling them to stay stuck. Over-caretaking steals from their privilege to make mistakes, learn and grow into themselves. This type of forcing our will on others can also be found in forcing friendships, or winning over romantic interests. Any time we chip away at another’s free will, we are in effect stealing their volition.
Amidst all of this activity, we are likely stealing from ourselves as much, or even more than, we take from others. A chronic issue, especially among women in our culture, is not having good boundaries. If we don’t have healthy boundaries with others, we are stealing time and energy from ourselves and what is important to us. As we take the time to get to know ourselves better, and feel into our limits, we will learn where our boundaries need to be. And then we can experiment with setting them in kind, clear and respectful ways. The difference between an ultimatum and a boundary is the space we are in when we explain our limits. We all know the difference in “feeling” between an ultimatum and a clear statement of what we need without regard to the outcome.
“There is a perception that speaking up for boundaries is somehow introducing conflict into a situation, or at the very least, escalating it in an unkind way, like everything was fine until you spoke up for your needs and now you made it weird. But not speaking up is not making it better. It’s just giving the other person more license to operate, and communicating that you are ok with the behavior - there is no prize for being the world’s most stoic and accommodating person.” -Jennifer Peepas
So many of our other habitual behaviors are effectively stealing little parts of ourselves:
Conformity - When we lose our sense of uniqueness to fit into a mold our society creates for us, this steals from our uniqueness.
Negative Self-Talk and Perfectionism - Holding ourselves up to an unattainable standard and berating ourselves for not obtaining it steals from our vitality and joy of life.
Regret and Projection - Life is short and every moment is precious. If we are in the past, with regret or longing, we are wasting this moment we could be fully living. Time goes more slowly in the now, but speeds by when we are constantly worried about what is coming next. By not being in the moment we are stealing precious time from ourselves.
Where does this tendency to steal from ourselves and others come from? It all stems from scarcity thinking. Stealing implies a void to be filled, which leads us to seek exernals for satisfaction. Scarcity thinking, this idea that there isn’t enough, can be born out of comparisons. Especially in the current culture of Facebook and Instagram, magazines and films, it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to photoshopped and curated personas. When we feel scarcity, it is a sign that we have lost touch with our true nature… our connection to our higher power. We lose sight of the fact that the universe always has, and will continue to, provide all we need to grow and flourish as humans.
Two wonderful techniques to counter scarcity thinking are coming back to the moment and finding gratitude. You can call yourself back to the present moment, by pausing, taking a deep breath and noticing your surroundings. Then ask yourself, “In this moment, what is lacking?” You will be surprised how often the answer is “Not a thing.” Usually, in the moment, we have all that we need. Then we can generate a feeling of abundance by finding gratitude for all that we do have. Like energy attracts like energy. And when we are feeling abundant, we are less likely to take what isn’t ours, deplete another’s energy, insert ourselves where we don’t belong or talk down to ourselves.
There is a wonderful word in Sanskrit-- “Adikara”, which means “right to know” or “right to have.” The concept is simple and profound. If we want something, we must work to be competent at it, otherwise it would be stealing. Our desires and wishes are nothing without building our competency so we will be ready for it for our desire when it comes to us. Money and relationships are two great examples of becoming capable of stewarding what we are asking for. If we want more money in our lives, we can invite it in by honoring and managing the money we do have. We can budget and track our spending to avoid the trap of “deliberate vagueness” about our finances. This competency will signal to the universe that we are ready to handle more, but additionally, in the process, we will find a feeling of abundance with what we already have.
There is a common tendency, after the ending of a romantic relationship, to want to fill that void with another person. There may be a period of mourning, but break-ups often trigger feelings of unworthiness or fears of being alone, and it sometimes feels like we need the reassurance of being desired. However, if what we desire is a balanced, healthy relationship, it is helpful to pause and ask “Are you available to what you want?” Perhaps spending time alone, and finding true joy and contentment in our relationship with ourselves, will ready us for the right kind of relationship in the future. Building competency in any area of our lives, grows joy, possibility, curiosity and learning, which in turn, feels like abundance! ”I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” -Pablo Picasso
As we raise our awareness of all the ways we steal, stay clear of the trap of perfectionism. The goal is not perfection, but awareness. Any self-improvement must be paired with gentleness. As our heart softens we will find more empathy and understanding for ourselves and others. When you notice the tendencies to steal in yourself, practice naming them, without judgment, and then find one easy step you can take towards competency and abundance. Remember, in this moment, you have all you need.
* (For further reading, check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, the works of Pema Chodron, “If the Buddha Dated” by Charlotte Kasl and “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)