Asteya


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YS II.37 asteya-pratishthayam sarva-ratnopasthanam

When the mind is firmly established in non-stealing, one obtains prosperity: material, mental, and spiritual.

The third yama in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras is asteya, non-stealing. Other translations describe the prosperity derived from this practice as jewels or treasures, and focus instead on the heart rather than the mind. In Buddhist philosophy, heart and mind are considered one, combined into the concept of citta, which translates as heart-mind. The most well-known Buddhist mantra, Om mani padme hum, means, “The jewel is in the heart of the lotus.” There are many interpretations of this teaching, one being that compassion arises when the mind (jewel) rests in the heart. In both these ancient traditions, the idea is that through the persistent practice of cultivating awareness, the thoughts and emotions are purified, leading to perfection in action. A perfect action is defined as a selfless action. Therefore, perhaps ironically, once we give up everything, everything comes to us.

As with all the yamas or restrictions, practicing and perfecting non-stealing can and must be done on many levels. The grossest, most obvious way to practice is to not take from others what is not ours. Even this can be seen in a subtler light. Me not stealing your car might be clear enough. But—taking an example from our unfortunate present pandemic environment—what if I stole your health, or even your life, because I chose to ignore the guidance of doctors, scientists, and our government by attending a large party, where I became infected with the virus and then passed it along to you, and perhaps to many others? These are actions. What about words? The things we say to another person or the tone of voice we use can easily steal another person’s sense of well-being or peace or happiness. We’ve all experienced it—that quick, sharp pain in the gut or in the chest when someone yells at us or accuses us of something, even if it’s not true. Subtler yet than actions or words are thoughts. How might we steal in our thoughts, or steal another person’s thoughts? Perhaps someone tells us something in confidence and then we repeat it to another. We’ve now stolen that person’s privacy and trust.

These are the three levels we discuss most often when referring to the yogic practices of yama and niyama: thought, word, and action. But the need to practice non-stealing at all arises from a deeper, underlying cause for this habit or behavior. We steal because we believe we lack something. If we didn’t believe this, then there would be no reason to ever take anything from anyone. But the truth is, we already have everything we need, each of us. Whether or not we experience or understand this, the reality is, we are already perfect, already whole, exactly the way we are.

Drawing again from the Buddhist tradition, there is a story about a monk who is always looking for the perfect blossom. He finds this one a little faded, that one is torn, another’s petals are uneven. Years he spends seeking the perfect flower. And then one day, he realizes they are all perfect, and in this moment achieves enlightenment (the jewel in the heart of the lotus!). Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, once said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” What more could we possibly want?

by Laura Golden