by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie
This post is number five in our series: “Eight Limbs in the 2.0 Age”. #1 gives an overview of our general approach and method in our review of the Patanjalian legacy. #2 and #3 address ahimsa philosophically and personally. #4 introduces the complexity of satya (truth) in the 2.0 era.
This post is our stab at the ethical imperative of asteya – the ageless principle of non-stealing, now complicated by capitalism, branding, copyrighting, intellectual property, and identity theft. The contemporary complications of satya – “who are you speaking as and with which voice” – reach a critical tension in the consideration of asteya, which involves questions of who owns the voice itself, the air upon which it travels, and the value it transmits.
“Refrain from stealing” is a naïve instruction for the contemporary yogi, who lives in a world of bizarre economies, in which normal life is sustained by theft from the earth, in which consumerism creates power imbalances with every purchase, in which monetary values are unsupported by material ballast, in which lineages of knowledge are appropriated across time and culture, and in which ways of helping others can be trademarked.
“Thou shalt not steal” appeals to at least three levels of desired harmony: the social, the psychological, and the metaphysical.
Firstly, the social appeal says: “Don’t disrupt the order of exchange. Your peer invested his time and vitality in that object: do not take his life from him, lest he returns the offence.” Pretty clear.
Secondly, the psychological appeal says: “Don’t exacerbate your sense of personal inadequacy. Your dissatisfaction might be unwarranted.” This elegant suggestion to the psyche lies at the root of most versions of karmic theory. The pain of stealing is seen to be instantly self-reflexive: it amplifies the internal anxiety of loss. When you steal, you suddenly live in a world of things that can be taken from you. The fear of this extends to the potential theft of your very life. You steal because you fear you’re dying, but stealing only proves the nearness of your mortality.
Lastly, the metaphysical appeal says: “Don’t want things. Things are meaningless. The material world is a dream.”
The first two are useful reflections to have inherited, and they will be useful to pass on. They suit contemporary human life – up to a developmental point. They work on the level of basic schoolyard goodness, and can inform the development of compassion (the social appeal) and self-analysis (the psychological appeal) for the rest of one’s life.
The metaphysical appeal is too problematic to be useful. In its attempt to effect humility, it asks for the sacrifice of bodily meaning and value. It asks for dissociation. If the material world is a dream, you must exist somewhere else: somewhere invisible, somewhere untouchable. And you are free to hide there, while the libertarians, who share your conception of the world as meaningless, pillage every last forest.
None of these three appeals are adequate to present complexity.
With regard to the first – the social order of exchange – we can surely say the technological era could not be more different than the seashell-and-goats currency of archaic times. Our products are machine-tooled and mass-produced by machine-tooled and mass-produced robots. They multiply themselves in the digiverse. We create financial products out of Trumped-up leverage and accounting software. There are 3D printers now that are spitting out entire modules of pre-fab homes. Obsolescence is planned, and disposability multiplies banality.
Can a thing that is designed to be thrown away be stolen? For how long does a disposable object hold stealable value?
(A sliver of Marx can be helpful here: in the world of manufacture, the product is of far less value than the means of production.)
With regard to the psychological argument, theft can be a great democratizer. Independent graphic designers and open-source web activists hack or pirate tens of thousands of dollars worth of high-end software that they then use to make extraordinary art, inspire underground communities, or hack into nefarious corporations. In no way does their thievery exacerbate their sense of personal inadequacy. In fact – it usually reverses it. With a few furtive keystrokes, they level key playing fields of power and knowledge.
Can human knowledge be stolen? For what reason could it justifiably be withheld? Is stealing knowledge the acceleration of its dissemination?
Primary rule of hacking: if it can be written, it can be hacked. Ownership is dependent upon security, which in digital media is dependent upon ignorance. For those who are free from ignorance, the illusion of security is dissolved and the economic power of ownership based upon high demand and low supply is instantly devalued.
Corollary rule: if it can be hacked, it can never be owned again. Trying to sell it to someone else = massive fail.
Primary rule of the open-source world: programming is evolutionary. Software responds organically to changes in environment and circumstance. Open-source employs modular design to allow change to be shared quickly and with the highest level of utility. The capitalist ideal of competition and conquest is softened with an evolutionary idea of new models surpassing old models. Everyone benefits from every advance. Ownership is inter-dependent and mutually beneficial for all.
Corollary rule: don’t sell the software. Sell a way of putting it to use that no one has thought of before. And then, be prepared for someone to kick your ass with a better app.
Let’s talk about asteya and ecology.
Who among us pays the earth back for what we take? Perhaps any human ownership amounts to trafficking in stolen goods. I look at the simplest wooden spoon in my kitchen and wonder: “What gives me the right to call you mine?”
The only answer I hear comes from the forest, calling me to stewardship.
Capitalism is the accumulation of surplus labour value combined with the illusion that raw materials are both free and endless. Capital is the plunder of muscle and soil by a self-centered story-maker who thinks all of the shiny things are for him alone.
The inheritance of capital perpetuates theft from generation to generation.
If one believes in reincarnation, wouldn’t one also be compelled to work towards a 100% death tax? Wouldn’t this be the most ethical way of circulating equal opportunity for the study and contemplation we hold to be most precious in our evolution?
If this argument doesn’t work for the believer in reincarnation, is their belief simply a justification for material inequity? If you really believed that everyone was coming back around for another go, wouldn’t you do everything you could to level the playing field, and to halt inter-generational theft? Wouldn’t India be Marxist?
We should remember that both yoga and Buddhism blossomed in eras of rebellion against the caste system. What are we doing in yoga culture today to equalize endemic inter-class theft?
The most sensible human/world micro-economy I ever experienced was my stint of farming in rural Vermont. Working in the sugarbush was the pinnacle of balanced exchange. In the autumn, we’d lay up the windfall branches from the stands of gracious maple, and cut down the few old trees that were either lightning-struck or dying of parasites, or at their natural end. The wood dried up all hard and resinous through the winter. Come February, we tapped in 5000 spouts for 5000 buckets, and for a good three weeks lugged the sap to the sugarhouse, where last year’s firewood heated up the boiling pans. The deadwood blazed to boil off the water of the living wood, and the amber nectar flowed into our coffee cups, or out onto the snow for taffy. Every year was the same: the sap ran dry just as our fuel ran out.
At the end of the season, we cleaned out the enormous firebox, and lugged tons of ashes out in the same sap buckets, to dress the trees. The old farmer had a rule: for however many taps we fixed into a tree, that many buckets of ash we’d lay down at its base. I’m not sure of the soil chemistry of this choice, but the ritual felt old and true.
For a while it seemed to me like the perfect loop of sap, muscle, fire, sweetness, and ash. But I soon realized that the whole operation depended upon external inputs which themselves were dependent upon less sustainable forms of extraction. The galvanized steel buckets didn’t come from the sugarbush. Nor did the iron that supported the stainless boiling pans. The old farmer relied on a diesel tractor made in Detroit. And I was clomping around in steel-toe rubbers from China. The metal, diesel, and boots were all bought with money that came from putting our product into glass bottles shipped to us empty from somewhere, with us shipping them back out full and sweet.
I was in a rural romantic bubble, but it was a bridge towards my first real vision of self-sustenance. Towards the absolute and real-time recycling of all of the resources we live with. Towards the tight circumscription of our footprint. Thinking really carefully about how to use everything maximally seems to be the first step towards equity between human taking and human giving.
What about intellectual property – old-style?
I’ve been studying and practicing various forms of vedic lore for the last decade: Ayurveda, East Indian Astrology, palmistry, and Vastu. For me, these languages hold deep codes of transrational meaning from a period of human culture in which we were more intimately connected to our non-conceptual selves. Studying vidya for me is like entering the cave of the bicameral mind, and remembering what it was like for my ancestors to hear colour, shape, tree, bird, and wind speak directly to them, unmediated by nouns, syntax, and, most importantly, self-consciousness.
But studying vidya gets sticky. A proprietary air surrounds every interaction between student and teacher, and between differing lineages of practice. The ratios of Ayurvedic herbal formulas are closely guarded. Astrological techniques are tightly-held secrets – even amongst students of the same teacher. Meanings of planets and nodes and houses and aspects and asterisms and rulerships diverge from lineage to lineage – sometimes wildly. Key lines of the palm are taken to speak to opposite themes of life by adjacent schools. And the very directions in Vastu are governed by different devatas with differing qualities, depending upon where in India the lineage first emerged.
And yet, it all works brilliantly, as an intuitive language, in the same way that Jungian archetypes work, or automatic writing works, or jazz works. The rules can diverge, because they are subservient to the trance-like state that visionary concentration brings.
Why are the artisans of vidya so proprietary with their methods, when all methods seem to work in their way? There seem to be several reasons, both positive and negative.
On the positive side, secrecy concentrates the flow of study. The student who is being told something that exists in no other form than the words spoken in that moment very naturally develops a highly concentrative attitude. The principle of scarcity that the proprietary attitude creates is central to the compressed magic of the transmission process. The most vibrant grad-level seminar I ever took in college can’t hold a candle to the briefest moments of wonderment in intimate vidya pedagogy.
On the other hand, the secretive veil surrounding vidya also protects the tradition from outside scrutiny. It can never be assessed by anyone neutral to it. It is religious: if you’re not a believer, you can’t know anything about it, because nobody’s talking. The proprietary attitude amongst vedic practitioners also keeps their general field of knowledge fragmentary. This might be subconsciously desirable, for if every lineage of vedic astrology (for example) were brought together in one place, their findings might be exposed as contradictory. As long as everyone holds his or her cards close to the chest, a full review is impossible.
Let’s remember that this is exactly how science (or shared knowledge about anything) does not work. For a system to be universally relevant, all of its findings must be aired for general scrutiny and criticism, in a format accepted by tried convention. Knowledge only evolves in the realm of the non-proprietary.
And this is the main point: what could be less ethical than a proprietary stance towards healing and spiritual practices? Is this not a form of stealing away the well-being of those you hide it from?
Even big pharma might be more justified in owning their pill-patents, because at least their accounting can show what capital investment brought their product to market, and now must be repaid. To my knowledge, no one in the vidya or spiritual vocations has been compelled to fund massive lab testing and double-blind placebo studies to prove the effectiveness of a particular mantra. The mantra-bearer should only be fairly remunerated for his effort in learning it, and his time in sharing it. Anything more than that, and he’s probably making a power-grab.
Back in Vermont, we used community currency. Everybody’s hour of labour was basically equivalent – from dentistry to snowplowing. Differences in rates were assessed by differences in overhead: i.e., it was generally acknowledged that it took more money to equip and repair the dentistry office than to fuel and repair the snowplow. We worked it out in person. Things felt pretty fair.
And then there are fields in which the very attempt to establish ownership constitutes outright theft. Patenting a genetic sequence? Don’t make me puke. It’s not outrageous because I own my genes, but because I am my genes. The geneticist wants to stake a claim on my very being. How ironic that our intense conceptual creativity allows us to imagine that this is even possible.
This could only happen after several thousand years of the conviction, played out in a variety of forms: “I am not my body.”
Last night I dreamt there was a sect of radical Buddhists who committed systematic identity theft as a guerilla spiritual teaching. They were refugees from Mongolian monasteries, sitting in smoky internet cafes in Siberia. They made sure to only steal identities we had no right to own. I opened my wallet to find it full of credit card-sized prayer flags.
In the 2.0 era, ownership is unsustainable. In material terms, we have subdivided the world to the end of its carrying capacity, and our swelling ranks must force a breakdown of any politics that does not redistribute. In social terms, private space (the ownership of internality) is not only vanishing, but is being actively given away to the panopticon of social media and closed-circuit surveillance. In intellectual terms, it is becoming impossible to hoard an idea.
Perhaps, then, the ethics of stealing can be reduced to two contemplations, neither of which can never be codified as law:
“Will the world be a better place because you took and shared and used something that someone else thought they owned?”
“Are you getting something without giving something back?”
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.