Have you ever stolen anything? Taken something that didn’t belong to you?
Asteya is a yogic, ethical principle that generally means “non-stealing.”
Asteya means taking only what we need—nothing more and nothing less. So it’s not just the idea of refraining from grabbing that pair of socks on your way out of the fitting room or refusing to break into someone’s home. You don’t have to don a ski mask and bust a window to be a thief.
Asteya is the recognition that in each and every moment there is an opportunity to take stuff that doesn’t belong to us and yet we choose not to.
In yoga teacher training, someone brought up how talking while eating can lack mindfulness because we’re not fully experiencing the act of consuming the food—chewing, tasting, savoring, swallowing. You’re eating but you’re totally separate from the experience.
It’s a bit of a stretch to say you’re stealing from the moment if you talk while you wolf down a burger. I’m not prepared to go that far. What this example does remind us of is the frequency at which this happens and how potentially damaging it can be.
Consider how often we don’t stop to be grateful in the moment. We’re separate and numb and robotic. It’s a mediocre way of being. It’s autopilot.
A few years back, I had a conversation with someone who worked in “shrinkage,” or retail loss prevention. This individual practiced yoga and believed wholeheartedly in the power of asteya. He told me that theft, in his experience, comes from people feeling entitled.
Entitlement is feeling like you have the right to something. You deserve it. It already belongs to you. When people feel this way, he said, they have a tendency to take things that don’t belong to them.
Entitlement can come from someone feeling like they’re not paid enough money and they deserve a little extra. It can come from people feeling disrespected by the management of a business. It comes from individuals who are hurting. They feel disappointed, unappreciated or sad, and that pain has chewed away at them. It has created a vacancy. It’s left little holes inside.
People then fill those holes with stuff they think will fix it. They could steal anything but it often has little to do with the item itself. They could grab a pair of socks and not at all need a pair of socks or even like the pair of socks. The equation looks like this:
Entitlement + Opportunity = Theft
They walk away with a pair of socks and for a moment they feel happy, powerful, excited and gratified. That little sock-shaped hole is now full. They’ve healed it with their theft. And healing feels delicious.
A pair of socks might not cut it. You might need a couple of outfits. Pants and jacket and some accessories thrown in there too. Why the heck not? When the opportunity comes up, you’ll heal yourself by taking what you believe is yours. You’ll fill the outfit-shaped hole and you’re complete once again.
Maybe it’s a laptop, a little bag of coffee, a newspaper. Maybe it’s the neighbor’s cat. Whatever it is, you won’t stop until you are whole once again.
It might not even be a thing you’re stealing. You might steal someone’s husband. Or time. Or attention.
Have you ever texted while someone was talking to you? Have you ever been the one who was talking while someone was texting? How did it make you feel? Did you feel heard? Respected? Loved? The person you were talking to was stealing from you. They were stealing your time. And that feels crappy.
I heard once that people who are chronically late believe their time is more valuable than the other person’s time, and I try to remind myself of it whenever possible.
What about recycling? Is it “stealing” to throw away perfectly recyclable stuff? It’s wasteful. We’re not paying attention and not caring. We just chuck it in the trash and remove ourselves from responsibility. Asteya is also practicing mindfulness in our consumption of things.
Kissing someone else’s husband (or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend) is stealing. It’s straight-up theft. Many of us have done it in the past. Or things like it.
Some are saying, “I would never do that!”
Well, great. You’ve got your own stuff, love bug. Trust me on this.
We’ve all partaken in something that was not ours and filled a hole inside of ourselves that was clearly shaped like that moment of robbery. It was an action that contributed to separation, in the name of creating perceived wholeness within ourselves. Yikes.
I’m committed to asteya now, because I am committed to wholeness in myself and in those around me. I want to be a protector and a healer and that healing starts with me.
That friend I talked to about asteya also told me he believed the tonic for entitlement is gratitude. He said that we all feel entitled from time to time and it’s important to learn to recognize when we’re in that energetic space.
We can call ourselves out on it. We can tell others about it. We can look it in the eye like the thug that it is and tell it to hit the road real fast because we’ve got mad gratitude skills we’re ready to bust out if provoked.
We can cultivate a culture of gratitude. We surround ourselves with people who are grateful. We can pause each day and consider all that we’re thankful for. When we do this, we build the grateful muscle and it gets stronger day by day.
There’s no room for entitlement within a grateful heart. A grateful heart is a whole heart.
It’s my commitment to grow in gratitude, to heal the holes in my life that bring about a sense of entitlement. The ones shaped like iPads and jewelry and fancy clothes.
I know now that I already have all that I need. The rest is just excess. The rest is just my cup running over. I seek to keep those holes from creeping in… the clawing, gnawing places of need and want and deserving. I keep them at bay through remembering that I am already whole. We all are.
We will stay that way through building a house of gratitude—brick by brick—that keeps out the hungry wolves of need and keeps us warm inside by the fire with those we love.
That’s the house I’m building. That’s the house I want to live in.
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Editor: Michelle Margaret
Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration