When I was four years old, the little girl next door had a music box with a ballerina inside that twirled to the music when you opened the lid. I wanted that toy so much it hurt.
I begged and pleaded with my parents for one. I even tried to steal it, hiding it (unconvincingly) under my sweater. I’d always played nicely with the girl until she got that musical box.
After that, I hated her.
When I started practicing yoga, my teacher introduced me to the Yamas and Niyamas—10 guidelines for living a good life as described by the great sage Patanjali. I realized that Asteya, the third Yama, had been my Achilles heel from age four. Asteya means ‘don’t hanker after other people’s stuff’—and I was drowning in it.
Asteya is often translated as non-stealing, but master teacher TKV Desikachar describes it as ‘non-covetousness’. That opens a whole new can of worms.
Stealing is something I’d never d; everybody knows that’s wrong. However, while it’s obvious if you steal something from a shop, it’s much easier to conceal the desire for something that isn’t rightfully yours. A little bit of envy when your best friend lands your dream job isn’t going to ruin your life, but habitually longing for things that aren’t yours can have a serious impact on your wellbeing.
There’s another, very subtle way of stealing—when we take away someone else’s self-esteem or inner peace. I should know, I did it recently and it makes me wince just to think about it.
My eight year old daughter, Ruby, desperately wanted to go on the ghost tour at a nearby theme park. Due to recent, ahem, challenging behaviour, I decided to use the situation as an incentive to make some positive changes at home.
Together we devised a wall chart that had 10 squares in it. Every time I noticed her doing something kind (which could be as simple as not tormenting her brother over dinner), she drew a ghost in one of the squares. Once all 10 squares contained a ghost, I’d take her on the ghost tour.
It worked magnificently. The challenging behaviour disappeared and my grumpy daughter turned in to a cheerful little trooper for two whole weeks. We made plans to go on the ghost tour, but two days before the outing, I watched her extract a horrible revenge on her little brother, who had committed the terrible crime of pulling her bookmark out of place. I lost my temper and flew at her, shouting that she was a mean bully and that there would be no ghost tour after what I’d seen.
When all the wailing and screaming (mostly mine) had abated, I realized what I had done. In my anger, I had taken something that didn’t belong to me—Ruby’s confidence in me to treat her in a fair and consistent way.
Who’d trust a parent who gave with one hand, took with the other?
With a little bit of mindfulness, I could have disciplined my daughter in a way that renewed her confidence in me rather than taking it away. Now she was giving me the cold shoulder with a degree of sophistication that made me fear for the teenage years. It was time to go back to the Yamas and Niyamas for inspiration on how to get myself out of yet another parenting pickle.
Patanjali provides a simple exercise to help us practice Asteya:
“If we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate towards those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our mind will be very tranquil.”
~ Sutra 1:33
I decided to meditate on this sutra during my morning yoga practice. After a couple of days, the truth of the sutra seeped into my every day interactions. I practiced compassion rather than impatience when the kids were whiney (mostly). Reminding myself to ‘remain undisturbed’ gave me enough breathing space to step back and think before saying anything I would regret. Contemplating sutra 1:33 didn’t fix all my problems over night, but it made it much easier for me to make better choices.
That’s the real power of yoga. A few minutes of concentrated mindfulness can have a positive effect on the way you think, feel and behave, long after you’ve finished your practice.
The changes in my behaviour had a huge impact on Ruby’s behaviour. She became more contented as my parenting became more consistent and compassionate. We did go to on the ghost tour a week later and had a wonderful time.
I reckon Patanjali would have made a pretty good parent.
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Assitant Editor: Zenna James/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo by J. Gaddis