As a kid I once pocketed the change and bills I saw on the tables in a restaurant. I thought the world inexplicably kind that day, and I didn’t think to ask whether the money belonged to someone. If I had asked the waiter, he would have set me straight about tips.
Asteya usually appears to me like this as an adult, too. Something arrives in my field of vision that I think will help or satisfy me, and I take it without thinking. Hurrying in traffic, I cut in front of the person in the next lane. In a business meeting I talk over someone else who wants to make a point. I have quietly harangued my wife to get her to act how I want her to.
When I stop to reflect, I see the collateral effects of actions like these. I have invaded another person’s driving space, usurped a colleague’s speaking time, and discouraged my wife from being her inimitable self. Dozens of times every day I do things to fulfill my desires, and often enough I end up appropriating something that also belongs to someone else.
If I pause for a moment before taking, unexpected insights sometimes occur. Pausing creates the opportunity to momentarily observe my own desires. Exactly what part of me feels the need to cut in line, or talk over someone, or herd my wife where I want her to go? The answer is different every time, of course. What’s remarkable is that I usually discover that at any particular moment the wanting part of me is a pretty small part of the totality of who I am.
The second benefit of pausing is to recognize that the rest of me – the part that doesn’t feel needy – is really fine whether or not my supposed desire is fulfilled. In fact, probing further I often find that the underlying desire has no substance at all. It is already satisfied, without me taking whatever it is that I think I need. In almost any domain that really matters to me, my life is incredibly abundant.
This isn’t platitudinous mumbo-jumbo; my life has plenty of hard spots. My wife doesn’t always acts in my interest; my business affairs often don’t come out the way I expect; traffic jams don’t part as I approach. The point is that putting these desires in a broader perspective can throw into relief the overwhelming miracle of being alive in the world. It pushes the spotlight toward the greater truth: desire and abundance are primarily states of mind, not of matter.
In this context, to steal something equates to a failure to recognize the abundance and underlying miracle of life. Given the choice, why wouldn’t I choose a feeling of abundance rather than unfulfilled desire?
I think Americans of my generation tend to steal at a distance. We do it on a massive scale. Using up the Earth’s resources, we steal from future generations. We steal the freedom of animals in order to slaughter them for food. The list goes on and on, a dark strand woven into the fabric of our lives.
You regard me
with submissive head,
eyes not raised
even to my shins,
beneath the scar
Taken from your family
to complete another’s,
you even empty your bowels
on someone else’s schedule.
Teach me, fearful dog:
when they have taken
and you have given up so much,
what has been diminished?
The listing of the Yamas and Niyamas
The next yama (self-restraint)