Learning to Let Go: Aparigraha in Action

Her only crime? That she loved (the hippo) too much.

What are you attached to?

Family, and your friends. What about possessions- your car, your house- shoes, jewelry? Yoga pants? Perhaps you’re attached to your ideas- as a Democrat, or a Republican. Or your defined image of yourself as a certain person- yogi, Christian, vegetarian.

What happens when the attachment is severed or threatened? A loved one dies. Your possessions are stolen, or broken- or you can no longer afford them. Your ideas are challenged as you discover new truths. Or you find that you can no longer sustain the image of yourself that defined you.

This, according to Buddhism,* is the cause of all human sorrow. Attachment causes us to suffer. If we become un-attached, we will cease to suffer. It’s simple. And yet so hard to do.

Aparigraha, the fifth of the yamas, is “non-grasping.” At its simplest, it invites us to let go of those possessions that we cling to. And it has a lot in common with asteya, (non-stealing), in that it asks us to trust in the abundance of the universe.

It gets a little trickier when we start dealing with non-material things. ‘What about my family,’ you may think. ‘I don’t ever want to not love people.’ Right. Aparigraha is not about becoming DE-tached, or cold. It means that you accept things as they are in the present moment- to enjoy them, to love them with a whole-hearted generosity, and then be willing to let go when you have to.

No, it’s not easy. Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to let go of material possessions, let alone a loved one.That’s why (as with any moral law) it is best to start small. We can build up to the big stuff.

So, if you’re just starting to work with the concept of non-attachment, or if you’d like to refresh yourself, here’s an exercise for you.

Find a drawer or a closet, or (if that is too overwhelming), a box that needs to be cleaned up. Look at each item with fresh eyes. Do you need it? Can someone else make better use of it? If you feel like you can’t bear to be rid of something, put it in a box and mark your calendar to revisit it in 6 months. At that point, if you haven’t used it, or thought about it during that time, you may be more willing to let it go.

You’ll find that you’re letting go of more than just stuff here. Your material possessions are symbols of the ideas and concepts that you’re clinging to, as well. Those jeans that are too small? They might represent an outdated image of yourself. If you’re reluctant to part with an item, close your eyes and look at the “suffering” that you are feeling. What are you really clinging to?

It feels good to clean up the clutter and junk in our lives. We’re freeing ourselves of things- which gives us more physical space- but we’re also cleaning up our attachments, so that we have more emotional and mental space.

This week, as I’ve talked about, written about, and examined my own relationship to aparigraha, I’ve had the opportunity to notice a few things about myself that might be true for you as well.

  1. Aparigraha in Language. “Hang on,” I say to my friend, who’s going through a tough time. “Hang in there.” Our language itself advises us to cling. Instead, if we can soften the grip and fall away a bit, the pain might be less. I am not going to start saying “Let go,” instead- but I think I’ll free myself of the clingy language.
  2. Emotion and Aparigraha– for me, defensiveness is a sign of clinging. For example: in the last few months my iPhone has been functioning less and less well, becoming frustratingly slow. Several people have suggested that I delete some of my music- do I really need to carry around 3000 + songs? I actually found myself feeling snappy and irritable toward these well-meaning folks. “NO, it’s not the music!” I said. That defensiveness even felt tight and “clingy” in my chest- a sign that something was not right.  I have since cut down on the music, and the phone does run faster again- but as I started to remove songs, I felt a bit concerned that someone might need to listen to something, like a Barry Manilow Christmas song, or the theme song to the cartoon show Hamtaro** and I won’t have it all queued up and ready to go. What’s my deal? See #3.
  3. Layers of Attachment– Why on earth do I need all of these songs?! It turns out that I  am attached to an idea of myself as someone who has an amusing or appropriate song at the ready. I hoard music, I think, because there was a time in my life where I didn’t have access to the popular stuff. At the dawn of the MTV era, cable TV was not a priority in my house, and so I always felt a bit uncool and out of the loop.

Aparigraha in action isn’t easy. None of the moral guidelines are. Perhaps that’s why we need them- doing the wrong thing is so often easier, at first, that we need rules, laws, to help us to do the thing that is temporarily harder, or at least less satisfying, so that we can experience a more permanent sense of happiness.

The last five weeks have been eye-opening as I researched and deepened my understanding of the yamas in order to share them with you. Thanks for your readership, friendship, and insightful comments throughout the process. I have to confess, I’m a bit attached to all of you.

*Wait, aren’t we talking about yoga? Yes, but Buddhism and Yoga share the same root system, and Buddhism says this awfully well. 

**An anime show featuring a wise pet hamster who loves sunflower seeds and helping out his schoolgirl owner. “Little Hamster, Big Adventures!” 

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