“Thou shalt not steal:” we all know we should not take that which belongs to another. So as I approached the week of teaching this third of the yamas, asteya or non-stealing, I felt a bit of a yawn inside myself. I knew I was going to have to dig deep to bring it alive, and what helped was considering not only the ways I have participated in or avoided stealing myself, but ways I have felt stolen from.
Below I raise many questions. The answers are not always obvious, and what came up for me is a bit of a rant, so bear with me as I explain how I came to realize that in some ways we are all thieves.
There is the obvious, of course: blatantly stealing someone’s physical possession, be it from an individual, company, store, etc. I was once held up at knife point. This is a clear violation of this not stealing, and also of non-harming.
Then there’s the blurry distinctions: taking office supplies from the office, not reporting items left in your cart at the grocery store or drinks left off a bar tab, not trying to return something you found that clearly belongs to someone else.
As I dug deeper to contemplate the ways we steal from each other, several of my pet peeves surfaced, and identifying them as ways we steal made me understand why I found them so annoying. These are challenging as well, because often it is not clear or agreed what the “possession” is that is being stolen.
Ideas are commonly stolen property. I often witness others make statements verbally or written that have been directly taken from someone else’s work, without given the appropriate credit. This, of course, is known as plagiarism. When I was at university, on several occasions I had to educate tearful undergraduates about this thievery. It is an obvious theft when someone directly uses someone else’s words. Most of the time, however, the boundaries are not as clear. Sometimes someone takes an idea you’ve expressed, or copies something you’re doing. Is this stealing?
For many years I spoke often about my teachers, because when I taught, I used language and ideas I learned from them. I wanted to credit and honor them and make it clear I did not invent what I was teaching. Yet I wondered if students thought 1) I was trying to brag about my teachers or “sell” my teachers to them, or 2) I didn’t feel confident in my own grasp of the teachings. And, I came to understand that my teachers were using what they learned from their teachers, and so on. So I stopped speaking about my own teachers as much. Does this make me a thief?
One of my biggest pet peeves is stealing time, from ourselves and from others. We waste so much time, I can feel it when I watch one more episode of Madmen when I had planned to clean off my desk, or when I cruise Facebook instead of working on this essay. I have some friends who are chronically late, and I feel they are stealing time from me. I’ve also had friends who consider appointments we’ve made to be optional and when the day arrives, decide they don’t feel up to it, or have other more important things to do. I may have rearranged my schedule or turned down other opportunities in order to be with them, so I feel I’ve been robbed.
What about paying for and showing up to a class, workshop, retreat etc to find that the teacher and/or organizer has not bothered to prepare? Is this stealing your time and money? Or how about thoroughly preparing to teach something, or prepare for a meeting and have the attendees not show up or come unprepared? Have they stolen your time? Have they stolen their own time and money?
Have you ever had the experience of someone using you to access someone else? Stealing a friend, contact, student, or lover? I include this here because I have been accused of doing this, and have felt others have done it to me. Are these “possessions”? Is this really stealing?
Many of these above instances come under the category of “broken promises.” Someone has agreed to or promised something, but has not followed through. For me, in these situations, I feel my trust and faith have been stolen. When I was held up at knifepoint, there was money stolen, but worse was that my inherent trust in human nature was stolen from me. And when people repeatedly take their commitments to me lightly, or repeatedly show up late, I find I can’t trust their words, which is a great loss to me.
Last, but by no means least, what about natural resources? I thought a lot about this during our Thanksgiving holiday. How much do we take what is not ours for the taking, or take more than our share? How do we share the earth’s resources such that all its creatures get their fair share?
Consideration of the more subtle levels and aspects of asteya made me consider more deeply how we all can be considered thieves to some degree. I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, as how and where we draw the line between taking what we need and stealing is not always clear, but hopefully we can be more conscious with how we prevent stealing from ourselves and others.
CONTEMPLATE and PRACTICE and JOURNAL
Give your definition of asteya, non-stealing.
Commit to practicing it for a week, or some other period of time, in light of the obvious meaning, but also the more subtle interpretations mentioned in this essay.
Consider the following questions raised in this essay. For each consider it not only intellectualy but how it feels in your heart and your body. Contemplate how your feelings have changed as you’ve gone further down your spiritual path?
– Do you ever take things in the “blurry” situations: office supplies, items overlooked in a grocery cart of restaurant bill.?
– Do you credit others when you use their ideas? Why or why not?
– Have you experienced other using your ideas without crediting you?
– In what ways do you steal time from yourself?
– In what ways do you steal time from others?
– What are other ways you steal from yourself?
– What are other ways you feel you’ve been stolen from?
– Consider relationships. Have you stolen a relationship? Has one been stolen from you? Does this question even make sense?
– In what ways has your trust or faith been stolen from you? Did someone else steal it or did you steal it from yourself?
– In what ways do you contribute to stealing from the natural environment? How can you change that?
If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here