July 16, 2010

I Promise Not to Hoard More Shoes.

I shall not want, God is not a deadbeat and this has everything to do with shoes.

Let me take a moment to confess a thing or two.

I recently brought a three-tiered shelving unit to hold my shoes. Maybe that doesn’t sound bad to you. The size of my collection doesn’t rival most of my friends’. It may not rival yours. But still. I have a pair for every occasion. I can black-tie it, dance all night, deliver a presentation, attend a costume party, go to the beach, play tennis, go jogging, hiking, snowboarding, or pub hopping; and I can do any of these things wearing just the right shoes for the gig. If at any point I feel even the slightest twinge of guilt for my excess, I can look to hundreds, no millions, of friends, family members, strangers, and celebrities who are afflicted far worse than I am.

So am I a hoarder?

I’m going to say yes. But it’s not because of the shoes.

In yoga, we are told not to hoard. Aparigraha, one of the yogic yamas (ethical disciplines), translates to “non-hoarding.” But it means so much more. In English, the word “hoarding” conjures images of newspapers stacked by the thousands, rotting food and discarded wrappers accumulating in a corner, trinkets, knickknacks and soiled clothing in piles that reach the ceiling. When we think “hoarder,” we think of the extremist variety, the TV worthy; but that’s because we aren’t seeing our own bad habits.

Hoarding, according to the Sutras, occurs whenever we hold onto something we do not immediately need.

Oh my.

To accept or consume a thing when we do not require it indicates a “poverty of spirit,” says Patanjali, a lack of faith in God. To collect or accumulate is to assume wrongly that the Ego will provide. It is to believe that the universe will not support us when the going gets tough.

It’s a little like calling God a deadbeat.

Delving a little deeper into aparigraha, we see that a “thing” is not necessarily an object. We can hoard thoughts too, and ambitions and desires. And don’t we! It’s requisite of our economic system. If we do not want, then we do not consume. When we do not consume, we do not participate. When we do not participate, we are lazy, we are incompetent. We too are deadbeat. So desire we must. And consume we do.

We are enraptured by the illusion that things have the power to quench our longings. One more promotion, and I’ll be set. One more bite and I’ll be full. Yoga dismantles the illusion and holds a mirror to our hoarding. By observing aparigraha, we rid ourselves of want, putting trust back in God. We stop idolizing the Ego and all its scheming, knowing that longing begets more longing. We accept fully all that happens, reacting to dearth in the same calm way we react to abundance. We assume that God will provide what we need. In aparigraha, the mind is still. Unwavering in its equilibrium.

The good yogi opts for a measure of austerity and simplicity in the knowledge that acquisition and want lead to darkness (tamas), ignorance and depravity. Importantly, though, austerity is to be distinguished from deprivation. It’s not wrong to have what one needs. To live simply is to live in the awareness that our divine purpose does not lie in the accumulation of things. When we live simply we choose not to be duped by the illusory doctrine that suggests, Getting Stuff = Fulfillment.

The beauty in aparigraha is that the student of yoga can be just as satisfied in a cardboard box as she would be in the Taj Mahal. She can be just as fulfilled being laid off as she is getting a raise. But there are potential dangers too.

One problem is that word “need.” It’s such a vast and fickle term. How do we know when we have only what is needed?

Thoreau distilled human need to warmth. It is warmth we’re seeking, he reasoned, when we take shelter. Even in eating, it’s the heat of caloric fuel we’re after.

My shoes might keep my toes warm, but I doubt I can make a case for needing more than two pairs.

The other potential danger in applying aparigraha could be worse:

Doesn’t telling a people to cast off want, to live simply and to “remain satisfied no matter what happens,” stink of opiate of the masses? If I am fulfilled, even in the face of, say, a massive oil spill or some other grave injustice, won’t that lead to inaction on my part and ultimately to perpetuation of the power and wealth imbalance I so lament?

Could this be the point where spirituality conflicts with politics?

Maybe not.

It does not violate aparigraha to take action against injustice. As Krishna said to Arjuna: By all means, engage in action. Work! But work for work’s sake and not for the fruit of your labor.

The protester will protest even if he is gassed and gagged for it. Imprisoned, he’ll accept his fate in the knowledge that he acted rightly.

So, what does this mean for my own hoarding?


Well, I won’t be discarding my shoe collection any time soon. But should they be lost, torn or stolen, I will not throw a tantrum.

And should I find myself jailed for protesting an evil, I will be glad I’ve worn just the right pair for the occasion.

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