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Yama: Aparigraha (Non-Attachment)


Yama and Niyama are the first two limbs of the eight limbs of the body of yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yama is translated as, "discipline" or "laws of life". The 5 yamas are: Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (integrity), Brahmacharya (chastity) and Aparigraha (nonattachment). This blog post focuses on the last yama: Aparigraha. So, I'm going out of order, but I was inspired to write about this yama after a disagreement with a family member over this very subject during which we had very different interpretations of what it means to be "attached" to something.

Emma Newlyn writes, "This important yama (Aparigraha) teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right."

I first tried practicing "non-attachment" some 20 years ago when I began studying Buddhism. I've always tried to live a pretty simple life as an adult. My philosophy used to be - "Don't own anything you can't carry yourself" as I moved quite a bit in those days. I literally slept on a mattress on the floor (except when I rented furnished apartments) until my mom bought me a full size bed for my 30th birthday. Back then the thing I felt most "attached" to wasn't a material THING, but my golden retriever, Molly. I couldn't imagine life without her. So, I started practicing this concept of "non-attachment". I told myself over and over - "I love Molly very much, but when her time comes to leave this world, I will be okay. I will be able to let go." Dogs are NOT attached to embodied life and in fact, will go off to die when they are suffering. They are perfect teachers of "non-attachment".

Some years later, after I was married (I was 36 years old) Molly got sick while we were working in New Jersey. She didn't eat that night and I had to coax her outside the next morning. I decided to head home early before my husband and take her to the vet. Just as I made it back to Arlington, VA - she had a seizure in my car. I rushed her to the Emergency vet where they ran tests on her. They diagnosed her with hemolytic anemia (a red blood cell disorder of retrievers). After explaining my options to me, I decided the best option was to let her go. She was 12 years old and had led a good life - even though she had been healthy up to that point and this disease came on very sudden. I couldn't put her through a blood transfusion and life on immuno-suppressant drugs with horrible side effects. The vet allowed me to sit in the room with her for some time before administering the drug that let her sleep forever. I talked to her and loved her and sang to her, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..."

After she was gone, I felt extreme grief like I had never experienced in my life. I had to let go of my best friend. It was the worst day of my life (until I had to do it again later with my next dog, Bailey). I wept for days after and kept expecting to see her lying next to me. But I also did the thing that was most important -

I let her go. I did not prolong her suffering. That is non-attachment.

Practicing "non-attachment" doesn't mean that we don't love or that we can't love. We are put here on this earth to experience being a spiritual being in a human body. Part of being human is loving other beings. Again, Emma Newlyn writes, "Happiness, joy and peace are important emotions to feel, yes, but so too is sadness, anger and loss. To experience only the good stuff is to experience only half of what life has to offer. The school of life exists to allow us to experience and learn from every aspect of our being, the light and the dark, and to truly live we must not push away the things we don’t want to feel, but allow them to happen, and know that this too shall pass. When we let the moment be what it is without either trying to cling to it, or to push it away, we can really say we’re living in that moment, allowing things to come and go, without the need to possess any of it." (from http://www.ekhartyoga.com/) Four and 1/2 years after Molly passed, I had to let go of my marriage. I had to let go of my home, the nonprofit I built from the ground up, my job (they lost funding for my position), and my dance career. I had to leave everything behind and move to a new place and start over with almost nothing. During the 6 months I tried to work things out with my husband I suffered greatly. When I finally accepted that he wanted to be free, a certain peace came over me. I remember exactly how I felt. That saying came to my mind, "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be." I asked my husband if a divorce was truly what he wanted and when he said "yes" I took a deep breath, and I let go. I did not stop loving him. I loved him enough to let go - to give him the freedom he wanted and to move on without a nasty court battle, without a drawn out ugly divorce. Who does that serve? No one.

I left as soon as I found another job that - while it did not pay well - afforded me enough money to rent an apartment and keep my dog. After I moved everything into my tiny new apartment, I took another deep breath and exhaled a sigh of relief. The breath is a perfect metaphor for aparigraha - breathing in what we need - oxygen - breathing out what we don't need....carbon dioxide - Letting go.

The Buddha said "Life is suffering." But he also said, "All conditioned things are impermanent — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”

We will all experience suffering in some form in this life - and probably many times. Hope lies in the impermanence and peace comes when one acknowledges impermanence and is able to let go. Christians have a saying, "Let go and Let God" - it is the same concept. There are so many things we have no control of in these human bodies. We are here to experience all that being human is - the joys, the pleasures and the sorrows - to breathe in, to breathe out, to let go. And in realizing this, we can also find compassion for each other on this journey.


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