Non-Possessiveness: Let Go of What Keeps You From Moving Forward
Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), the fifth of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, counsels us to travel life lightly—literally, not to hoard or hold onto objects (pari means “things,” and graha “to grasp”). Possessions themselves are not the problem—it’s our attitude toward them (this is mine!) that gets us into trouble. We can give away all our belongings and head for the nearest cave and still not be free if our mind stays stuck on what we’ve left behind, or if we quickly become obsessed with something else. After all, a renunciate can be more attached to his begging bowl than a queen to her entire kingdom. The things of the world are ours to use and enjoy in a balanced, moderate way, the sages say, but not to own.
The idea of non-possessiveness also means letting go of anything that no longer serves us or that we’ve outgrown—a job, a relationship, our sense of identity, or even old attitudes and beliefs that prevent us from moving forward.
The idea of non-possessiveness also means letting go of anything that no longer serves us or that we’ve outgrown—a job, a relationship, our sense of identity, or even old attitudes and beliefs that prevent us from moving forward. Aparigraha teaches us to live life in a centered way, rooted in our inner reality—not being dependent on or clinging to others, or expecting them to make us happy and fulfilled.
We can also grasp onto knowledge, fame, power, adventure—identities that enhance our ego, but trap us into a narrow vision of life. The pull of greed can motivate us to keep something that is no longer useful to us, or to prevent someone else from having it. I know that when I accumulate objects or become stubborn in my views, it’s my cue to pay attention to what I am holding onto on a deeper level.
What Do We Fear?
I routinely go through my closets and attic space, organizing piles of things to give away. But then something grabs my eye, the memories attached to it come flooding back, and suddenly I can’t bear to part with any of it.
I remember reading once how the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, in a fit of aparigraha, decided one day to throw away a collection of mementos. He awoke in the middle of the night panic-stricken at what he had done and dashed to the street curb to snatch it back before the morning trash collection. I know exactly how he felt. I routinely go through my closets and attic space, organizing piles of things to give away. But then something grabs my eye, the memories attached to it come flooding back, and suddenly I can’t bear to part with any of it.
After doing this time and again, I decided to examine why I grasp so tenaciously to the past. According to the Yoga Sutra, attachment arises from fear, and the root cause of fear is avidya (ignorance). We are afraid we won’t have enough. We are afraid of not having something when we need it, of not being loved, of being alone. And, ultimately, we are afraid of dying, afraid of the unknown. Why such fear? Because we have forgotten our true nature, and in our ignorance we look outside ourselves for the support we crave. I know when I meditate, I feel more connected to my inner Self and I don’t need as much; I can let go more easily. But when I get disconnected, I seize whatever I can and hold on—for dear life.
Letting Go of Grief
Fourteen years ago, my mother died suddenly of a heart attack. I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye, so I took what she had left behind to comfort myself. I didn’t really need anything. In fact, I didn’t even like much of what I took, but it reminded me of her so I couldn’t give it up. If I let go of her things, it meant I was letting go of her, right? And I wasn’t ready to do that.
Seven years later my father died more slowly of Parkinson’s disease. My grief and fear doubled because now both my parents were gone and I felt like an orphan. I clung desperately to what they had left behind as my sister and I sold the house. My sister carefully chose a few select items to take cross-country with her—while I indiscriminately hauled carloads of their things across the state, stuffing them into my attic space, where they still sit gathering dust. I had lost my parental roots and felt unmoored. Who was I without my parents? The ground beneath me had shifted and my connection to my inner center felt shaky.
Back to Center
When I meditate, I feel more connected to my inner Self and I don’t need as much; I can let go more easily. But when I get disconnected, I seize whatever I can and hold on—for dear life.
In the Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda writes of a beloved fawn he had for a pet. One day, on his way to town, he cautioned his young students not to feed the deer until his return. One boy disobeyed and the deer fell deathly ill. Yogananda laid the pet lovingly on his lap and fervently prayed to God to allow it to live. After some time, the deer opened its eyes and stumbled up. A great uproar of thanks filled the air.
But that night, Yogananda said, he learned “a deep lesson.” In a dream, the deer came to him and pleaded: “You are holding me back. Please let me go.” Yogananda understood that it was time for the deer to move forward to a new and better life, but because of his heartfelt attachment, it could not or would not go without his permission. Waking up he told the boys that it was time for the deer to die. “All sorrow left me,” Yogananda wrote. “I realized anew that God wants His children to love everything as a part of Him, and not to feel delusively that death ends all…The man of unattachment, he who loves others as expressions of the Lord, understands that at death the dear ones have only returned for a breathing space of joy in Him.”
Whenever I feel sad about my parents, Yogananda’s tale helps me remember that our true nature is divine—and that my parents are simply continuing their journey in a different way. Death cannot separate our love. Now whenever I stumble over their stacked boxes, I light a candle for them. Offering prayers and mantras, and wishing them light and love on their new journey, I let go of my attachment—but not my love—a little more each time. Sometimes I even give away the contents of a box or two.
Who Am I?
Propelled by the desires and fears of our ego, we can only see what is right in front of us, which makes us grasp tightly onto what we have. But as we gradually shift the narrow focus of the ego to the broader vantage point of the eternal inner Self through spiritual practice, our tight grip on outer things loosens. The more we release our “I”-centered ideas and attachments, the more we can see clearly. The great sage Ramana Maharshi did this by asking the question Who am I? until he stripped away all the layers of his lower self and reached enlightenment.
Try doing a variation of this with a relaxation in shavasana. Breathe in and out, and with each exhale, imagine letting go of all the things in your life you are attached to, one by one. Start with the physical objects first. Then go deeper and release your relationships, your ideas, your persona. Watch what affects your breath, what tugs at you most. Keep doing this until your breath is smooth. Become aware of your underlying inner Self, surrendering and trusting that it will provide you with what you need in your life. Notice if you view the things in your life a little differently after doing this practice.
The Eternal Questions Answered
When we master aparigraha, the Yoga Sutra (2.39) says we come to know our past, present, and future lives: we remember what desires and attachments from our past life propelled us to take birth this lifetime; we understand what we need to do in this present life to attain our goal of self-realization; and we envision our future life, after death.
If we identify with the things of the world that come and go, say the sages, then when those things are gone, we will feel lost and shaken. But if we identify with our eternal inner Self, grounding ourselves with a strong spiritual foundation, then we will overcome avidya (ignorance) and be fearless and free, able to live and love deeply and generously, without attachment—balanced and joyful.
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at HI.