If you’ve ever taken a class with Swami Karunananda, you know that she is a Raja Yoga master teacher and a fantastic storyteller. That’s why we couldn’t miss the opportunity to share the transcript of her talk on one of the five yamas: aparigrapha (non-greed). Swami Karunananda offers many touching and eye-opening stories to illustrate the power of non-greed and selflessness, while also providing practical steps for initiating our own practices of non-greed.
Aparigraha refers to non-greed, non-coveting, and non-hoarding. It’s one of the five mahavratam, or great vows, that form the spiritual foundation of Yoga and all spiritual traditions. In the 19th century, there lived a famous Polish rabbi named Hafez Hayyim. Once, an American tourist traveled to Poland to visit him and receive his blessings. He went to the rabbi’s home and was very surprised to find that it consisted of just a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench. The tourist looked at the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” The rabbi replied, “Where is yours?” The tourist said, “Mine? Rabbi, I’m just a visitor here!” The rabbi looked at him and said, “So am I.”
The great Sufi mystic Rumi once said, “Inside the Great Mystery that is, we don’t really own anything. What is this competition we feel then, before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?”
There are three ways to move through life: competition, cooperation, and dedication. In competition, we strive to defeat other people in order to attain our desired end. In cooperation, we work together with others for a common goal. But the highest way to move through life is with dedication, in which our entire focus is the benefit of others—loving, giving, caring and sharing. “Serve all, love all” was the essence of Swami Satchidananda’s life.
Years ago, Seattle was the site for the Special Olympics. At one event, there were nine children, each physically or mentally challenged, who were running the 100-yard dash. The gun went off, and, excitedly, the children began the race. Suddenly, one of them stumbled, fell to the ground, and started crying. Immediately, all the other children stopped in their tracks, turned around, and went back to see the one that had fallen. They bent down, comforted him, and helped him up. And if that weren’t enough, they linked arms and walked the course together. When they crossed the finish line, everyone in the stadium rose to their feet in a resounding ovation, acknowledging the beautiful act of loving-kindness they had witnessed.
If you think about the people who are consistently remembered and admired in the world—people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, sages and saints from the various faith traditions—the outstanding characteristic that we see is that they totally forgot about themselves in the service of others. They took care of those in need and tried to uplift everyone they met. If everyone on Earth lived that way, this planet would be transformed.
Once there was a man who wanted to know the difference between heaven and hell. One night he had a dream, and in the dream, he stood before two doors. Above one was the label “hell”; above the other, “heaven.” He walked through the portal labelled “hell,” and saw a group of people sitting in a circle. In the center, was a sumptuous feast. Each was holding a long-handled spoon that could reach the food, but they were all miserable and starving. As he looked more closely, he noticed that there was a wooden splint on everyone’s arm so that they couldn’t bend at the elbow. They would place the food on the spoon, but they couldn’t get it into their mouths, so they were starving.
He left that room and walked into the one labelled “heaven,” and it looked like the same scene: a circle of people, a sumptuous feast, the long-handled spoon, the wooden splint—but these people were totally happy and satisfied. As he stood there and observed, it soon became clear that they had figured out how to feed one another. Imagine a world where we all functioned in that way.
Greed is problematic on all levels: global, societal, individual, and spiritual. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to fulfill everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” When selfishness rules, individuals, nations, and the planet suffer. Instead of using the Earth’s resources and bounty for the benefit of one and all, they are exploited for the financial gain of a few. The lust for power and control pits nation against nation. People die from diseases for which we have cures. Many go to bed hungry every night, while others live in luxury and excess. If we cared and shared, there would be enough food, clothing, shelter, and medicine so that we all could enjoy good quality of life.
Selflessness nourishes, supports, and uplifts us all. Selfishness causes suffering. Greed is like desire on steroids. It’s excessive, obsessive, and makes us want things beyond what we need. It’s insatiable; it knows no bounds. The more we get, the more we want.
The Nature of Desire
Trying to end desire by fulfilling it is like pouring oil on fire; it just burns even more. Anytime you fulfill a desire, it leaves an impression of that experience in the subconscious mind. Those impressions give rise to renewed cravings, so we find ourselves on a treadmill. Trying to fulfill cravings always involves pain. There’s effort to get what we want. If anything gets in our way, we get angry. After getting it comes the fear that we may lose it. We’re disappointed if it doesn’t meet our expectations. And in the middle of all this, there’s a little bit of pleasure.
Consider the purchase of a new car. We work so hard and save our money. We finally have what we need and go to the dealership. Our car is presented to us and we are so happy! We get in it, we drive off the lot, and what happens to the value of that car? It immediately depreciates. Where is the lasting happiness? We see this sort of thing again and again in ordinary experience. So, why are we greedy? Why do we pursue more than we need? Why do we accumulate more than we can reasonably use?
This could be answered on a psychological level and on a deeper spiritual level. Psychological reasons for greed include fear and desire. The basic desire? We want to be loved, cherished, respected, and valued. What is the basic fear? We want to feel safe and protected. In so many ways—through the media, advertising, even our upbringing and education—we are told that our value, worth and security can be measured in terms of our acquisitions and achievements, and that more is better. Explicitly and subliminally, this is the message being broadcast so much of the time.
Years ago, cars were built to last. Some of them are still around today. But then a new concept became part of our culture—”built-in-obsolescence.” Companies chose not to make things to the highest standard. Instead, they were made to wear out more quickly, so we would have to buy more. The result: more consumerism on our part and more profits for industry. The motivation? Greed. Today, we see the same sort of thing with computers. After several years, hardware and software are no longer supported, forcing us to replace good equipment that could serve longer. These are all injections of greed into society.
Does living this way really provide the assurance, the fulfillment, the security we are seeking? Life teaches us repeatedly that no one and no thing is with us always. Anything can be gone in an instant. If we try to insulate ourselves against this truth by gathering more and more stuff, we’re only fooling ourselves and drawing the blinds of illusion more closely around us.
The only thing that can provide what we’re looking for is within us as our own true Self. Why are we greedy? On a spiritual level, it is because we are ignorant of our true nature, which is supremely peaceful and happy, and we seek happiness in external ways. By seeking happiness in things that are subject to change, we can never be satisfied and always need more. True happiness and peace, security and stability, come not from having things that change, but by experiencing who we truly are. Everything else comes and goes, but our True Self, the Spirit within, is stable, immovable, and everlasting.
When we let go of desires, everything we need is miraculously provided. The Bible says “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all else will be added unto you.” When we run after things, we turn our back to the light and chase shadows that perpetually elude us. Instead, if we turn and walk toward the light, the shadows that we were chasing begin to follow us.
The Hindu scriptures state that when we really let go of greed and desire, the Goddess Saraswati and the Goddess Lakshmi are ready to offer us all that we need. Saraswati represents knowledge; Lakshmi, wealth. Everything we need is provided, because we’re thinking of the benefit of others.
Years ago, I was transferred from the ashram in Virginia to Santa Barbara, California. Swami Satchidananda had talked about having a prayer book that would include prayers from the various faith traditions, reflecting the universal message of the LOTUS that was under construction at the time. I thought it was a project I could do, but I didn’t have a computer. Shortly after I formulated the intention to do the book, someone showed up with a new Apple computer. He said: “I heard that you might be interested in doing a project here. You can use this computer.” I replied, “But, you haven’t even used it yet.” He said, “That’s okay; I can wait. You’re doing this for everyone’s benefit. You can use it first.”
About a year later, I was still working on the project and was transferred to the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute. The same thing happened. Someone came to the IYI with a new Apple computer, still in the box, and said, “I heard you are working on a Lotus Prayer Book. Here, you use the computer until the project is done. I can wait.” With everyone’s support and divine grace overflowing, the project was completed just in time for the LOTUS dedication.
Questions for Personal Reflection:
Are there any areas of my life where I am greedy? How could I do better?
Do I tend to hoard things? Is there an underlying fear or desire that’s making me hold on to things that I don’t need?
Do I ever eat more than I need? Why do I do it?
Do I have more things than I need or could reasonably use? Why do I keep them?
Do I feel jealous of those who seem to be more fortunate than I am—who seem to have more wealth, more things, a better job, more friends? How does that affect my relationships?
Does fulfilling my craving satisfy me in an enduring way?
Have I ever been aware of a higher, unseen power caring for my needs better than I could have arranged for myself?
Letting go of desire and greed may seem like denial, but we actually connect with a power that is very precious, tender, aware, loving, and generous. Our world expands, possibilities increase. It may be a little scary at first to let go, because we often define who we are by what we have. Letting go may feel like losing parts of ourselves. So, we can proceed gently, letting go, little by little. Instead of accumulating, we can try emptying—de-cluttering our minds, our stuff, and our lives. Simple, practical steps can pave the way to greater happiness, fulfillment and freedom.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.
Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.