Aparigraha – The Art of Letting Go

The first limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga talks about Yamas, which consist of the following: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-management/self-restraint), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). These five Yamas can be basically described as moral guidelines to adopt when interacting with the people and the world around us. While all of these five Yamas are equally important and go hand in hand with one another to guide us in adopting a more conscious and ethical attitude towards the world, the topic of our focus here will mainly centre around the last Yama – Aparigraha.

Aparigraha can be translated into a number of meanings, such as non-covetousness, non-possessiveness and abstension from greed; and it provides a gist of the yoga sutra stated in Sentence 39, Chapter 2 of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutures: “aparigraha sthairye janma kathanta sambodhah”. There is more than one translation of this yoga sutra, but they all essentially have the same idea that when a person is firmly rooted in non-possessiveness or restraining oneself from the desire to possess anything, he/she will be able to gain a profound understanding about the how and why of existence. On the surface, aparigraha can be interpreted as letting go of our ceaseless desire and greed to possess more items, objects, attention, and generally anything that we want or think we need. If we dive down into a deeper level, we will realise that aparigraha is not just limited to physical/tangible possessions, but is also about letting go of our own thoughts and emotions within ourselves.

In my opinion, the journey of practising aparigraha can be divided into three broad steps:

  • 1st Step – Letting go of excess physical/tangible possessions

At the very basic level, practicing aparigraha starts with learning to let go of additional goods and belongings that we own but do not essentially need. This isn’t something too difficult for most of us – after all, I’m sure many of us would have done spring cleaning at least once in our life, to clear any items that we no longer want, need or use. Once in a while, I like to spend some time to look through my closet, drawers, cupboards, etc. and check if there are anything that I no longer need or use and can clear it out. Although it can sometimes be a little difficult to make the decision on whether to let go of an item due to sentimental attachment and/or uncertainties in our mind, I would say that the overall process is actually rather therapeutic in a sense that it not only physically clears space in the house, but also helps to mentally clear any unwanted thoughts in my mind as well.

  • 2nd Step – Letting go of the greed/desire to possess more

Letting go of excess non-essential items is the first step to take towards mastering aparigraha, however it is important that we do not just stop here. If we are constantly clearing our current unwanted or unnecessary possessions with the mindset to make storage space for new possessions, we will not be able to progress towards aparigraha as we will be constantly stuck in the first step of clearing excess possessions all the time. We often tend to associate happiness and success directly with material goods in such a way that the more goods we own, the happier or more confident we think we will be. As a result, we become so engrossed in the endless pursuit of possessing more material goods and earning more admiration/attention from others, such that we neglect our genuine purpose and goal in life; and before we know it, we would have already wasted some precious time of our life trying to chase after these goods.

To be able to let go of the mindset that material goods equal to happiness, we need to first set a clear distinction between needs (which are basically essential products required for survival) and wants, and take some time to think about how each item is able to contribute towards the goals and intentions we want to achieve in life. Questions that we can ask ourselves are, for example: “Will this item be able to fulfil my daily needs?”, “For how long will owning this item make me happy – one day, one week or one year?” The idea here is to correct the common misperception that happiness and achievement can be simply bought from external sources. By recognising our desire to possess items that we don’t need and not allowing this desire to cloud our mind, this leaves room and time for us to focus on other aspects of life instead, such as reflecting upon ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves or engaging in other meaningful activities that brings us closer towards our true intentions in life. At the same time, this also brings a sense of peace and freedom into our minds as we no longer have to constantly think of what’s the next item required to satisfy ourselves with or to worry ourselves over the consequences of failing to obtain this item.

  • 3rd Step – Letting go of emotions and thoughts

The earlier two steps describe conscious efforts that we can take in order to let go of excess non-essential possessions and our desire to own more possessions. This third step of letting go of emotions and thoughts within our mind is, however, something more subtle and perhaps the hardest step to achieve when practicing aparigraha. Sometimes, the emotions and thoughts appear so quickly or quietly that we may not even realise the manifestation of these emotions and thoughts within us.

Life is full of ups and downs and depending on the present event we are facing with at each moment in life, we are bound to experience some emotions and thoughts that naturally arise during and after the event, whether positive or negative. More often than not, the ones that leave the deepest impressions in our heart and mind are usually the negative emotions, such as desolation, regret, jealousy, and anger. Just like how our desire to possess more items can lead us to becoming overly engrossed in the pursuit for more possessions as mentioned in the previous point, excessive dwelling on negative emotions can lead us to becoming so blinded that all we can think of in our mind are thoughts surrounding those emotions. If we do not release the negative emotions appropriately, these negative emotions will eventually accumulate develop into negative thoughts which then occupy our mind and prevent us from thinking rationally or seeing things in the bigger perspective. It is important to recognise that holding onto emotions is another form of possessiveness as well, similar to purchasing and hoarding unnecessary items.

Of course, letting go of emotions and thoughts is something easier said than done. I have to admit, there are times when I face thoughts like “Life is unfair, why does that person get to have everything she wants?” or “I’m just not good enough, I can never accomplish anything in life”. It is not possible to completely ignore or suppress these thoughts without being affected by them in one way or another, be it mentally, emotionally, or physically. In fact, developing thoughts or ideas towards something or someone is a perfectly natural behaviour of human beings and it does not mean that we are unable to master aparigraha if we have any thoughts in our mind. The key point of aparigraha is to not allow these thoughts to linger too long in our minds that they start to dominate our thinking and logic. We are taking a step back to observe our own mind and the different thoughts stirring within us, and then allowing these thoughts to come and go by themselves without entertaining or holding onto them. Once we are able to achieve this, we will find our mind being freed from all those disrupting thoughts and becoming clearer and more open towards the world. Sometimes, when I find it challenging to let go of any particular emotion/thought arising within me (usually the strong emotions such as anger or despair), sitting down and talking it out with family and friends helps me a lot in getting that emotion/thought out of my mind. Practicing pranayama is also very useful in helping to calm the mind and diverting the attention onto breathing instead of entertaining the thoughts that are surfacing in the mind.

There are many different ways on how we can practice aparigraha. When we are able to find our own unique way to apply aparigraha to our lives, the effects it can bring will appear almost instantaneously – such as the freedom, the peacefulness and the enlightenment of the mind when we start to let it go.