Thoughts on Asteya and Tapas

Hello friend,

Yes, it’s been a long time. Longer than I said it would take. Longer than I thought it would take. Many of you have been so immersed in your lives that you haven’t even noticed, or perhaps it was just a fleeting thought. Some of you have been waiting, attentive and hurt by the lapse and lack of communication. Some of you have been glad to take space and will be just as glad to get going again.

I apologize for the lack of communication. I’ve been overwhelmed by my life and felt ashamed by my own procrastination and schedule overload. It was easier to not be in contact than to admit I didn’t know when I would get back to it.

After my last correspondence I got hit with a workload I didn’t expect. I’m finishing my 3rd (and final) year of graduate school. I had thought spring term would be spacious and allow me time to devote to this project. Instead it turned into what was probably the most demanding term I had through the course of my studies. Along with school there is the reality of being self-employed. And simultaneous to workload there has been a slowly building fatigue that has manifested as some kind of depression, avoidance and loss of focus.

During this time though you have been in my thoughts every day. I have continued to make lists in my head, jot notes down, collect resources, record meditations. Preparing this syllabus on non-stealing and discipline has needed these last months in order for me to know what I wanted to talk about. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

To approach this exploration of non-stealing, and in looking at tapas, or discipline as an idea, I’d like to begin by sharing a bit more about myself and the process I’ve been in. I’ll begin that sharing by saying that this kind of transparency is something that I am extremely uncomfortable with. I’m pushing against deeply ingrained ideas I’ve had about boundaries between teacher/facilitator and student/participant. I’ve been told by many of my mentors that not only is it inappropriate to share one’s personal life with students, but that it’s a sign of immaturity and places undue burden on them.

There are these reasons and then there is the other reason that is harder to admit. Teaching and leading structures are power structures inherently. When someone initiates a process, provides the content for its continuation or takes space and attention from others in order to share their thoughts and views, there is a natural hierarchy that occurs. If a teacher is transparent, human and flawed then she risks her audience. If you knew that the last few months I was struggling to cope with the very things I’m trying now to write and teach about then why would you listen to me or support me?

In this newsletter I’m providing various resources including an essay on Asteya (non-stealing) that describes this as a practice of resisting over-commitment and moderating one’s own ambition. What I’m personally dealing with right now though is accumulation of my own overcommitment, and recognition of how my ambition and need to feel important has led me to create structures in my life that leave no time for actual relating.

As a teacher and facilitator I’ve had over ten years of practice in creating spaces for others’ self-reflection where I reveal very little about myself. I’ve become most comfortable in an opaque place where I speak vaguely of my own experience as teaching moments… “I had this experience once and it taught me such and such.” Even while I’ve urged transparency and vulnerability for others, I have not truly been able to enter that space myself with any of my students as witnesses.

This is a huge question for me. I know that boundaries are healthy. I know that as a student when I’ve felt the need to take care of my teachers in their raw-real-ness I’ve had mixed feelings that sometimes result in more guardedness on my part. But at the same time I feel that it’s necessary to question power structures and the hierarchy of relationships. And I’m beginning to feel that situations which place expectations of anything other than total humanness upon anyone are extremely problematic.

Two weeks ago my friend Michael Stone died. Michael was an excellent teacher. He was a prolific author and a profoundly gifted orator. He skillfully bridged Eastern esoteric wisdom and Western psychology in ways that allowed so many of us space to question tradition and open up to new ideas. Michael was also incredibly opaque. He taught extensively on mental health, yet kept his personal battle with bipolar disorder private. His work on addiction and recovery was brilliant, and he died of an overdose.

In some ways Michael exemplified the shadow of Western culture’s appropriation of Eastern traditions. He built a strong sangha but didn’t humble himself to be just another one of the many. He became a celebrity. He became someone who couldn’t be transparent without risking the persona we all projected onto him.

In the wake of his passing I have felt many things – grief, joy and overwhelming gratitude. One of the things I have felt most strongly is anger at a system that continues to separate into categories of worthy and unworthy. Why here, in a community that says it is awakening, are we still buying into a guru mentality and celebrity ideal? Why does the sangha not elevate each other as teachers? Why was it one man teaching to rooms full of mostly women? Why did the leader not share power more easily or present his humanity more humbly? The fact that he was locked into silence and shame for his own frailty, and couldn’t or wouldn’t allow himself to be seen honestly was because all of us agreed that he should take that place.

We steal from ourselves and from one another with our own expectations. We steal from ourselves with the promises we make to be great, better and good. We steal from each other by not sharing leadership, by not accepting help, by not admitting that it’s fucking hard and terrible sometimes to try and be all the things we set ourselves up to be.

When I started this project I had a huge idea. It was classic me: big ideas, tons of enthusiasm and lots of details and organization that existed as a hypothetical goal. I was clear in my description that this course was experimental, but I didn’t understand how to promote it as a total unknown. I was coming from a place of wanting to make a promise rather than have a process. I judged my own learning as not valuable unless it was a product, and so you all became consumers of what I said I would supply.

What I’ve learned in the last few months is that I set myself up for failure by promising the future without knowing what it would be. The work that I’ve put into this experimental course is far beyond anything I predicted. My learning curve with writing and the discipline it’s taken to produce so much of it has been huge. The first few months were consumed with troubleshooting tech, building new websites and trying to figure out how to get anyone to participate online. The hours I spend researching, writing, editing, organizing and creating other content are totally worthwhile, but they are also never-ending and completely life-absorbing.

Instead of putting this forward as a learning group, I wish I had been more explicit that it was an art project. Instead of asking for donations as payment for a product I wish I had understood that what I was asking for was crowd-sourced patronage. Because this project is a creative one – it has all kinds of twists, turns and spirals. I’m trying new things and trying to learn. And creativity has its own time, and sometimes what that looks like is walking away for a while.

I’ve learned that I steal from myself by overpromising. The feeling that I have something to give is so good. I love the sensation of possibility and excitement of potential. I take on commitments and projects because I really want to do them, and I really want to do a good job so that I can think I’m worthy of________. But in the committing to a future accomplishment I don’t give myself space to actually be in the muck of unknown territory. I steal from my future peace by gobbling up the high of striving and ambition. I set myself up to feel stressed, tired and confused.

That said, I know that an important part of the creative process is disillusionment and rejection. The moment when you throw the thing down and never want to look at it again is a necessary step – it gives space for critique and self-examination. If everything was easy and flowed all the time nothing would be tested or thought out. The frustration and resistance that arises when everything in you wants to walk away from what you’ve begun is the very thing that will strengthen it when you return.

I had to throw this down for a while. I had to feel lost. I had to question what to do next or if there would be anything at all. I had to feel like a failure and a fraud.

And now I have to return and admit the reasons for leaving. I have to return because I couldn’t rest if I didn’t. I have to return because the whole point of this project for me was to feel the challenges of relating, to own them, admit them and move through them.

Tapas is the third niyama. It translates as heat. Tapas is the fire that burns inside of your discomfort. It is the heat you produce in your body when you hold a challenging yoga asana – steadying your breath and nervous system as your muscles ache and your mind protests. It is the heat you build in your heart when you remain with the charge and activation of conflict without allowing yourself to polarize or make anyone wrong. It is the tenacity it takes to show up again and again for whatever course you’ve set for yourself. It is the shit of learning to love more – the very real, scary shit and awful tension that has to get worked through in order to love yourself enough to even perceive anything other than your own insecurity.

Practicing any of the yamas (or pretty much anything at all) creates heat. Having a practice means having a commitment, and commitments are challenging. Commitments to anyone or anything often bring us to our edge and sometimes to our breaking points. We might have all kinds of ideas about what it will be, but usually we quickly find out that what it will be is of its own determining. We find out that our presumptions of ease and harmony forgot to take everything else into account. We find out that we are vastly under equipped. We find out that the process is complex, sometimes torturous, often irritating and possibly highly overrated.

I’m not someone who will argue for commitment being a binding contract. Obviously, I’m trying to work out how to forgive myself for not completely holding up a commitment in the ways I thought I could. Commitments are (like everything else) a study in relativity. Does the commitment take more than it gives? Maybe the tapas then is to confront my own fears of failure and figure out how to leave. Does the commitment keep me pushing towards new growth? Well then perhaps the work is to stay in the fire and let myself grow.

For me right now, commitment is an evolution. It’s deciding to stay with something even if I don’t know what it I’m staying with or what to do about it. It’s giving up my self-concept in order to discover a new aspect of my being. At it’s best, I think that commitment is a spiritual practice. Can I be here in this discomfort and trust that the path will appear before me? Can I be here in this emptiness and trust that I have anything to give?

Thank you all for your initial support, patience and for continuing this with me. I have to admit that I honestly don’t even know who is engaged or not. I know that many of you fell off within the first few weeks, overwhelmed with emails, and perhaps you might not even see these words. For those of you who will I ask you to please give me some support. I need to know how this is working for you. I have my own reasons for continuing, but they won’t be enough if they don’t include you. It’s important to me that what I’m doing is useful in the world. Please help me continue to give what I can by honestly giving your own feedback here.

Below (and above) you will see my reflections on Asteya and Tapas. In the newsletter that was sent you’ll find links to supporting content. I hope they spark your interest and provide space for your own theorizing and creative practice. I will continue with this project until it is complete. I have to for my own wellbeing, and I also want to. I missed it while I was away. I truly, deeply believe that these practices are some of the most supportive and rational ideas I can find in the world right now, and that is reason enough to continue and to share.

In peace and with immense gratitude,

Thoughts on Asteya - Nonstealing: Part 1, Some questions to consider

One definition of asteya is “not taking what isn’t given freely.”  

How many people or beings have had a part in giving to you what you take for granted… your breakfast today, your computer, your clothing, your home? Were any of these things given, and if so who was the original giver?

What was given and what was taken? Was any of what was given, given freely?

What does it mean to give freely?

What is the difference between giving and selling? Between receiving and buying?

When was the last time you freely gave?

When was the last time you freely received?

Giving takes generosity. Generosity takes trust. Trust is the ability to receive what is given.

Do you trust your own intent when you give?

Do you feel worthy and trusting of what you receive?

Ethical practices have to go beyond humans. The Earth is a living being.

The earth is an abundant place. Perhaps if we lived with better listening skills we would find that we have everything we need. If what is given from Earth is given freely, then forcing, shoving, struggling, mining, exploding, enslaving and exploiting could be described as misperception or even mental illness. Considering giving and taking interpersonally must also be a consideration of how we give and take from our environments.

What does resource mean to you?

What does it mean to be resourceful?

How do you experience resources being shared?

How would you like to cultivate and share resources?

Thoughts on Asteya - Nonstealing: Part 2, Ponderings

Giving, taking and receiving attention
Attention is an asset. It can be a gift. It can be a debt. It can be withheld. It can be bartered, manipulated and forgotten. It takes energy, focus and intention. Giving attention to something isn’t always a choice. Most of the time we don’t notice what we’re giving attention to. Often, the things we give our attention to end up stealing from what ultimately might feel like more important investments… like cell phone or social media vs your friends and family.

How often do you pay attention to your attention?

There’s also the quality of attention. A Buddhist instruction for meditation says something like, attention should feel like a butterfly resting in your open palm. The butterfly is awareness, and your palm is a symbol of the mind. If you grasp and clutch with your mind’s attention you will crush your awareness – stifle it, kill it. If you’re lazy with your mind’s attention, awareness will fall or float away. So there needs to be a balance of intention and relaxation. Or, as described in the yoga sutra… there needs to be a balance of abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa means consistency, practice, firmness. Vairagya means letting go, detached from outcome. As with most binaries, one can’t be in a state of balance without the other.

Paying attention to anything worth paying attention to needs to be like this. Especially if you’re paying attention to something else that’s alive. The closed fist, tight attention, clutching focus feeling means you don’t get to experience the subtle 3-dimensionality of who you’re paying attention to. This is a feeling of taking something out of context and narrowing in on it. Sometimes this can lead to evolution, innovation or new discoveries, like studying one part of a: compound, element, body, technique, personality, system... and “discovering” how much potential is contained within.

No one likes to be taken out of context though, and innovators would do well to remember that the world is fairly consistent in this regard. When we take one piece but leave the rest, the one piece usually becomes pathological (either in overgrowth or failure to thrive) in its isolation, and the rest is always impacted by its absence.

I believe that the concept of sin arises from this (im)balance of attention. Wrongful action towards others begins by taking them out of context and failing to remember their wholeness and origin. The failure to recognize another’s wholeness allows us to justify and create abuse, mistrust, fear, violence. Our own discomfort with vulnerability dulls the need to be honest and lets the truth of something slip away. What we choose to focus on, or avoid paying attention to will define and justify our actions.

In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali (Who might have been mythic serpent, a sage, a collection of authors, or a woman) outlines the means to liberation (another word which is sometimes synonymous with yoga.) Basically, if we want to be free of suffering then we have to work through what are called the kleshas. The kleshas are identified as the five causes of suffering, and they become intrinsic to our beingness basically the moment we are born. They are:

  • Avidya (ignorance, improper perception): Ignorance, or improper perception is basically reality as we define it through material forms. We look at a thing, give it a name, define its function and then keep it in that box. This happens with people, places, animals, elements and objects. Because our lifespans are so short; because we’ve become separated from our environments; because we think it will create stability… we like to remove people and things from the contexts that made them. We like to think of people and things as permanent, and we usually become exceedingly distressed (suffering) when we are forced to confront the fact that they are not.

    Ignorance can be an unconscious or willing categorization of something or someone as an object, divorced from the forces that made it or its possible future. Ignorance is shortsighted grasping and a need to control and label what or who is around us in order to feel like we know anything at all.

    Avidya creates deep internal suffering. It is the root of neuroticism and fear. It is the way we forecast loss, deny freedom, oppress others and restrict growth or evolution. It is racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and classism. It is the labeling of something as an object and treating it as if it were not made from everything.

    When we are ignorant to what is around us, we are ignorant to ourselves. If I label you as bad then I must label myself as good. In the label of good I will never find self-acceptance or forgiveness for the mistakes I make. I will never be human and neither will you. If I am good and you are bad, then neither of us get to be complex and imperfect. Ignorance is the root of violence. It is a basic misunderstanding of the holistic and inter-permeating nature of all things.

  • Asmita (ego, I-feeling): Ego is necessary for basic survival. It’s part of the paradox of being human. We’re really just part of everything else, but for this moment called life we exist in separate bodies. The I-feeling creates a sense of identity, ownership and entitlement. It is necessary but of course, it is impermanent. It creates suffering when we are ignorant of our connection to one another, when we fail to realize that harm caused to anyone is harm caused to everyone.

    Ego follows ignorance. If I objectify you and reduce you from your complexity, then I can continue to be the start of my own story. You are here for me – and therefore your experience is not your own, rather, you exist to “make me feel” better or worse. You are here to fit into my story and timeline. The I-feeling exists as the central focus. If it isn’t kept in check through persistent self-reflection and willingness to listen to feedback, then it will absorb the world and everything in it. It becomes a locus of neuroticism and insecurity.

  • Raga (desire, attachment, lust for what’s pleasurable): If we’re coming from ego and misperception than pleasure is disembodied and objectified. It becomes a focus of craving for things, people, and experiences that exist outside of ourselves. The feelings of wanting and craving produce their own states that can be addictive. In pursuing attainment and satiation we often become mindless in our actions and blind-sighted to anything or anyone else. When we finally attain what we want the pleasure is usually short-lived. Then we start wanting again.

    Raga is the notion that through attaining anything outside of ourselves, or what is freely given, that we will somehow be happier, better or more whole. If we live in a state of craving than we can always project our wholeness and happiness upon future attainment or successes, and will never be content with what we have or who we are at present.

  • Dvesha (Aversion, repulsion, rejection of what’s painful): Dvesha works with Raga as its opposite. While Raga chases after pleasure, Dvesha runs away from pain. Dvesha is the inability to accept loss, defeat or mediocrity. It uses whatever tactics needed in order to avoid suffering. Placing blame upon others or events (victimhood,) checking out by reaching for any kind of distraction or addiction when things become uncomfortable, and other avoidance patterns are some of the ways we might try to push away our discomfort.

    Dvesha, as a function of ego and misperception, can also be the tendency to take things personally. We might think that the suffering we experience is somehow unfairly placed upon us, which in turn validates our refusal and avoidance. Dvesha works with Raga when we feel ourselves as victims of circumstance and imagine that we are somehow owed, or will attain something (material objects, recognition, revenge…) that will make us happier.

  • Abhinivesha (fear of death): The last cause of suffering is a transition back to the first cause, creating an endless cycle. From one perspective we might see fear of death as a biological function. We instinctively pull away from sharp objects or steep cliffs. Our bodies reflexively do their best to keep us alive. But this instinct can also become ingrained as a trauma response and physiological state of tension. If we have experienced events in our lives that were dangerous or that we perceived as dangerous it’s quite easy to develop habitual reactions towards anything that activates the part of our brains that associate to those events.

    Events that might be perceived as dangerous are not limited to those defined by physical danger. They also include exposure to media or ideology which might deny or invalidate a person’s feelings of worth, belonging or “normalcy,” verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, feelings of rejection, experience or perceived experience of lack of basic needs...etc.

    Abhinivesha also manifests when we hold on to relationships in ways that keep ourselves or others from growing, when we hold onto objects or materials and become terrified of losing what we have, or when we hold on to circumstances in our lives that are, or have become stagnant and oppressive.

    The kind of internal stress and defensiveness that occurs when we have consistent fear for our safety and wellbeing, whether these fears are well-founded or not, creates psychosomatic responses which can result in physical ailments, depression and anxiety, a general state of mistrust towards the world, and an inability to soothe oneself in times of distress.

As with all of the yamas, asteya is a prism that unfolds into every aspect of life. Not stealing could literally mean not breaking into someone’s car or borrowing their things indefinitely, but for most of us the practice will be infinitely more complex and subtle. Non-stealing depends upon the precedent precepts. We have to practice satya: honesty with ourselves about our intentions, desires and entitlement. We have to practice ahimsa: striving to listen deeply in order to discern between consent and obligation, between generosity and bribery, so that we do not perpetuate violence in our exchanges.

All of the yamas are strengthened and enforced by the niyamas. Tapas in particular will be the deciding factor for most of us. When translated as “heat,” tapas is the internal friction created when we keep ourselves accountable. The yoga sutra describes the effect of tapas as “burning away impurities.” The impurities are our own ego-needs and base desires, they are conditioning of past experiences, families and culture, they are misinformation and wrong perception. Ultimately they are the blockages between our minds, hearts and bodies. They are the restrictions we place around our hearts, and the ways we limit loving ourselves and everything else around us.

Ethical inquiry requires recognition of cause and effect, and will necessarily become a commitment of personal integrity, a desire and striving for right relationship. Ethics (like religion) can easily turn into moralism. If we’re not careful we will become sidetracked by dualistic arguments and our own needs to know, and to be right.

Asteya and Tapas are two precepts that keep pointing us towards complexity and open ended questions. Asteya encourages us to reflect again and again upon what has been given and what will be taken. Particularly in regards to an ethical intent, we must ask ourselves repeatedly why we choose to take in and absorb, or refuse and reject, certain narratives, information and ideas.

Tapas keeps us in the questions. It pulls us back and away from making quick and easy judgments. It asks for consideration and reconsideration. It demands time, attention and humility.

According to the yoga sutra, there are eight limbs of a yogic practice. The first two limbs are practice of the yamas and the niyamas. The yamas are the efforts we make to live in right relationship to ourselves, others and our environments. The niyamas are the personal observances we undertake so that we are able to be present, peaceful, clear and effective. We should understand these efforts as the practice of internal alignment.

Internal alignment is the ability we have to listen deeper than all the chatter and insecurities that clutter our minds so that we are not swayed from our own center and self-knowing. It is trust in our choices and intent. It is the willingness we create when we open ourselves to something greater, even if this something is nothing other than the whole of our mutual uplifting.

This essay is written with gratitude and appreciation for the life and teachings of Michael Stone. Michael was the first person to introduce me to this Gatha, or prayer, from the Zen tradition.


“Let me respectfully remind you.
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken, awaken.
Do not squander your life.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe and free from danger
May all beings be free from their ancient and twisted patterns
May all beings be free from every form of suffering.”