The third yama is asteya, or non-stealing. This yama encompasses every sort of theft: taking someone else’s possessions, but also stealing their ideas, claiming another person’s work as your own, or accepting bribes and inappropriate gifts. Swami Satchidananda says that just by breathing, we are stealing: the air we breathe belongs to nature, so we should accept each breath with reverence and use it to serve others. The implication is that we should do the same with any wealth or money or goods that come to us: don’t take it for granted, and don’t hoard it away just for yourself, but be grateful for it and then use it for the good of other people. Patanjali writes, “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.” If you use what wealth you have so kindly, it’s understandable that others will return your kindness and wealth will come back to you.
Similarly, Devi defines asteya not as “non-stealing” but as “generosity”. Devi says, “When we don the attitude of caretakers instead of owners, we enjoy things when they come and let them go with ease. It is nature’s rhythm: all things come and all things go” (189).When we can be generous, with our possessions, our money, and our time, then others are more likely to be generous to us in return, but more importantly, we feel happier.
Satchidananda talks about being greedy, wanting to do a little and get a lot. He says, “Many people go to the office and just sit around, use the phone to make their own appointments all day, take free supplies from the supply room, and accept their paycheck at the end of the week. Aren’t they stealing that money?” (133). Having worked as a summer office temp, I’m not quite ready to give that one a whole-hearted yes – sometimes there just isn’t that much to do at your job. But I see his point: you should do the work that’s given to you to do, do your best to help others in the workplace, find work to keep yourself busy. There’s always something that needs to be done even if it’s not your favorite sort of work to do.
Devi talks about taking someone’s time. If you schedule an appointment with someone, you should arrive in a timely way. Being late steals the other person’s time – you don’t know what she needed to do to rearrange her schedule to meet you here.
I think the time issue is probably where asteya hits closest to home for me. I am not careful enough with my time: I dawdle along too much, try to get one more thing done before I leave, and then I need to rush to get out the door. I almost miss my train, or I drive too fast to make it to my appointment on time. It doesn’t do me any good to get all stressed and flustered, frustrated by the traffic, worried that I’ll be late. It doesn’t do the person I’m meeting any good, either, when I arrive in that state. It’s better for both of us if I can take my time and arrive in a pleasant mood. I want to be more generous with my time for the other person’s sake, and more importantly for my own sake.
Satchidananda also talks about the idea of stealing resources, stealing from the environment. This is something I’ve been trying to work on as well. In our culture, we throw so much away, and I think in this context, creating waste is tantamount to stealing from the earth. Good things have been taken from the earth, and we’re putting back junk. Nobody can fix this problem on her own, but we can all do things to try and make it a little better. My apartment complex doesn’t participate in a recycling program, but rather than saying “oh well”, I save all my recyclables anyway and lug them to my mother’s house a few times a month. I don’t buy bottled water; I have a metal canteen that I refill from the tap. That saves a lot of waste, and it’s healthier for me (I used to refill the plastic bottles, but after a while chemicals leach out of the plastic into the water I’m drinking, which doesn’t happen with a clean metal or glass bottle).
A few years ago, I decided I wasn’t doing enough and made a new year’s resolution to give $25 to charity every month. I could always afford $25, right? It went brilliantly. I never ran out of charities where I could give a meaningful gift: when you’re paying attention, things just suggest themselves. A friend is running in a 5K to benefit cancer research, or another friend mentions how hard it is when her father is ill, or how much she loves the dog she rescued from the shelter. Ding! There’s one more place doing good work that I can help. And during the past few years, sadly, there’s always been an earthquake or natural disaster happening somewhere, and even when there’s no current disaster, Doctors Without Borders is ready to go whenever something happens. That first year, giving just $25 a month was so easy that I usually gave more, so the second year I started giving $50. And my company has a matching gift policy, too, so every single gift I made was doubled. I started to love filling out the matching gift form every month! Instead of getting spent on a latte or a shirt, my money has been out there saving whales, books, arboretums, historic preservation, little children with cleft palates, poetry, the right to choose, and the right to marry; it’s been funding breast cancer research, MS research, Crohn’s and colitis research, leukemia research, AIDS research, and probably some other research too. Taking part in this practice has really made me feel better about my lifestyle and the energy I’m putting back into the world, which seems like what asteya and generosity are all about.