we are all thieves…

I’m a sucker for Simone Weil. So when I cast about the internet in search of something that might help me talk about the third yama and found this gem, I couldn’t resist. I admit that it might seem like attention and generosity have nothing to do with non-stealing, or asteya. But I promise that there’s a relationship if you’ll just hear me out…

Here’s the thing about stealing. Objects aren’t the only things that can be stolen from a person or a community. Time, culture, opportunities, recognition, justice, power, money, even people and life can be stolen. In short, all those things that comprise the grace of humanity can and are often, whether consciously or not, stolen away. It is asteya’s boundlessness – that it marks actions rooted in the past, spanning the present, and reaching into the future and that it permeates the minutia of our daily existence – that makes it both relevant and hard. How many of us seriously consider the labor, animal research, and environmental practices that are involved in that bottle of shampoo we place in our grocery cart? Most of us are just trying to decide if it gets our hair a certain luster and if it fits our budget.

Sometimes we steal without being aware of it. I often steal attention from my loved ones when I’m more devoted to my gadget than to their presence. Sometimes we are totally aware of it. I stole a person’s parking spot this past evening because I assumed that he’d park in the spot right next to it; he didn’t. But usually it’s not until we’re the victim that we realize just how much stealing abases a person. Feelings of powerlessness, anger, frustration, sadness, or vulnerability might arise. And while it hurts to have something stolen, the real sting comes from feeling as though my presence – my being – has no value or importance.*

But what does this mean? Well, it means that attention – literally, attending to – is a powerful practice for asteya. Insofar as stealing has roots in greed, fear, or indifference, then its best counterpoint is attention. Attention to our thoughts, our actions or our indifferences, and, perhaps most importantly, to how we affect other people, animals, and the environment. Attention demands accountability first and responsibility second. But emerging from that attention, that open-eyed and loving acknowledgment of a person (one’s self included) or a situation, is a wild collaboration that unleashes freedom within the present moment. Surely this attention is rare, as Simone Weil characterizes. It can also be pure. It is certainly generosity.

I’ll be the first to admit that this stuff is hard. There’s a reason that it gets layered onto non-violence (ahimsa) and satya (truthfulness): becoming deeply present to and attentive to another person or situation requires a significant commitment to gentleness and honesty, especially since that magnifying glass turns more upon our selves than it does what any other person has done to us or for us. We are all thieves. We are all indebted to past and current privileges, discriminations, and offerings. The question is, what do we do about it? Continue to turn a blind eye or open into it, continuously crafting our ethical relationships?

*Apply this notion to current events, even historical events. Asteya is intricately connected to social justice. Sheldon Wolin has a terrific politics based on the notion of tending, which would provide a robust complementary political practice if you’re so inclined.

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