Fence Sitting: Capitalism versus the Eight-Fold Path

April 28, 2018 Opinion, Philosophy

One of the great joys of practicing Ashtanga at Casa Bagus are the group discussions afterwards. The shala provides an inviting gathering space where we talk about all sorts of topics from anatomy, postures, philosophy and current events. We learn so much from each other through these impromptu discussions. Indeed, within these interactions lies the spirit of yoga itself.

One question came up recently that’s been on my mind for some time: Can we find balance between our materialistic, consumer culture and the eight-fold path outlined in the Yoga Sutras? The two have always seemed at odds to me.

Our society places a lot of importance on the ownership of private property, on the accumulation of wealth, and on competition. But these three basic tenets of capitalism are incongruous to the Sutras.

One could make the case that capitalism (or rather, how we participate in it) violates all of the Yamas and Niyamas in one form or another. But in particular Aparigraha, the fifth Yama, seems especially problematic.

The Sanskrit word parigraha means to amass, to crave, to seek, to seize, and to receive or accept material wealth from others. Aparigraha is its opposite. It means taking only what is truly necessary and no more. It means to cultivate an attitude of non-hoarding, non-possessiveness, non-grasping, non-indulgence, and non-acquisitiveness.

How do we square this philosophy with our economic system when the entire point of it seems to be to amass as much money and as many things as possible regardless of who or what gets hurt in the process? The saw, “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” is funny because it perfectly encapsulates our cultural doctrine of competition and personal gain.

But does this need to be a choice between overindulgence or living life as an ascetic? Is there a path where we can reap the benefits of capitalism while also obliging the Sutras? Can we straddle that fence?

The consensus within our group seemed to be yes. The fruits of capitalism are not really the problem in the final analysis. It’s the attachment to the fruits of it that leads to suffering and disillusionment.

In the Bhagavad Gita we learn that it’s not the results of our actions that is most fulfilling, but action itself. Letting go of expectations and outcomes while remaining fully present and immersed in the task at hand is its own reward. This is a truism both on and off the mat.

It’s a difficult lesson to grasp when we are conditioned from a very early age to believe that results are paramount. Doing whatever it takes to “win” is part of our cultural and economic heritage. Whether it’s business, sports, politics or even our practice, we are predisposed to believe that the goal is the destination and not necessarily the journey. But the belief that the next job, the next house, the next car, the next achievement, the next million dollars, will bring lasting joy is the carrot at the end of the stick. It’s great for the economy, but not always for our wellbeing.

You have the right to your actions,
But never your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake,
And do not be attached to inaction.

Bhagavad Gita – 2.47