A Deeper Look at the Practice of “Non-Stealing”

The ethical practice of not stealing can be found in every spiritual tradition I’ve ever studied. The first one I learned was “Thou shalt not steal” from the ten commandments.  The second precept of Buddhism asks you to “undertake the training to abstain from taking what is not given.” And Asteya or “non-stealing” is one of the Yamas or ethical practices in Yoga.

Literally not stealing from others, the most basic understanding of this ethical practice, is taught to most of us as little children. We are taught not to take other people’s money by robbing a bank, shoplifting, etc. But, there are many interpretations and subtle forms of theft that I’ve discovered over the years of practicing with this concept.

First of all, it’s helpful to consider what causes the desire to steal or take that which hasn’t been given. I know that we have all taken things that weren’t ours, resulting in shame and guilt. But, without really looking deeply at our behavior and the underlying causes it’s hard to get better at living with integrity.

A sense of lack or of not being good enough is at the heart of living in misalignment with non-stealing. Any time we feel a sense of lack we will begin to have the companion impulse of desire, want, and greed. We generally only take because something inside of us feels a need and we haven’t figured out how to skillfully fill the lack in a way that doesn’t take from others.

Taking and Using More Than You Need

When we feel lack, we are susceptible to reaching for something to fill us up—whether that is drugs, alcohol, clothes, jewelry, shoes, more plants for the garden, technology, food, cars, books, relationships. Even if you don’t literally steal those things, how much do you really need? When you take more than you need, mindlessly consume, and collect more and more things, it is a subtle form of stealing. When we neglect, abuse, or overuse our environment it is a form of stealing from others who will need to live in this world after we are gone.

Taking Other People’s Time

We live in a culture where time is a pretty important commodity. Frequently I hear people say they don’t have enough time, to which I reply “you will only ever have 24 hours in a day and night; use it wisely.” A way of practicing non-stealing is to show up on time when you have an appointment with someone—that goes for friends, family, as well as business meetings.  A relationship with a friend ended because she almost always showed up 20 – 30 minutes late for our time together. Half of the time I had to spend with her was wasted on the time I spent waiting for her.

And, when you are communicating with someone, think about how you can say what you need to without taking up more time than is necessary. How wordy are your emails? Your explanations? Your communications? Are you giving equal time to the other person?

Lastly, reflect on the time you ask from others, whether that is a co-worker, a friend, or a family member. Sometimes we might want to spend more time with someone than they really have time for us. It might not be because they don’t want to spend time with us, but they have other commitments as well. I see this in families a lot, where people argue over who gets more time with someone. Don’t tarnish the time you do have with arguments and disagreements. Enjoy the time you have together and let them go to enjoy other things.

Taking Other People’s Ideas and Creative Work

In a world where we can download absolutely anything, it can be tempting to take work that is copyrighted such as writing, music, videos, movies, and tv shows. If you can do it, it must be okay, right? Well, no, not really. People deserve to be paid or recognized for what they created if we want to enjoy it.

While there is hardly an original thought anymore and we are all influenced by what we read and see, there are pretty clear guidelines about what you can use and how you can use it. I am happy to say that I was inspired by writings of  The Yamas and Niyamas by Deborah Adele, a blog piece of Emma-Louis Newlyn on Ekhart Yoga, and a blog piece by Helen Waverly on Wanderlust to write this blog.

Stealing Other People’s Joy

I really love working with this one and generally I’m pretty good at having what’s called “sympathetic joy.” Sympathetic joy (from the Buddhist teaching of the Four Immeasurables) is joy in the good fortune of others. Sharon Salzberg writes “Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies – it’s the best cure for envy.

I noticed myself pulling back from excitement about something a beloved family member shared with me just this past weekend. Since I was writing this blog, it hit me that my less-than-enthusiastic response felt really bad to me and came from my past conditioning that says “you shouldn’t be too happy or too extravagant.” When we aren’t joyful with others when they experience something good in their lives, it generally comes from a sense of lack or conditioning of lack. Search for things that can fill you up. Someone’s else’s joy does not take from yours. Joy is unlimited, please avail yourself to it.

4. Taking What Has Not Been Given

While all of the above fall into this category, let’s think a little more on this one. Here’s some of the things that I do which give me pause. When I take the change out of the washer that is left after my husband washes his clothes, is that stealing?  When I’m a little loud at the movie theater (I tend to laugh and talk more than some people prefer), is that stealing someone else’s peace? When I drive too fast and pass someone at the last minute, is that stealing someone’s safety?

My latest inquiry is “am taking what is not given when I take on the generational, familial hurts of the past?” There was a situation recently where I was upset. Yet, when I looked at what had happened, there was nothing to be upset about. The upset came from a history of difficulty in this relationship. It was old stuff. I let it go and everything turned out not to be a problem after all. So simple!  

There are many activities throughout the day that we can explore to see how closely we are aligned with non-stealing. Don’t look in a judgmental way, but bring kindness and curiosity to your exploration. We are all learning and we make mistakes. It’s called “being human.”

In order to fill up our sense of lack and practice antidotes for greed and desire, try the following:

1. Practice Gratitude – Being grateful for all the things you already have can remind you of how much you are blessed with. Before you reach for something to fill you up, list three things you have which fill you up already.

2. Give Things Away – Clean out your closets and bookcases. You’ll see how much you already have and you’ll feel good at giving to others. A somewhat more advanced practice I learned is, if somebody compliments something you have, give it to them. This surprises people quite a bit and can be a lot of fun. It also stretches your abundance muscle!

3. Recycle and Compost – We are a throwaway society and it is creating huge problems for our environment. Explore how you can engage in recycling paper, plastics, and glass. Buy recycled paper, clothing, and other products. Take your own bags to the grocery store instead of using their plastic bags. Use the vegetable waste to fertilize your gardens. Think about how you can reuse the products that you have already instead of always throwing something out and buying a new one.

4. Watch How You Use Time – If you aren’t greedy by filling up your day’s schedule to the max, then you’ll be more likely to be on time for the things you’ve committed to. Having a less packed schedule will feel more spacious and relaxed and you’ll show up better. Be realistic about what you can do, understanding that you will have interruptions that aren’t planned. You will also bolster your relationships with others when you show them you value them enough to respect their time by showing up when you said you would.