Plastic Waste and Aparigraha




Two topics that have been on my mind: the harmful effects of plastic and aparigraha (freedom from greed, non possessiveness, non hoarding, without surplus).

Over the past couple of months, we have seen in the media photos of plastic covering the oceans four times the size of California, statistics such as by 2050, 99% of sea birds will have plastic in their gut and that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish.

These current realities are a testament to our global shortsightedness and convenience culture, which can be traced to greed and ignoring the fundamental law of cause and effect. All living creatures on this Earth are affected by human consumption and waste, and we as humans have all contributed to the problem in some way.  Likewise, we all share in the responsibility to remedy the situation. Although larger groups such as corporations and nations hold a great responsibility, as their actions create a larger impact, individuals and communities also share in the responsibility to restore the health of the Earth.

I’m happy to see that people are trying to remedy the issue of plastic waste by banning single use plastics like bags, bottles and cutlery, doing large scale clean-ups and bettering recycling and waste management. We are also seeing in San Francisco more compostable cups replacing plastic single use items (Though I recently read about the deleterious effect of biodegradable plastics. Not only do they blow around and end up in the ocean like most plastics, but they require an industrial compost facility with high temperatures to decompose, which many areas do not have access to. Also: “To be called a bioplastic, a material only needs 20 percent of renewable material; the other 80 percent could be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and synthetic additives.”)

A much deeper paradigm shift is needed with regards to plastics, consumption and culture. Technology cannot save our world. It is people, habits, institutions, cultures, societies that have to change. But even that is at a superficial level, what really needs to change and evolve is our own minds and hearts.

As a yoga and dharma practitioner, I cannot ignore my part in the violence being inflicted upon the earth. I have been considering the niyama of aparigraha, a Sanskit word which translates as freedom from greed, non acquisition, non hoarding. From an environmental perspective aparigraha can be understood as living simply and keeping only belongings that are essential to thrive.

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thoughts.” BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga Sutras, p.153

By practicing apargraha, or non acquisitiveness, a kind of clarity can emerge with regard to cause and effect. By stepping back to consider, “Do I really need this: drink (which comes in a plastic bottle), packaged food item, new car, etc. the impulse to satisfy the senses is paused, and space for reflection is created. When the mind is not overwhelmed by the senses and their gratification, a kind of power arises. Also, by over consuming and hoarding, we are also robbing others of their basic needs.

Those of us who live in urban areas or use the internet or social medial are continually bombarded with advertisements for things things or experiences to bring us greater happiness. It doesn’t take too long to realize that getting caught in the web or pursuing one desire after another or one material possession after another is actually the cause of great discontent. The reason for this is that it takes us out connection with ourselves, with others and the Earth. By identifying happiness with an object, we forget that the source of happiness is only found in the simplicity of a clear, wise and compassionate heart. Fundamentally, when we are not consumed about gratifying our wants and desires, we can actually recognize and appreciate all that we already have, which is a deeper source of fulfillment.

In his commentary of the Sutra related to aparigraha, Edwin Bryant writes, “One might imagine the citta (mind or consciousness) as a lake, and samskaras (impressions, unconscious habits) as pebbles within it. When a lake is crystal clear, one can see the pebbles at the bottom and easily retrieve them. When the lake is choppy or murky, one cannot.”

Therefore, when the mind is free of acquisitiveness and unconscious habits, this facilitates clarity and stillness mind.  Clarity of mind and heart, just like clarity and purity of our oceans is essential for the optimal functioning of life, and in yoga is the ground of liberation and freedom from suffering. We see what is essential, like clean air and water, loving relationships, the basic requisites for life, and abandon what causes harm.

Some of my related goals:

  • To eliminate completely the use and purchase of single use plastics and as many plastics as possible
  • To track any wasteful items that I do use and make other choices, such as plastic toothbrushes
  • To continue to simplify my life with regards to the possessions I have and what I purchase.
  • To move towards a completely plastic and waste free lifestyle
  • Eliminate online shopping because of the excessive waste produced
  • To notice if I become rigid in thought or heart, and if judgement arises to cultivate patience and equanimity
  • Continue to study and apply the principle of non greed.

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