It's so easy to get caught up in our buy-buy-buy culture this time of year. Now that "Black Friday" is a de facto holiday, it's no wonder that many decry the loss of the sentiments and traditions behind our winter celebrations. Instead, 'tis the season to overindulge, blow out our budget, and find ourselves stressed out for months into the new year.
Of course the yogis couldn't have foreseen this exact neurosis over our modern-day holidays, but they certainly had human nature pegged perfectly. Turning to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, one yama jumps out this time of year: aparigraha.
Aparigraha literally means non-greediness, but it more broadly refers to taking only what is really necessary or important. This is a challenging pill to swallow because the concept of settling with what truly supports you and no more touches on so many aspects of our lives: our relationship with food, our relationships with friends and family, and most certainly our relationship with our budget.
Of course the irony is that stress comes from getting caught up in the spirit of giving, not taking. Swami Satchidananda, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, has an answer for this. Aparigraha, he points out, also suggests that we not accept gifts1.
Wait, what? The reasoning goes that accepting a gift puts the receiver in a bind with the giver. The sense of being obligated to return a favor becomes a key aspect of the relationship between both parties, and leaves the receiver in a position of powerlessness.
Other philosophers have pondered this same conundrum around gift giving. In the chapter on "The Three Graces" in her book The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser draws on the great Roman thinkers to highlight the problem of the "thank you gift," our social obligation to repay someone's generosity. She sums up Seneca: "The receiver pays later on, but always because he or she is obliged, by the mysterious law of reciprocity, to do so.2"
Don't buy it? Think for a moment if there are people on your gift list who won't also be giving you something. Add to that the fact that we can't help but consider the monetary or sentimental value of the expected gifts we'll be receiving when it comes to selecting each and every perfect present. Socks for an iPad doesn't sit well.
I've been in this situation all too many times. Each year my husband and I have the same conversation about whether or not so-and-so is expecting something from us, and what we really mean is, "is so-and-so sending us something? If so, that means we have to send him something?" So much for the spirit of giving; this is cost-benefit analysis.
Thinking of it this way, it's easy to see why the ancient yogis suggest that we forgo gifting altogether. This gift-giving calculus that we process for months leading up to the dreaded trips to the mall keeps our mind tied up in knots, and that leads to suffering. And in the end, we just don't need all this stuff.
All this being said, Swami Satchidananda also says that, actually, "if we are strong enough to remain free of obligation, we can accept gifts.3" And this is how it goes with a lot of yoga philosophy. It often boils down to keeping your eyes and mind wide open while being honest with yourself. Not bad advice any time of the year.
1. Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 12th ed. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications, 2007. 141.2. Visser, Margaret. The Gift of Thanks. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008. 88.3. Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 12th ed. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications, 2007. 141.