Archive for October, 2015

October 26, 2015

Does your Nana Really Need That?

Yogic Lessons on Non-Hoarding from my Northern Nana

My Nana and Grandad in the Grenfell Jackets that my mom made and gave them for Christmas that year.

My Nana and Grandad in the Grenfell Jackets that my mom made and gave them for Christmas that year.

This Summer I was fortunate to receive a posthumous lecture on non-hoarding (Aparigraha) from my late grandmother. She was born in 1921 and like most pre-confederation Newfoundland women she worked hard and endured much. Her life story in written or pictorial form would be a powerful and inspiring one, however no autobiography was ever written and cameras, during most of her life, were scarce to say the least. For better or for worse (depending on your perspective) my nan also did not live in a time of smart phone photos and social media updates, so much of her life experience left this world with her in 2004. Imagine my delight in finding a few video snippets of this wonderful woman in a heap of soon-to-expire VHS cassettes in my mother’s basement; an ironic location to to find a lesson on non-hoarding to be sure.

Using this found footage I decided to create a video memorial of my Nan as a birthday gift for my mother this year. Putting this soon-to-be irretrievable footage into digital video turned out to be a priceless gift to both my mother and myself. What began as a nostalgic and heartwarming project expanded to include a reminder of the transitory nature of life and our contradictory need to hold and compile (parigraha).

Aging VHS cassette with precious memories.

Aging VHS cassette with precious memories.

Patanjali’s yoga sutras present aparigraha, or non-hoarding as an important foundational yoga practice. It’s translation into English varies as interpreters attempt to capture the multi-textured meaning of this concept. Whether it is described as non-possessiveness, non-grasping or non-greediness it is generally understood to mean the practice of keeping one’s desire for possessions down to what is truly necessary. Of course this varies with one’s life stage or situation. The fact that I worked so hard to hold on to my grandmother’s image might of course be argued to be an example of grasping. I obviously won’t take this video with me when I leave this body, however having had the opportunity to “visit” again with Nan at an older and more insightful stage of life feels meaningful. It was also a timely find, as I had just begun a home purge, getting rid of garbage bags full of clothing, toys and furniture. In a most wonderful and joyful way, Nan seemed to be sending me a message underscoring how little we need most of the “things” we have in our homes.

Winter Funeral Ship Cove 1957

Winter Funeral Ship Cove 1957

One of the video snippets of Nan was filmed to send to me while I was living away. Nan was then almost 80 and was showing me her Christmas presents from that year.  Nan’s Vanna White-style presentation of the gifts was given in her lovely northern accent and included lines like “ Dis is a jug and a sugar basin a friend gave me, but you know I don’t use stuff like that now because we got the old can and we takes it and we just pours it out, you know…” and “This is a nightie your aunt gave me, just the right size [laughs naughtily], a mini skirt my dear!…but still, you know, it’s all right”, along with “This is a pair of slippers that haven’t opened up yet cuz I got so many pairs lying around, maid. The way it tis, you don’t know what to get…”.  As I listened to Nan I was reminded of a trip I took to the burning ghats in Varanasi, India years ago. I was watching a body being burned on the pyre in preparation for final resting in the Ganges when I noticed something on the ground to my left. I turned to see a small pair of thin feet sticking out of the end of a small canvas wrap. They looked like they might belong to an older woman and were still covered with the grime and callouses of what appeared to be a hard life. This was the next body to be burned. She was essentially leaving this world just as my nana did despite Nana’s yearly receipt of well-meaning knick-knacks. Both women left this world with only their life experiences as they impacted on, and were absorbed by, their souls in this lifetime.

This burning ghat analogy above only references physical belongings, however Aparigraha does not just simply refer to the grasping onto things. It is about getting rid of all the unnecessary baggage in our lives. Even as we daily get closer to leaving this world we continue to add more things, thoughts, beliefs and opinions to our experience. We don’t just grasp desperately onto our physical possessions. We grasp our experiences in the form of obsessively taking photos of every experience and in over consumption in general, trying constantly to extend and get more out of every experience rather than simply being there. We keep ideas, thoughts and beliefs often long after they have ceased to serve us. As a result we can be unwilling to listen to other perspectives with compassion and respect because of grasping onto our own belief systems.

My nan spent much of her life in spiritual development. She hosted travelling preachers at her home back when rural towns didn’t have fixed locations for church services. While she did spend a lot of her later life in one particular denomination she was not tied to any particular doctrine and would go to any church. In addition to attending church she studied spiritual texts on her own, with great sincerity, her whole life.  She worked hard to live her spiritual path and yet surrendered to whatever was presented in an often difficult life without complaint, and with creative perseverance. Maybe because of this, even when the affluence of modern times produced fancy milk-serving-sets her aparigraha lifestyle dictated that pouring the milk from a can of Carnation would do just fine, thank you very much. This insight was reflected in her joyful presentation of gifts that had obviously little or no use to her but were understood to be given with love. While she died probably never even knowing what the word yoga meant I cannot think of more outstanding example of yogic living.

My holiday goal this year is to get better at choosing meaningful gifts, to find items or experiences that will not be re-gifted or end up in a landfill. What things can I give that will actually be taken by those I love when they leave this world? I know it won’t be as easy as a one stop shop at a department store. I am still working out the details of this shift but I hope to slowly add more and more gifts that transcend the physical. It doesn’t mean that I will never give another physical gift. But I want to be sure that the things given are going to inspire, be used and loved or at the very least needed. Time spent together, food or other items made with love, granting forgiveness or being more tolerant are some of the things I am working on. It could even be as simple as holding back my own opinion, and perspective  over the family holiday meal and listening instead as a viewpoint that I usually oppose is argued; maybe in doing so I will be able to let go of a little more grasping. As my Nan knew, we could all use a little less of that.

I hope you are inspired by my Nana’s video below. Her lovely accent is thick and may not be easily understood by my mainland readers but it should be a delicious treat for any yogis hailing from the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.

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