Yogash citta vrtti nirodhah.
Yoga is the cessation of the mind’s fluctuations.
Yoga Sutras 1.2
An essential part of walking the yogic path is letting go of our attachments to material matters and outcomes. When Annie suggested the topic for this workshop, she raised a concern about the quest for non-attachment, asking: “is there space, or is it still possible, to have agency, motivation and power to change situations?” How can we care about each other and other beings and be agents of social change whilst not being attached to outcomes?
This is a very common and recurring set of questions. As the workshop participants shared their experiences and struggles, it became clear that many of us struggle with precisely these questions, and that a significant part of the struggle arises from misunderstanding.
But before we started to discuss that, we did a couple of exercises to concretely experience how we strike this balance in practical everyday contexts. Nina had us begin by arranging the mats in a square, demarcating a confined space, and then instructed us all to walk around the square. Changing directions. Walking around in the square, not around the square. Go faster. Add a little jump to your step every now and then. Change directions more frequently. Move in random directions. Faster.
I think there was only one major collision. No one fell over. There were about 15 people moving around inside a square about 4m on each side, each instantly adapting to an ever changing situation. Changing directions at random, while avoiding others doing the same. Highly alert to our situation, flexible in our effort, accepting of the chaos.
Alas, both of our usual photographers got caught up in the activities and forgot to take pictures. So much for “balance”, eh?
When we came to a halt, Nina asked us each to introduce ourselves to someone who we didn’t know, shaking hands, and maintaining eye contact. And maintaining eye contact a bit longer. We were then asked to reflect on what we felt during this engagement.
Changing partners, we did the exercise again, but this time alternating between firm and limp handshakes, while maintaining eye contact. We were asked to reflect upon how the change in handshake changed the way we felt about the person we were engaging with.
Then Nina worked her way around the room with some drinking straws, getting the pairs to hold the straw between their forefingers. Some photos would be really useful here 😮 . We started moving around in pairs, holding the straws between our fingers – requiring enough pressure to keep it in place, without enough to bend it, and requiring unspoken communication, following someone’s lead, or leading someone to follow, while finding that balance between enough and too little/too much pressure.
As we were working this out, Nina added another straw to each pair, using the other hand. And most of us realised we now had crossed hands, because we had all used our dominant hands in the first instance. Some pairs used some creative thinking to swap hands, uncrossing. Soon the others followed suit.
So she upped the ante again, getting us to turn our pairs into four-somes, and waving our arms up and down while maintaining the straws between us. And just as we thought we almost had it under control, we joined all of the four-somes together into one large group. Somewhat surprisingly – and with great pleasure – we managed to hold it together for a few moments before straws started flying off, and we all fell about with much laughter.
That’s probably one of those things where “you had to be there” [but a photo might’ve helped :-/ ]
Finally we sat down and began to discuss our mutual understandings and struggles with the idea of non-attachment.
One person told a fairly typical story when she recalled having learned in a meditation workshop that what we perceive as solid matter is really only energy vibrating; from which it follows that all of the “earthly” things that we hold so dear are “really” only transitory states. Some schools of meditation teach that we can best affect positive change in the universe through our sitting mediation: we are vibrating energy, our minds and thoughts are vibrating energy, the universe is only vibrating energy, so the best way to affect change is to change our vibrations. “It’s the vibes, man.”
Another related (mis)understanding is that the idea of non-attachment is about letting go of attachments to this perceived reality. All of this adds up (or it did for me) to an understanding that I should let go of my ideas that what I perceive is of any importance, and especially to my ideas that things ought to be different than they are. And if this is the case, there seems to be little room or possibility – or need – for personal agency.
Someone else reflected on a similar experience, observing that she had “practiced non-attachment badly”. In her attempts to develop non-attachment, she became detached and disconnected. In the process, she says, she lost her point of view. She thought that being non-attached meant not caring, but practicing not caring left her feeling that she didn’t have a position; she had no place to stand. Over time, though, she began to realise that she was lying to herself, she was only pretending that she didn’t care, denying that she had a point of view, in order to achieve a state of non-attachment.∇
Along the way, she also recognised that no matter how much she pretended, she in fact has a point of view about everything. She also came to understand that part of the appeal of this (mis)interpretation of non-attachment is that having a point of view about everything – although unavoidable – is exhausting. In other words, for some people non-attachment serves as a cop-out from having to think about things, and care about things – and maybe even act on things that matter.
Of course, just having a point-of-view is not in itself exhausting. What is exhausting is that having points-of-view almost inevitably raises a number of challenging, yet important questions. Where did this point of view come from? Is it mine, or was it imposed upon me by my family, or teachers, or by society more generally? How do I know that mine is the right one? And what does having it demand of me? Do I have to defend it, practice it, act upon it?
These questions are inseparable from another set of fundamental questions, which are perpetually in flux. Who am I? What is my identity? How much can I surrender and stay true to myself? Is my identity distinguishable from my point of view? If I let go of my point of view, am I abandoning my identity? Without a point of view, there seems to be no place to stand on important matters.
This discussion led to the observation that non-attachment does not mean not-caring. It is important to make a very clear distinction between non-attachment and detachment. Detachment involves an active distancing, a turning away or rejecting, whereas non-attachment simply creates a space in which to let things be. Detachment is an affect, whereas non-attachment is unaffected.
What yogis are encouraged to do is abhyasa (consistent practice or application: effort [which is not just asana]) to develop vairagya (non-attachment). Non-attachment is a state of mind, a continuous application of discernment. As Felicity put it, wisdom is the discriminatory part of instinct. Abhyasa is consistent practice aimed to develop the fine discrimination between what is really real, and what we think and feel about our experiences. Vairagya, refers to non-attachment to those thoughts and feelings.
Before we can cease the fluctuations of the mind, we must develop distance from them. Such a distancing permits a witnessing. Reciprocally, witnessing helps to develop the distance from which to better observe the fluctuations.
Although meditation is frequently portrayed as an exercise that attempts to cease the fluctuations of the mind, for most of us, most of the time, it consists instead of watching the fluctuations of the mind. With practice we can, as Alice observed, come to see our waves of thoughts and waves of feelings like the waves of the ocean – sometimes they’re calm and refreshing, sometimes roaring and tumultuous, sometimes they carry in dead animals and foul odours. Yet always, they pass away again, to be replaced by another one, and then another.
Vairagya is non-attachment to these waves; letting them come and go without getting caught up in them. As this ability develops, discernment grows, and we can begin to step back and breathe before reacting to unfolding events. When our boss, or a friend or lover says or does something that grates, we can pause, step back, and reflect; we can make discernments about why it grates, why we feel it grating? Is it me or is it her? Is there something I can do to adjust to or accommodate this? Does this “event” warrant a response?
Yoga is about discerning between ego-stuff and real-stuff – getting rid of “I”, “me” and “mine”; to recognise that “we” are not essential, that salving our emotions is a distraction. It is about finding distance from our fluctuating emotional states in order to discern the best course of action in any situation.
But it’s also important to recognize that there are different “yogas” – different developments in the understanding of yoga.
The “effort” in the title of this workshop is abhyasa – the practice or application of developing discernment. Yoga-practice is action, although often, and paradoxically, action through inaction. But the action of karma-yoga that Krishna calls us to in the Bhagavad-Gita is not the action of kriya-yoga that Patanjali outlines in the Yoga-Sutras.*
Krishna’s action (karma) is action in the world [and, I think, the kind of action that Annie is questioning in her initial outlining of the problem of this workshop]. Patanjali’s action (kriya) includes self-study (svadhyaya), purifying the senses (tapas), and devotion to the divine (ishvara pranidhana); it is the action of walking the path toward ecstatic self-realization; and it proceeds significantly through addressing the 5 kleshas – the “causes of affliction”.
The kleshas are avidya (ignorance), asmita (I-am-ness), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion) and abhinivesha (will-to-live/ fear of loss). The practice of kriya-yoga aims to overcome ignorance and I-am-ness, to let go of attachment to the “I’ and to surrender to the inevitability of the end-of-life.
“Surrender” – vairagya – refers to letting go of attachments to thoughts and feelings. Vairagya is clearly linked to raga – non-attachment versus attachment. I previously mentioned a necessary distinction between non-attachment and detachment, which we can now put into the context of the aversion (dvesha) that is integral to detachment. The effort to surrender the “I’, (the “small self”, the ego) requires overcoming abhinivesha: the I, the ego, the self, cling desperately to the illusion of their own existence.
In a very different vein, it is also important to recognize that non-attachment is not about deprivation! The moment “deprivation” was mentioned in our discussion some people started salivating over thoughts of hot chocolate. Obviously being attached (raga) to chocolate (hot or not) – or to coffee, sweets, sex, particular people or anything else – is an obstacle to be overcome. But overcoming the attachment need not entail deprivation or denial. In fact, deprivation or denial very immediately become either aversion (dvesha) or fear of loss (abhinivasha), both of which are kleshas (causes of affliction) in their own right.
Hence non-attachment to chocolate (or sex, or someone, etc) does not mean detachment or denial. It means letting go of the yearning, of the perceived need, of the sense that something is lacking, or missing if that thing/person is not present – if that craving is not quenched.
It is the small self, the ego or I, which fears that it is diminished if deprived. But the illusion of the small self is reinforced as long as we continue to indulge in the fantasy that we are somehow more complete or fulfilled by “scratching that itch” (so-to-speak). Losing the attachment to these “things” loosens the attachment to the illusion of the small self, creating space for greater realisations.
In this context, abhyasa is the persistent practice of mindfulness, the persistent meditation that creates space for witnessing that “I” am not this attachment to things, or that attachment to thoughts, or another attachment to feelings. It is the persistent effort to progress from I-driven actions and ego-coloured perceptions to clarity of motivations and uncoloured action in the world.
Vairagya follows from this practice; it is an inward feeling of ‘enough’ with things. When we are not attached to things, a sense of ‘enough’, of satiety/ sufficiency, arises; not because we do not have things, or because we cannot get things, but because we do not experience a need for things; we have enough of things. Either we have enough of everything, or we have seen that desire itself is not a proper attitude or a correct form of understanding.
In this way, vairagya is associated with dharana (concentration of the mind), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (meditative absorption). Combined simultaneous practice of dharana, dhyana and samadhi produce samyama, a state of knowing that you are not the body, not the mind, not the world.
So, in terms of the initial questions for this workshop, there is an (enormous) effort required to overcome the illusion of being a self; of identifying one-self as a self with a core or stable identity. The non-attachment in question is becoming non-attached to the illusions of the ego or I.
But it most definitely does not require inactivity, or being un-attached to the moral and ethical issues of the world in which we find ourselves. As some of our participants observed, in asana practice, non-attachment can be applied to the asanas themselves – we make an effort to learn a pose, perhaps even to “master” a pose; but we do not become attached to an outcome; and we do not attach any significance to what the achievement or non-achievement of this pose says about “me” as a person. We do not attach a value to the outcome of my effort to strike a pose.
We engage in the action of the pose for its own sake; for the sake of making the effort; for the sake of the moving meditation that can be achieved through the transition into and out of the pose. This moving meditation can create a space in which to achieve some distance from the fluctuations of the mind; for the opportunity to witness the waves of emotions that ebb and flow while moving into and out of the pose. Achieving or not achieving a pose is neither good nor bad – it does not make the yogi good or bad. It just is.
In this sense, the asana practice is one way to perform the action of kriya-yoga; a means towards stripping off the illusions of the I-ness of being. This, though, doesn’t address the question of acting in the world around me.
The karma-yoga of the Bhagavad-Gita seems to more directly address this question. But it also leads to some very troubling conclusions – at least for me as a 21st century yogi. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna advises Arjuna that inaction is not an option. One must act, and one must act in the world. But in order to ensure that one acts righteously, one must surrender one’s (illusory) “self” entirely to the Divine – to Krishna. We must surrender to the “fact” that all of “our” actions are really cosmic actions. What I perceive as my ego-driven actions are in fact actions of the divine cosmos acting through me.
…erghhhh, um – except: if I am ego-driven I might be acting against the divine will. The armies that are facing Arjuna are acting out of their small-egos – they would conquer Arjuna’s lands and peoples and exploit them for base and selfish purposes. It is because Arjuna’s motives are noble that they correspond to Krishna’s divine will. It is because his intentions to rule his people accord with the divine will that his motives are noble. It is therefore not only just, but necessary that he should lead his armies into combat against the enemies.
So Krishna advises Arjuna to put aside his quibbles about killing his uncles, brothers and teachers, and go forth and do the right thing, knowing that it is the will of god (Krishna). Along the way, he also invokes the ideas discussed above – that all matter (and things and people) is merely transitory vibrations. So killing them will make no difference in the cosmic scheme of things.
Hooo boy! Really?
The vairagya (surrender) in our title, in this context, is a call to surrender the petty-ego-selves to the Divine Cosmic One-ness in order to carry out our cosmic duty. If I act in accordance with the cosmic Divine – the Divine Self – then I need not worry about the base morals of petty people. They’re cosmically insignificant.
But how do I know that my actions are in accordance with the Divine Will? In the Bhagavad-Gita, which describes a non-dualist universe, there is no distinction between self and other, between self and God, or between God and World. All is one. I am you, you are me, we are god, god is us. This is the same idea of the all-the-same-vibrations that we started this discussion with.
Krishna has manifested in human form as Arjuna’s charioteer. It is a sacrilege for me to question this truth claim. Arjuna’s charioteer is telling him to grow a back-bone, stiffen his resolve, get out there and smite those would-be usurpers, because Arjuna’s motives are pure and the enemies’ motives are not. In this instance, the charioteer is god. God is speaking directly to Arjuna.
Much more recently, god told George W Bush to send his armies to smite some Iraqis who were threatening the cosmic order. This time god appeared in a dream, rather than in human form. A different god, apparently. But nevertheless, still a self-proclaimed One True God.
My point is that another very common misconception of non-attachment seems to be that we must abandon our critical mind if we are to achieve the ecstatic condition that Patanjali offers to us. But like the woman who realised that there is a heavy burden involved in having a point-of-view – one that’s even heavier when we turn our attention to making subtle discernments – and sought “non-attachment” (in the form of not-caring) to escape this burden, we are surrounded by yogis who seek relief from the burden of uncertainty through “surrendering” to the ancient wisdoms of precious texts, abandoning their responsibility for discerning what is valid and useful in these texts from those comforting myths that have led the human race into endless religious wars in the millennia since the Bhagavad-Gita was written.
Life’s great conundrum is that we will never know with certainty that we are acting on the side of the divine. We of the 21st century must negotiate 3000 years of truth claims – 3000 years of people telling us what god thinks we ought to do. There are no simple answers to the question “how do I know it’s the right thing to do?” We certainly won’t find the answer straightforwardly and unproblematically spelled out in any ancient texts. But we can nevertheless learn many important lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Yoga-Sutras and countless other texts. In the present context, one of the most important teachings from the Bhagavad-Gita is that non-action is not an option; even inaction is a moral choice. We will act.
One of my teachers used to tell me that the down-ward dog (adho mukha svanasana) requires balancing between effort and surrender. I jokingly insisted that there is no balance – I simply have to surrender to making the effort. Now I give this advice to my university students every semester, telling them that the best way to prepare for the end of semester exams is to surrender to the effort: this approach takes much less effort and achieves much better results.
From the perspective of karma-yoga, then, it seems that we must surrender to the fact that we must act; and surrender to the fact that we must act without perfect knowledge or absolute certainty that our choices are “correct”. But we can follow the kriya-yoga path towards overcoming the ignorance of believing that we are a fixed, static or core self, and become non-attached to the outcomes of our actions. More importantly, we can become non-attached to what our actions say about us, and remain open to choosing different courses, different actions, depending upon contexts, and upon feedback from the actions that we have taken.
Our next workshop is Embodied Learning on the 9th May at 1.15. Surrender to the effort and come and join us!
* This part of the discussion draws on Georg Feurstein, The Yoga Tradition, 3rd edition. See his discussion of the distinction between karma-yoga and kriya-yoga, as well as an outline of the kleshas on p.221. My discussion of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita is from my own reading of the BG, informed by Feuerstein’s discussion of the differences between the BG and the Yoga-Sutras.
Karl has produced a more concise version of this discussion in elephant journal, which you can find here.