Yogash citta vrtti nirodhah. Yoga is the cessation of the mind’s fluctuations. ~ Yoga Sutras 1.2
Walking the yogic path means letting go of attachments to material things and outcomes. But the idea of non-attachment can be very confusing, raising many questions: Is there space for personal agency? Is it possible to have agency, motivation and power to change things whilst engaging in a practice of letting go?
How can we care about each other and the planet and be agents of social change if we’re not attached to outcomes?
Many of us struggle with these questions, but a significant part of the struggle arises from misunderstanding.*
One of the truisms of modern yoga is that what we perceive as solid matter is really only energy vibrating. It follows that all of the “earthly” things that we hold so dear are “really” only transitory states. Some people believe 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 vibrating energy; so the best way to affect change is to change our vibrations. “It’s the vibes, man.”
For some, this means that non-attachment is about letting go of attachments to this perceived reality. They think that I should let go of the idea that what I perceive is of any importance; I should let go of any ideas that things ought to be different than they are. If that’s right, there’s no need for personal agency.
These misunderstandings often lead to practicing non-attachment “badly.” In attempting to develop non-attachment, we become detached and disconnected. In the process we lose our perspective, our point of view.
We confuse non-attachment with not caring. But not caring feels like not having a position; like having no place to stand. Like walking away from everything and not caring about right and wrong in the world. What is the point in living like that?
Part of the appeal of this (mis)interpretation of non-attachment is that having a point of view about everything—although unavoidable—can be exhausting. So, for some people non-attachment may be a cop-out from having to think about things, care about things and maybe even act on things that matter.
Fortunately it doesn’t take too long to realise that you’re lying to yourself, only pretending that you don’t care, pretending that you don’t have a point of view. We soon realise that no matter how much we pretend, we still have a point of view about everything.
Of course, just having a point-of-view is not in itself exhausting. What is exhausting is that having points-of-view raises challenging and important questions. Where did this point of view come from? Is it mine, or was it imposed by family, teachers, or society?
How do I know that my point-of-view is the right one? What does having it demand of me? Do I have to defend it, practice it, act upon it?
These questions are inseparable from other fundamental questions that are in perpetual 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 Self? Without a point of view, there seems to be no place to stand on important matters.
But non-attachment does not mean not-caring. We have to make a clear distinction between non-attachment and detachment.
Detachment involves an active distancing, turning away or rejecting. Non-attachment simply creates a space in which to let things be. Detachment is an affect; non-attachment is unaffected.
What yogis are encouraged to do is abhyasa (consistent practice or application: effort [not just asana]) to develop vairagya (non-attachment). Non-attachment is a state of mind, a continuous application of discernment.
Abhyasa is consistent practice aimed at developing 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. Witnessing helps to develop the distance necessary to observe the fluctuations and become discerning.
Although meditation ultimately aims to cease the fluctuations of the mind, for most of us, most of the time, the best we can achieve is watching the mind fluctuate.
With practice, we might come to see our waves of thoughts and feelings like the waves of the ocean —sometimes calm and refreshing, sometimes roaring and tumultuous. Sometimes they carry in dead animals and foul odours. Yet they always 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. We can begin to step back and breathe before reacting to unfolding events.
In the long run, we come to recognize that the waves only exist as ever changing forms or patterns of the ocean. So too unfolding events.
When we recognize this, we no longer need to step back; we are uninvolved, non-attached. Then we can act rather than re-acting.
When our boss, a friend or a 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 it warrant a response?
Yoga is about discerning between ego-stuff and real-stuff—recognising that our emotions are a distraction. It is about creating distance from fluctuating emotional states in order to discern the best course of action right here and right now. Acting because we choose to act, rather than reacting to the never-ending ebb and tide of everyday life.
Attachments are distractions, but detachment is inhuman. Non-attachment (vairagya) requires striking a balance between effort and surrender—letting go of the waves of emotions, while continuing to care (very much) about what happens in the world.
*I must acknowledge and thank the participants at our workshop titled ‘Balancing Effort and Surrender’ for the insights and wisdom that they shared. This article couldn’t have happened without them.
Author: Karl Smith
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: via the author