The ultimate goal of yoga is kaivalya, total liberation and freedom. We use the methods and practices of yoga to deliberately and gradually release into our true Self, which allows us to feel free from the shackles of emotion and the layers of human life that bind us to our earthly experience. This involution requires us to still the fluctuations in the mind, to discern between emotion and truth, to listen to our intuition and inner wisdom. Layer after layer, detail after detail, we reduce our habit of relating to the identity of the ego and rid ourselves of the myriad things that keep us from seeing the Ultimate Truth. To do this, we must learn to let go. I heard Rod Stryker say once that until you can burn your own house down, you will never truly be free. In other words, as long as we feel our survival depends on factors of the external world, we deny our connection to the Infinite (and thus, deny ourselves liberation). Like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, we need to cultivate Inaction In Action: to find a passionate and meaningful way of moving through our experience on earth with dispassion, detached from the outcome of our choices. We must consistently invite and create peace—moment to moment: in order to be free, we must practice Vairagya.
Sri Swam Satchindananda says: “Vairagya (non-attachment) literally means “colorless.” Every desire brings its own color to the mind. The moment you color the mind, a ripple is formed, just as when a stone is thrown into a calm lake it creates waves in the water.” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Ripples of thought and emotion are distractions to the peaceful, calm waters of our mind and spirit beneath them. In yoga, we learn we are not our thoughts or emotions, we are not our desires or our bodies. We want to remember what we really are so that all the ways we color our mind begin to dissipate. Vairagya teaches us how to practice letting the colors go.
The practice of Vairagya is about non-attachment. This practice has always drawn me in—as a person who felt clouded by worry, disturbed with memories, burdened by my role and responsibilities, sensitive to everyone else’s needs, I wanted to better understand what it means to LET GO. I have long yearned for the light feeling of seeing the Truths that nagged at me under the chaos, under the longing to be “good enough.” It took me a long time to even see how my pain and suffering were actually self-inflicted.
But to really understand non-attachment, we must understand attachment. As humans, we become conditioned to invest ourselves in everything around us—that could be our possessions, our job, our relationships, money, even experiences. We start to identify ourselves with all of this almost the instant we have awareness and feel that these things, as well as our opinions, judgments, roles, politics, and beliefs define who we are. Unconsciously, we connect to our emotions and we carve out an idea of how things should be in almost every situation. It starts in childhood with the disappointment of not getting what we want, or perhaps is laid down brick by brick through the expectations in our family role. We are beings of emotion and attachment, of grasping and clinging. Judgments about what is “good or bad,” what is “right or wrong” come at us from every angle. We are told what we should and should not do, we compare situations and people, we measure our lives by what has been imprinted on us as “successful” or “beautiful.” We learn to reach for these ideals; we become firm in the boundaries of them. We attach ourselves to it, believe it, and we create our suffering. Oftentimes we cling and grasp to the outcome of things, to our self-imposed expectations. Most of us don’t realize we can make another choice.
Attachment can be likened to the parable about a monkey and his fist full of nuts. When hunters wanted to trap a monkey for food, they would put nuts into a jar with a small opening, just large enough for a monkey’s hand. The monkey sees delicious nuts inside a jar and reaches in to grab them. He clasps his fist around the yummy treats and tries to pull them out—but his hand is stuck! By making a fist around the nuts he has made it impossible to remove his hand through the top of the jar. All the monkey has to do is release the nuts and he will be free. But the monkey lacks self-awareness and he will sit there, desperately clinging to his precious nuts, until he perishes. To live a life of peace, we must let go of our nuts, all the things to which we cling, all the ways we define right and wrong, all the places we align, agree, resist, and react! We can be hopeful, yes! But ultimately, Vairagya is about being okay with however things end up; it is what it is. Krishna advises: “Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment, and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness.” The Bhagavad Gita
There is a moment in the movie “Finding Nemo” that perfectly portrays Vairagya. Nemo’s father, Marlin, and Dori are inside a whale. Marlin is convinced the whale wants to eat them, while Dori is open to the idea that the whale is there to help. At the peak of the scene, they are both gripping to the whale’s tongue as it lifts up. Marlin is beside himself with fear and Dori says, “It’s time to let go!” Marlin desperately asks her: “But how do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” And she replies, “I don’t.” And she lets go. Marlin bravely follows her lead, lets go of the whale tongue and they are shot out of the blow hole into safety, exactly where they needed to be.
Like Marlin, many of us want some sort of assurance that brave acts will deliver us where we want to go. We avoid the possibility that “bad things” might happen to us! This is the draw of attachment to the outcome—our underlying fear that our choices will make us uncomfortable, or in some way harm us. Dori has faith and courage. She cannot predict the outcome, but trusts she will be okay and trusts that her actions are in harmony with the Universe. She is positive, hopeful and unattached to the outcome.
Becoming more at peace, surrendering, letting go—it actually takes work. Vairagya goes hand in hand with Abhyasa, discipline. We must have the discipline to monitor our thoughts, actions, and choices. Abhyasa is defined as consistent practice. Once we realize what thoughts, actions, and choices are more helpful (more “wise”), we must discipline ourselves to choose them. There is no easy excuse of I didn’t know. When you choose to indulge in anger, resentment, fear, grasping—you will choose your own suffering. This is a lot of responsibility, but it can also be very empowering because if you can choose your suffering, you can choose your ease. It is said that Vairagya and Abhyasa are like two wings of a bird—you cannot fly without both of them working together harmoniously.
Abhyasa is more than getting up at the same time every day and practicing asana and meditation. That could be part of it, but it is also the discipline of moment to moment. It is never letting yourself off the hook, never giving up on yourself or others. It’s avoiding the temptation of the familiar and safe over and over and over. It is like the loving mother horse nudging her foal to keep standing—she knows he was meant to run. We must use abhyasa to stay aware of our limitless potential, to destroy all ideas of what we “cannot” do, and run with our inner stallion. It takes discipline to remember our raw beauty, to remain vulnerable and untouched by our hurts, to repeatedly see the transient everness of the Universe. Time and again, we have to choose to tap into the sameness, the divine essence of everything. The effort, the practice, is in the choosing.