1.15 drista anushravika vishaya vitrishnasya vashikara sanjna vairagyam
When the mind loses desire even for objects seen or described in a tradition or in scriptures, it acquires a state of utter (vashikara) desirelessness that is called non-attachment (vairagya). – translation by Swami J
Freedom from desires is achieved with intellect and control. – translation by Mark Giubarelli
The last couple of sutras were about abhyasa – persistence practice done with enthusiasm and devotion. That’s one half of Patanjali’s prescription for liberation. The other half is Vairagya and again, it’s one of those Sanskrit concept clouds that’s worth spending a little time exploring. Literally, the word means the drying up of the passion – vai (to dry, be dried) and raga (colour, feeling, passion, emotion, interest). It’s alternatively described as dispassionate, detachment, renunciation or non-attachment.
Non-attachment. In my culture, these words conjure up grim images of former Soviet bloc orphanages and sociopathic teenagers that murder their parents in their sleep. People are supposed to be ‘attached’. “Attachment disorder” is a failure of a young child to form appropriate attachments to caregivers, frequently as a result of neglect, abuse, frequent change of caregivers, abrupt change in a caregiver and/or caregiver unresponsiveness to a child’s efforts to communicate. It’s horrific. All kinds of mental disorders and personality disorders arise from lack of attachment.
This ain’t what we’re talking about when yoga talks about cultivating non-attachment. Before I can wrap my head around ‘non-attachment”, I want to clear my head up about what I mean by ‘attachment’ and what the heck is wrong with it in the first place. The English language has a lot of meanings attached to the word attachment. It can be a feeling of affection for a person or an institution. I’m attached to my cat. It can be a supplementary part or accessory. I have a new attachment for my sewing machine which does blind hems. It can be a binding or close social and emotional ties. I’m attached to my family. It’s a legal term whereby the property of one party can be attached or sold to satisfy a debt to another. Finally, attachment can refer to a cloying dependency, a relationship that is not within the best interests of one or more of the parties.
BINGO. This here is the attachment I’m talking about – a cloying dependency that is not within the best interests of one or more of the parties. In fact, it’s this aspect of attachment that elevates ‘attachment’ into one of the five poisons of the mind. For a quick refresher on the concept of kleshas, I offer this. One of these five poisons that colours our mind and thinking is raga and yes, that is the raga in vairagya.
Okay, raga translates to “attachment” and it’s not that “I like my kids/cat” sort of deep affection. Think of the stereotypic Hollywood stage mother who derives her personal identity through her child’s accomplishments. Regardless if the child wants to abandon the career path, the mother’s need to live through her child dominates. That’s the kind of attachment we’re talking about – unhealthy, damaging, causes suffering.
It doesn’t have to be a people attachment either. Looking at the extreme end of the scale, because it’s always easiest to see things when they’re magnified by a factor of 1000 – compulsive hoarding of things, food, animals are all ‘attachment disorders’ from a yogic point of view. An addiction is an attachment that’s about to burn the house down.
My teacher tells a great story about this. She had a bad day at work and on the way home, stopped into a little bakery and bought one of their delicious fresh out of the oven, warm and homey, cookies. It picked her up and she felt good and comforted. The next day, she stopped in and bought another. And the next day, and the next day. It’s now become habitual behaviour.
Soon, she realizes that she’s thinking about the cookies whenever she’s having an emotionally challenging moment. Bingo – there’s the attachment. It’s not the cookie. It never was the cookie. The cookie is just the vector. What’s driving the engine is the thinking around the cookie.
Having dealt (and continuing to deal) with my own addictions issues, I completely relate to this. It’s not the substance – it’s what my brain does with it. “I don’t have a drinkin’ problem; I have a thinkin’ problem” It was a huge mental breakthrough for me to get it through my head that the problem was not the substance – it was the attachment that was making my life unmanageable.
So for someone like me, cultivating non-attachment is literally life-saving. It gives me a way out. Cultivating non-attachment (vairagya) is how I moved myself from being a very heavy smoker (40+ cigarettes a day) to a non-smoker. And unlike a lot of ex-smokers, I have no cravings, no desires for cigarettes and haven’t since I quit. I remember occasions when I used to smoke but I have no desire for them now. Seeing other people smoke doesn’t bother me. Being around smokers doesn’t bother me (except for the smell…) It’s become an non-issue for me. The attachment to cigarettes is broken. I’m not an ex-smoker; I’m a non-smoker.
I have some other thoughts around the subject but I’ll leave them for later. This is a big concept in yoga philosophy and I could probably beeble on about it a lot more.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,