Practice and Non-Attachment

by Sharon Gannon |
June, 2011
Practice and Non-Attachment
abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah

Identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras I.12

In sutra 1.2 of his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines the state of Yoga as the cessation of identification with the fluctuations of mind. Then in sutra 1.12, he offers a 2-step method for how to stop those fluctuations and thus how to attain Yoga. He tells us that through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya), we will be able to stop identifying with our thoughts and be able to see the true reality of who we are. At that point, we have reached enlightenment –the realization of the oneness of being, eternal bliss.

So all we need to do is practice and not be attached. All very good as a concept. But how to do it? What do those concepts really mean? Abhyasa means to practice, and to practice something implies that you stay with it for a while. You sit with something, and every time you have a reaction to it–like Why do I have to work at this job? Why doesn’t my spouse listen to me? Wow, why do we have to hold this shoulderstand for five minutes? or Why should I just sit here and try to meditate, I have important things I need to be doing? –you note your reaction and you let it go. Then you note your next reaction, and you let that one go, too. And on and on. You do that as long as you need to, and what will happen is that what is not useful to you anymore will just fall away, and what is useful will keep arising more and more. And eventually you will be able to see yourself as your true Self, your higher Self, rather than as a collection of all the things that run unceasingly through your mind.

So why don’t we all just do that and leave behind the suffering of human life? One of my teachers once told me that anyone can experience samadhi if you lock yourself in a room with no books or TV or phones and meditate 16 hours a day for 3 weeks. But almost no one can do that, because after a short time of just sitting we feel we have to get up and do something. Our past actions come to the surface and do their best to distract us, to pull us away; they make it too uncomfortable to just sit with ourselves in such an intense way. Something disturbing arises, and we run away from it, we “change the channel,” so we actually never get to fully experience the difficult thing that’s arising. And when we do that (when we move away from it), we reinforce the difficult thing, we make it into something that can’t be faced, and we cannot move forward. What’s needed to sit with something difficult is vairagya – non-attachment, detachment, dispassion. Vairagya is facing something –even something positive– and not identifying with it, not becoming attached to it so that it comes to be part of the way you see or define yourself. When something arises, you go deeper into it with an energetic investigation, an actual feeling investigation—What is this thing? How does it make me feel?–and then you recognize that whatever the feeling of it is, whatever the experience of it is, it is just that: a feeling, an experience, and nothing more; it is not you. And then you move on.

There is only one asana and that is the relationship with yourself. Being comfortable with yourself–with your body and your mind—is the goal. Allowing your relationship with yourself to be steady and joyful will reveal the true Self inside of all the whirlings and changing. The true Self is eternal and unchanging. Asana and meditation are the same practice–both about being able to sit with whatever may be happening and trusting that inside of it all is that eternal joy which is the only true reality–and that is your own Self.

Every feeling, every emotion, positive or negative, has a starting point, an origin. In the ancient wisdom—not just in yogic tradition, but in all spiritual traditions—the source of everything is joy. The source of the entire universe is joy: boundless, limitless joy. So if we want to resolve a negative emotion like anger, we have to allow it to go full circle. To resolve means to bring something back to its origin, to go full circle. That’s the process involved in yoga. Whether it’s asana or meditation, a disturbing emotion or a feeling, you sit with it long enough and let it run its course, you feel it deeply and let it come out the other end, let it go back to where it came from, which actually is joy.

The paradox is that in order for practice to be effective, we need detachment; but in order to develop detachment, we need to practice. So we go through a yoga class, a day at work, an evening at home or a dinner with friends, and no matter what comes up, we sit with it—that is, we don’t run away from it or resort to blame or arrogance other externalizing mental actions, or if we do, then we note that and try not to be attached to it (try to avoid “oh, I’m no good at this, all I ever do is lash out!”). And little by little, we find that we can sit with it a little longer, and we can remain unruffled a little more, all at the same time. And that is the two-step method that Patanjali offers.

Teaching Tips

  • Give students the opportunity to experience abhyasa–actually let them sit with something. As the teacher you could give instructions, but then stop talking so as to allow the students to actually experience what it is you have asked them to experience. It could be a particular asana; it could be a pranayama or breathing exercise; it could be a seated meditation.
  • Have students work with a partner and do this exercise: partner #1 sits in virasana while partner #2 sits in any comfortable position. Partner #2 tells partner #1 a story about something painful, frightening, terrifying, worrisome and/or upsetting that actually happened to them. The instructions for partner #1 are this: sit absolutely still and completely attentive, listen to everything that partner #2 is telling you, but don’t react, sit quietly, don’t allow your face to become distorted with emotional reaction and don’t reach out to try to comfort your partner. Sit as if you were the impartial witness–the sakshi. The teacher should by means of a timer keep track of time. Allow 5 minutes for partner #2 to tell their story, then ring a bell or a gong to let partner #2 know that they have 1 minute left to conclude their story. At the end of 6 minutes. A moment of silence. Both partners should stretch out their legs and then change roles. This exercise shows how difficult it is to practice meditation, which is really the practice of sitting with the thoughts and feelings that make up your body and mind and not getting involved with identifying with those thoughts and feelings. The difference of course is that when you are sitting and practicing meditation both partners are inside of you.
  • Allow the students to experience a longer than five minute meditation.
  • Perceiving meditation as an asana practice–sitting down with something–sitting down with yourself–in order to discover your real Self underneath it all.
  • Holding asanas for longer than 5 breaths, or doing the same asana several times in a row, or even not in a row, and reminding students to try to stay non-attached–to practice noting every sensation or thought that arises and to allow it to arise with the inhalation and let it go on the exhalation.