Sunday, November 24, 2013

Vairagya (non-attachment), Samtosha (contentment) and the Sweetest Happiness

Following the last post a couple of people emailed me feeling that my view of the modern condition was overly pessimistic. In this blog, I am not trying to put my own views forward, but to present my understanding of the yoga darshana. I am not sure if I completely agree with all the conclusions which are presented, that is my work in progress.

The yoga and ayurveda shastra state that samadhi was once naturally experienced but is almost totally lost today because of the decline in our diet and habits. We may be very good at making sophisticated things, there have been many medical advances etc., but we are no closer to understanding how to be happy - because we are looking in the wrong place.

Yoga is a radical philosophy and practice which is all too often dumbed down and perverted to suit purely commercial interests: teaching yoga has become a business and writing yoga books a potentially lucrative pursuit. Percentage-wise, few writers of books or teachers have real training in yoga, few teachers have even met or studied with a yoga master beyond a few weekend seminars.

Most translations of the yoga sutra are not made by practitioners of yoga but by academics and some of our favorite translations are made by buddhists. There are translations made from a christian perspective, an advaita perspective, a materialist perspective, etc., and many simply wrong, bad or totally off the track points of view. In short, taken as a whole, the knowledge which is out there is a kind of mush.

In India we used to eat this multi-grain cereal we called Mysore Mush - in retrospect it was mushy lumpy and not very appealing - the knowledge about yoga resembles this - it is mushy, lumpy and opaque.

One of the reasons for this, apart from simple confusion proliferated by conflicting translations and interpretations of yoga philosophy, is that yoga being a radical philosophy instills fear because it turns our usual thinking upside down. It says that our most precious pursuit - that of sensual pleasure, leads to endless suffering.

We are so attached to our pleasures that we would rather pretend we had not heard this. So there is an attempt to make yoga fit with what we feel is comfortable and to avoid confronting the fact that our obsession with prakriti is exactly what causes us blindness and pain.

According to yoga the pursuit of pleasure is caused by stress but neither stress relief nor lasting pleasure is achieved by making effort to achieve pleasure directly. Pursuit of pleasure and pain live together - there is a constant feedback loop: with attachment, the result of the loss of that object is pain and the desire to obtain another object to replace it - thus arises a continuous cycle.

Since, in our society, we are taught to desire so much, to excel, to be the best or at least the richest or most beautiful etc., the effort to attain these badges of merit is enormous. Often our drive for success may be fueled by the unrealized desires of our parents. But in any case we experience this drive to compete and acquire as a deep conditioning and stress - and to relieve our stress, we have our pleasures.

According to Patanjali, if you want to experience pleasure, you should not run after it, you should instead cultivate contentment. According to him, from this contentment is derived the highest pleasure. This does not mean that one should be lazy, but that one should learn to see everything with equanimity.

Detachment is a frightening concept for Westerners. We fear we will lose everything we value, however we only lose what poisons us. Since we are confused about what is good for our health and what is detrimental, we fear we will reject something we value.

But detachment does not imply not having feelings, not experiencing happiness and pleasure, quite the opposite! It results in the release from needing to have one's desires fulfilled, in fact it results in the falling away of many unhealthy desires. Just this alone increases the experience of release and happiness.

But, further, and perhaps more significantly: if you have no expectations of an outcome and if you cease to try to manipulate an outcome for your own benefit, you will never experience disappointment, but if you experience "success" (a good thing happening) then pleasure is a pure bonus. More positive outcomes will be experienced because we cease to try to manipulate them selfishly, thus producing more outcomes which were "meant to be" or results which produce the greatest benefits for all.

This is another paradox elucidated by yoga:

Pleasure is derived from the release of the desire for pleasure.

"From perfection of samtosha (contentment) the sweetest happiness is derived" YS II.42

This can easily be observed and confirmed as true - as can its opposite: from dissatisfaction arises misery.

And we can further say: from release of this desire for pleasure comes release of the pain associated with the loss of the coveted object as well as the "running away" from the pain which this causes, and the "running towards" a new pleasure to alleviate this suffering, thus ending the cycle of cause and effect which keeps us bound in the wheel of Samsara.

~

In his commentary on the twelfth sutra of the Samadhi Pada of the Yoga Sutra, Vyasa says as follows:

"The river of mind flows in both directions - towards good and towards evil. That which flows down the plane of Viveka or discriminative knowledge ending in the high ground of Kaivalya or liberation, leads unto good; while that which flows to the plateau of cycles of rebirth down the plane of non-discrimination leads unto evil. Among these, the flow towards sense objects is reduced by renunciation (vairagya), and development of a habit of discrimination (abhyasa), opens the floodgate of discriminative knowledge. The stopping of mental modifications is thus dependent on both."

Guruji often talked about practice, practice...but Patanjali pairs this practice with vairagya - dispassion. If we make yoga into a thing we like, which suits our needs, we do not allow yoga to do any work for us. We do not gain any net benefit. Yoga means mind-control - this is achieved through practice and dispassion.

Too many writings and teachings on yoga accommodate the fact that we are competitive, passionate, compulsive etc.. The implications of karma, reincarnation, renunciation etc are unpalatable. And so yoga is made into something warm and fuzzy, something which fits neatly into our materialistic culture.

Non attachment is of two kinds - lower and higher. The lower kind is divided into four stages - this lower vairagya is "part  and parcel of the eight component parts of yoga (ashtanga yoga)." * So practicing the eight limbs of yoga is the lower vairagya. But the idea of the ultimate renunciation puts doubts and confusions into even the most ardent student's mind.

So, as with other aspects of yoga, there are stages to vairagya. Depending on our life circumstances, our desires may be not directly for our own benefit, but for the benefit of family or society. While living integrated into society with family and work duties, often we have to struggle hard to make ends meet. But living in simplicity without the desire to consume is perfectly possible and reduces and enormous amount of stress, since it is a lot cheaper.

The ultimate renunciation is for very few at this time. In any case, if we have children and have social duties to perform, we can not even consider it seriously. Maybe as we approach death, it becomes more meaningful. But this does not mean we should not think about it - because it is the ultimate goal of yoga, and we are all going to die sometime.

"The wise understand that all this is suffering" YS II.15

The reason why wise men such as Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharshi attracted so much attention
was because they exuded bliss - they had attained the ultimate detachment, they had no possessions, yet they were the epitome of happiness, peace and fulfillment - everyone wanted to know - how do you do that?

They were no longer attached to anything. Nothing could cause them pain. Even Ramana Maharshi's cancer was no obstacle to his samadhi.

~

* Sadashiva Saraswathi - "The Ambrosia of Yoga"

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