The other day, while working on piece about yoga and conflict resolution for a blog (www.yogabasics.com) that I contribute to a few times a month, I was reminded yet again what a rich resource Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are for dealing with life’s daily concerns. Though Patanjali compiled this collection of 196 brief sayings roughly two millennia ago, it remains fresh and relevant today.
As I was writing about how the sutras offer a path for resolving inner and outer conflict, I realized that the seeds of conflict, and of so many of life’s difficulties, arise from attachment or (in Sanskrit) raga. But the yogic concept of attachment is often misunderstood or considered problematic by householders. How, we ask, can we be non-attached (practice vairagya) and still love family members? What if I don’t want to detach from the things I enjoy, such as art and music, worthy causes, my work, etc.?
In traditional Indian culture, where yoga philosophy developed, the four ashrams or stages in life lead to renunciation. Most of us in the West will ever remain in the second stage (grahasta), as householders. But just because we don’t intend to renounce our worldly attachments and become sannyasins doesn’t mean we can bypass raga/vairagya. Every day as a householder brings new opportunities for considering various aspects of attachment and non-attachment.
Even Nature can teach us about the art of letting go gracefully.
For instance, much of the conflict we experience in life—with others or within ourselves—arises from what Patanjali calls asmita. This word is often translated as “egoism,” another easily misunderstood concept. In terms of yoga, “ego” doesn’t refer to being prideful. Ego is simply the personality or shell that we’ve unconsciously crafted over a lifetime. Asmita is mis-identification with (and attachment to) this false sense of self. When this ego structure feels threatened, it tends to react in certain ways—anger, fear, retreat, stonewalling, etc. Conflict—inner or outer—is inevitable. Yoga practices lead us away from this false identity to the true self, a process of detaching that grants us healthy perspective. We become dispassionate observers, noticing what pushes our buttons and choosing our responses instead of reacting blindly.
Another flavor of attachment is abinivesha, usually translated as “clinging to life.” Recently, I’ve seen this as holding on to “the way things used to be” (even if “the good old days” never really were that great!). Resistance to change, fear of letting go or losing face, suspicion about people and places that are new or different—with these fear-based attachments we box ourselves in. Like asmita, abinevesha is another obstacle (klesha) to growth, and another area in which a householder can practice non-attachment.
We also cling to things—not only possessions but also information. I’m particularly guilty of the latter; my bookshelves are crammed with reference material, and I could happily spend years researching a book without finishing the writing. In the U.S., hoarding is a common enough cultural meme that entire television series focus on it. This form of attachment is one householders face in myriad ways, large and small. (Think of sorting through your junk mail or cleaning out the refrigerator as a yogic practice and it might not seem so trivial or tedious.) In fact, the opposite of hoarding—aparigraha or non-covetousness—is one of the five yamas, the ethical guidelines that mark the beginning of yoga’s eightfold path.
Next: The yoga of letting go