True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 22: Abhyasa and Vairagya – The Spirit of Practice and Dispassion

Previously we have discussed the details of the various postures known as the asanas, and the methods of pranayama, or breathing. We have seen the importance of these practices and their vital connection with the entire practice of yoga.

In the practice of yoga, there is no item that can be regarded as unimportant or even as less important than another in the particular place which it occupies. Even a peon in an office is an important person in his own place, and we cannot say that he is less important than others. This comparison of one thing with another is always odious. The ethical and moral disciplines, the physical and physiological techniques, and the breathing processes are all methods of inner education for the complete mastery which one has to achieve, and this mastery is yoga.

As we proceed further and further, we seem to be entering into newer and newer and stranger and stranger lands, perspectives and vistas—unknown and unthinkable before, and more inclusive than what was seen earlier. The higher stages may look frightening when we are in a lower stage and are not yet ready for the next step. Nothing is frightening in this world unless, of course, we make a wrong comparison of one thing with another. Therefore, the advice in yoga is that no step should be taken for which we are not entirely prepared in our whole being. One may be intellectually prepared but morally and emotionally unprepared; that is a disqualification. One may be emotionally ready but intellectually turbid; again, that is a disqualification. It is necessary that our feelings, emotions, and moral nature should go hand in hand with our understanding or intellectual appreciation.

Most people in the world are one-sided in their personality. Either they are too sentimental, emotional or traditional, trying to tread the beaten path already laid before them, or they are ultra-rationalistic, the so-called scientific minds, with not even the least touch of feeling or emotion. Our personality is neither wholly rationalistic nor entirely affective or emotional; it is a combination of both. It is a false distinction that we draw between understanding and feeling that makes us imperfect personalities. Which part of our body is unimportant, non-essential? Likewise, which aspect of the psychological function can be regarded as non-essential? The feeling or the emotion is the motive power for every action—the dynamo that supplies the power—and the intellect is the channel through which this power is directed in a requisite manner, so we cannot say that any one aspect is less important or more important.

The common mistake that we can make in the practice of yoga is that we are lopsided in our approach, because lopsidedness is ingrained in our personality. We do not take a whole view of things at any time; we cannot do that, due to a peculiar weakness of our own minds. This weakness of the mind by which we take a lopsided view of things is due to laying too much stress on sensory activity. As we observed, we are too much a slave of the senses, and the senses are never complete or totally focused in any direction; they are one-sided. When the eyes are active, the ears do not function. When the ears are active, the eyes do not function, and so on. It is very difficult to find an occasion when all the five senses are alert and concentrated; and inasmuch as the mind and the intellect are wedded to the senses almost entirely, it is seen that our approach to things is one-sided in the sense that we move along the lines of the reports supplied to us through the senses. The system of yoga lays down a kind of discipline that compels us to take a total view of things—not only of ourselves as individuals or personalities, but also of things outside with which we are apparently connected.

Yoga is the rise of the whole towards a larger whole. Pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidam, says the Upanishad. Everywhere there is a sense of fullness. Even an atom is a completeness by itself; it is not a part of anything. We may say an atom is a part of a molecule, but that is only a way of expression. An atom, by itself, is complete, self-sufficient—like a solar system. Everything, even a cell in the body, is self-complete, though many cells make up the larger body. Similarly, every stage in yoga is a complete step, a full-fledged activity of the mind in that particular stage or level.

Hence, the first and foremost precaution that we have to take here is to see that our understanding and emotion do not move in different directions. Sometimes they even move in opposite directions, which should not be the case. While the intellect may be vehemently denying something on a scientific basis, the emotion may be affirming the very same thing, contradicting what the intellect is asserting. Many students of yoga are sufficiently prepared intellectually but are not prepared emotionally and, therefore, they have little success. The emotions are driven towards things which the intellect vehemently denies in its own way, and it is no use when the intellect works in one manner and the emotion works in another manner.

How are we to find out if our understanding and feeling go together? This is a great and difficult task before us, because many of us are incapable of making a subtle analysis of our nature. We are born idlers, psychologically speaking. We are idle, and therefore, we cannot exert our minds. We are prone to doing the least action in the least time possible. We do not want to exert because exertion or effort is always regarded as a kind of pain. This is a kind of tradition into which we have been born. But, there is no use merely moving in a slipshod manner when the matter is very serious. It is very serious indeed because this is the battle of life, and we know how serious a battle is. If a person is half-sleepy and unintelligent, incapable of judging things properly, what good will it do for the army if he is made a general or a commander-in-chief? The battle inwardly fought is more serious than all the battles in the world throughout history.

Towards the end of the Mahabharata there is an incident where Yudhishthira, the Pandava king, having won victory in the Mahabharata war and having been crowned emperor with all glory, pomp and éclat, started crying and weeping. Why was he crying? He was responsible for the whole war—in one sense, at least—and through the thick of the battle he had moved with his brothers and his army, and won the war with great difficulty. Everyone regarded it as a righteous war. It was not unrighteous; otherwise, there would be no point in struggling so much. Now he had been crowned king, the whole country was so joyous and jubilant over this happy event, and this man was crying! What had happened to him?

Sri Krishna, who was sitting near him, asked, “Why are you crying?”

The weeping Yudhishthira replied, “What is the good of all these things that I have now? I have killed all my brethren, and I have a blood-stained kingdom. All my kith and kin, my dear ones, have gone. My grandfather and my Guru are no more. What for is this kingdom? Why have I come here? And why am I here as a king?”

Then Sri Krishna turned to Yudhishthira and said, “My dear friend, I am very sorry for your state of mind. You are under the impression that you have fought a battle, engaged yourself in a very vehement war and killed many people; but you have not fought any battle or won any victory. The battle is still to be fought and the victory is still to be won because now a battle is going on in your own mind, and that is indeed a more serious battle compared to the outer battle that you apparently fought, for which you are crying. Neither have you destroyed your enemies, nor have you won victory. Your enemies are still inside you, and victory has not yet been won. You are weeping because your enemies are working inside you.”

The yogi takes, therefore, a very serious view of everything. There is nothing simple, unimportant or insignificant which the yogi can take as a sort of diversion or hobby. There is no diversion for the yogi, and he has no hobby. Whatever he does is a very serious thing indeed. Even if it is an act of sweeping the floor, it is not a joke for him, because every thought and every action are vitally connected with what he is.

There are many secrets which are not open to our minds. Only yesterday while reading a book I came across a very interesting passage, which made me smile. It was a passage from Rousseau, the great thinker: “Why are you searching for the cause of evil? You are he.” And the sentence goes on: “You are responsible not only for the evil that you have done and are doing, but also for the evil that you are suffering from.” This is something horrible. We are also responsible for the evils we are suffering from, not merely for what we are doing. Yes. Rousseau opened up a psychological Pandora’s box when he made this statement, because we are very cosy under our blankets of comfortable thinking, due to which we think that the sufferings that we are undergoing are not our own making, that they are thrust upon us by others. We think, “Somebody is stupid; therefore, I am suffering.” This is not true. No stupid man can cause suffering to us unless we are equally stupid, because the world is made up of such stuff as cannot brook violation of the principles of law even in the least degree. Experience is the essence of this law which works in the universe, and no experience will come to us, impinge upon us or become our own unless we have a part to play in the drama of that experience.

This is the reason why the yogi takes everything very seriously and never complains about circumstances, conditions, persons, things, and so on, outside him, because for him there is no such thing as ‘outside’. He is in a very tremendous expanded atmosphere where everything seems to be connected with him, and with this attitude it is that he takes to a persistent practice of the higher stages of yoga, which come after the necessary mastery of oneself through asana and systematised breathing.

These stages cannot be compartmentalised because it is not that one thing comes after another, as if one thing is disconnected from the other. We cannot say which stage ends where, and which stage begins where. There is an interconnection of one with the other. It does not mean that for some years we practise yama, then after some years niyama, and then after some years asana, pranayama, etc. It is not like that. They are all intermingled, like the working of the physiological system in our body. We cannot say which works first and which works afterwards. The alimentary canal, the respiratory system, the circulatory system, the heart and the head are all working simultaneously, though they are apparently different from one another. We cannot say the head thinks first and the heart comes afterwards. Everything is always. Similarly, the stages of yoga are stages only for the purpose of logical distinction, and they are not a chronological order that is laid before us. With this grounding, the yogi takes up the task of what he has to do next.

It was told that the yogi has to control the mind, which is what we have been discussing. He has to subdue the vrittis, the modifications of the mind. How is this done? We also found out that this is a difficult job, because the vrittis get identified with ourselves and we are the ones with the vrittis, and this posed a great problem indeed before us. But, the recipe given to us by Sage Patanjali is that though it looks formidable in the beginning, it becomes easy by constant practice. Even such a simple act as walking was a very difficult thing when we were babies, and we fell down many times and injured our knees; but now we can run, take part in a race, and not even be conscious that we have legs when we are running, while in earlier days we were very conscious of our legs and fell down. Practice makes perfect.

A repeated assertion of a chosen technique is called for. The control of the mind is effected by a spirit of renunciation and a tenacity of practice, says Patanjali: abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ (Y.S. 1.12). The nirodha, or the discipline or inhibition of the modifications of the mind, is effected by two consistent efforts: the spirit of dispassion, and persistent practice. The effort of the mind to repeatedly think the same thing again and again, and not allow itself to think anything other than what it has chosen for its ideal, may be regarded as practice for the purpose of yoga.

A deep, whole-souled concentration or absorption of the mind on a given subject, object or concept works wonders. It brings about a miracle by itself. The mind is connected to objects; we have already seen this through our analysis. There is no object anywhere in this world which is not connected with the mind of the individual who thinks it. Hence, repeated thought of a particular object—here, the chosen one for the purpose of yoga—stirs up those capacities and powers within us which bring the object or the ideal in proximity to us by abolishing the distinction between the subject and the object that is brought about by the factors of space and time. A thing that is far off, in the distant stars, is impossible of achievement or acquisition, ordinarily speaking. This is why we cannot easily acquire the distant stars or even something that is on a different continent. It is so far from us; it is ten thousand miles away. How we can get it, is a difficulty. But there is no ten thousand miles for the mind, because the mind can overcome the barrier of space and time; and by repeated concentration on what it wishes to achieve, acquire, possess or experience, it can materialise that object at the spot where the yogi is seated. This gives an idea of the nature of the practice and its consequences.

Everything in the world is, generally speaking, everywhere. The world is not in dearth of things; it is never poor. Its resources are illimitable, and so anything can be materialised at any time. But this materialisation will take place only if the mind is non-spatially connected with the object it seeks. What makes it difficult for us to achieve anything, possess anything or experience anything directly is the spatial distance between us and the object. We have to abolish this spatial distinction, and this is the purpose of the practice.

But, simultaneously, Patanjali says that this kind of effort at abolishing spatial distance between us and the object is impossible unless we have another qualification, called vairagya. Vairagya does not mean putting on a single cloth. It means a spirit of understanding the true nature of things, on account of which the mind ceases from attaching itself to particular things of the world, knowing very well that every particular object in the world is included in that which it seeks. That which the yogi seeks is so large and universal in its compass that the little things of the world to which the mind is usually attached are in it in a transmuted form. When this knowledge arises, when there is this discrimination—this ability to correctly understand the relationship of any particular object in the world with that which one is seeking in yoga—there is automatic dispassion. The absence of passion is dispassion; the absence of raga is viraga. The condition of viraga is vairagya. Vairagya and abhyasa should go together.

But vairagya is the most difficult thing to understand. It is one of the things which will not enter our heads easily, and it is one of those things which we very much misinterpret, misconstrue, and mispractise. We may be very seriously attached inwardly, but we may be glorious renunciates outside—again, due to the fact that the understanding is not going hand in hand with the emotion or the feeling. The reason why we cannot be inwardly detached is because our understanding is not friendly with our feelings. Whatever be our reason, the emotion cares not for it—because, as a great man said, “The heart has a reason which reason does not know.” The heart has its own reasons. The heart says, “Why do you want your own reasons? Throw them aside. I don’t want your rationality. Kick it out.” If this is the condition, the emotions will refute all the assertions of understanding. Intellectual vairagya is no vairagya, because the feeling of detachment is more an emotional condition which touches the vital being in us rather than merely an outward activity of logical judgment.

The condition of vairagya is generally defined as ‘not to need an object’. We should not be in need of that object. Not that we cannot get it, or we are exerting not to think about it, and so on—that is not the case. We have no necessity for it.

We have no necessity for it because of various reasons. One reason is that the object is an illusion, like water in a mirage. It does not exist and, therefore, it is meaningless to desire it. Why do we crave for water in a mirage? Or if we try to strike an arrow through a rainbow, we will not be able to do it because the rainbow is not really there. It is only an optical illusion. So, when we realise that the thing is itself not there and we are under a misconception about it, and we are very thoroughly convinced about this, then, of course, we will not get attached to it. One of the ways there can be detachment from objects is that we know they are an illusion, like the motion-picture shows in a theatre. We are not attached to the pictures that are seen on the screen because we know they are not there, that they are only shadows that are cast on the screen. But if we are not able to realise that the pictures are an illusion, then the emotion will run towards them.

While the discovery of the illusory character of an object may be a factor in stirring a spirit of detachment within us, the spirit of detachment can also come by knowing that what we already have includes the object towards which the senses are moving. If we have a million dollars, one dollar is already included in it, and we need not run after one dollar, because we already have a million. That is one way. Or we can think that it is not a dollar at all, that it is only a deceptive picture that is kept before us. Then also the mind will not go there.

How are we to practise vairagya? Very difficult is this demand of the Yoga System. And because of the difficulty of this aspect of yoga, the other aspect, namely practice, also becomes difficult because they go together, like two wings of a bird. The bird of yoga flies with the two wings of abhyasa and vairagya, and if one wing is off, how will it fly with the other wing? There is no vairagya without abhyasa, and no abhyasa without vairagya—practice and dispassion. This is also emphasised in the Sixth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. “How can this turbulent mind be controlled? Is it possible at all?” asks Arjuna. Abhyāsena tu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate (Gita 6.35), replies Bhagavan Sri Krishna: “Yes, it is possible by abhyasa and vairagya.”

Therefore, we have to walk with two legs, as it were. We cannot walk merely with one leg. These two legs with which we walk the path of yoga are abhyasa and vairagya. In the system of Patanjali this is sometimes regarded as the whole of yoga, and if we are well established in this double attitude of the consciousness of abhyasa and vairagya, we are already rooted in yoga.