True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 22: Abhyasa and Vairagya – Practice and Dispassion

The details of the various postures known as the asanas, and the methods of pranayama, or breathing, are all familiar to you, so I do not propose to dilate upon this subject too much. The importance of these practices has been seen, and its vital connection with the entire practice of yoga is also appreciated in its proper place.

In the practice of yoga, there is no item that can be regarded as unimportant or even as less important than another when we come to that particular place which it occupies. Even a peon in the office is an important person in his own place. We cannot call him a less important person. This comparison of one thing with another is always odious. The ethical and moral disciplines, the physical and physiological techniques, the breathing processes, are all methods of inner education for the purpose of 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 before, unthinkable before, and more inclusive than what was seen before. 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 bad comparison of one thing with the other. Therefore, the advice in yoga is that no step should be taken for which we are not prepared entirely, 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, the moral nature, should go hand-in-hand with the understanding or intellectual appreciation.

Most people in the world are one-sided in their personalities. Either they are too sentimental, emotional, 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. It is the dynamo that supplies the power, and the intellect is the channel through which this power is directed in a requisite manner. We cannot say that any one aspect is less important or more important.

The common mistake that we can all make in the practice of yoga is that we are lopsided in our approaches, because lopsidedness is ingrained in our personality. We never 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 of a slave of the senses, and the senses are never complete or totally directed in a focused manner in any direction; they are one-sided. When the eyes are active, the ears will not function. When the ears are active, the eyes will 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.

It is the rise of the whole towards a larger whole. Purnamadah purnamidam, 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 the atom is a part of a molecule, but that is only a way of expression. The 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 a larger body. Every stage in yoga is a complete step, a full-fledged activity of the mind in that particular stage or level.

So, the first and foremost of precautions that we have to take here is 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 denying something vehemently on a scientific basis, the emotion may be affirming the very same thing, contradicting what the intellect is asserting, and so on. Many of the students of yoga are sufficiently prepared intellectually but are not prepared emotionally and, therefore, there is not much success. The emotions are driven towards things which the intellect vehemently denies in its own way, and there is no use when the intellect works in one manner and the emotion works in another manner.

How are we to discover or 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 where the matter is very serious. It is very serious indeed because this is the fight of 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 to the army if he is made a general or a commander-in-chief? The battle inwardly fought is more serious than all the battles that history might have seen in the world.

In the Mahabharata, towards the end, there is an incident where the Pandava king Yudhishthira, having won victory in the Mahabharata war and having been crowned emperor with all glory, pomp and ├ęclat, starts 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 through his brothers with his army, and won the war with great difficulty. Everyone regarded it as a righteous war. It was not unrighteous; otherwise, there was 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 was sitting near him. He asked, "What are you crying for?" "Oh! 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, my Guru, are no more. What for is this kingdom? Why have I come here? And why am I here as a king?" He was weeping. 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 do you know that 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 enemies, nor have you won victory. Your enemies are still inside you, and victory has not yet been won; that is why you are weeping. Your enemies are working inside." Then the discourse goes on in some other direction.

The yogi takes, therefore, a very serious notion of everything. There is nothing simple, unimportant or insignificant which the yogi can take as a sort of diversion or a 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 is vitally connected with what we are.

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. He 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. "Somebody is stupid, and 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 that drama of experience.

This is the reason why the yogi takes everything very seriously and never complains of circumstances, conditions, persons, things, etc., 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 practice yama, and after some years niyama, 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, the head are all working simultaneously, though they are apparently different from one another. We cannot say the head thinks first and the heart is 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 ones with the vrittis, and this posed before us a great problem, indeed. 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 tenacity of practice, says Patanjali: abhyasa vairagyabham tannirodhah. The nirodha, or the discipline or inhibition of the modification 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 else 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, an object, or a concept, works a wonder. It brings about a miracle by itself. The mind is connected to objects; we have seen this already by some sort of an 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 a thing that is on a different continent. It is so far from us; it is ten thousand miles. 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 is to give you 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 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 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 understand correctly the relationship of any particular object in the world to 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 mispractice. 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 a hoot 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.

'Not to need an object' is generally defined as the condition of vairagya. 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 it 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 the 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 there really. It is only an illusion, 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 it, then, of course, we will not get attached to it. That is one of the reasons why there can be detachment from objects: when we know that it is an illusion, like the picture in a cinema. We are not attached to the treasure that is seen on the screen, because we know it is not there, that it is only a shadow that is cast on the wall or the canvas. But suppose we are not able to realise that it is an illusion, then the emotion will run towards it.

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, “What I have with me already includes the object towards which the senses are moving.” If I have hundred million dollars, one dollar is already included in it, and I need not run after one dollar, because I have hundred million. That is one way. Or, “It is not a dollar at all, it is only a deceptive picture that is kept before me.” Then also the mind will not go there.

How are we to practice 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 yoga bird 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: abhyasena tu kaunteya vairagyena ca grhyate (Gita 6.35), says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. "How this turbulent mind can be controlled?" asks Arjuna, "Is it possible at all?" "Yes, it is possible by abhyasa and vairagya."

Therefore, we have to walk with two legs, as it were. We cannot walk with one leg merely. 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.