“Last night I lost the world, and gained the universe.” C. JoyBell C.
Lately my awareness has been heightened around the many levels of tightness and tension we hold onto in our bodies, minds, hearts, and energy fields. Through on-the-mat and off-the-mat yoga we are called to soften, melt, and liberate ourselves in deeper and broader ways. Life offers us the compelling invitation to let go, to consider the relationship between detachment and freedom.
Detachment involves a deep of paradox. It’s true that those without a lot of clutter in their lives have more time for inner practice. But in the long run, disengaging ourselves from family, possessions, political activism, friendships, and career pursuits can actually impoverish our inner lives. Engagement with people and places, skills and ideas, money and possessions is what grounds inner practice in reality. Without these external relationships, and the pressure they create, it’s hard to learn compassion; to whittle away at anger, pride, and hardness of heart; to put spiritual insights into action.
So we can’t use detachment as an excuse not to deal with fundamental issues such as livelihood, power, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. (Well, we can, but eventually those issues will rise up and smack us in the face, like an insulted ingenue in a 1950s movie.) Nor can we make detachment a synonym for indifference, or carelessness, or passivity. Instead, we can practice detachment as a skill—perhaps the essential skill for infusing our lives with integrity and grace.
The Bhagavad Gita, which is surely the basic text on the practice of detachment, is wonderfully explicit on this point. Krishna tells Arjuna that acting with detachment means doing the right thing for its own sake, because it needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure. (T.S. Eliot paraphrased Krishna’s advice when he wrote, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”)
At the same time, Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna not to cop out of doing his best in the role his destiny demands of him. In a sense, the Bhagavad Gita is one long teaching on how to act with maximum grace while under maximum pressure. The Gita actually addresses many of the questions that we have about detachment—pointing out, for instance, that we are really supposed to give up not our families or our capacity for enjoyment but our tendency to identify with our bodies and personalities instead of with pure, deathless Awareness.
Detachment, Step by Step
When things are going well for us, when we feel strong and positive, when we’re healthy and full of inspiration, when we’re in love, it’s easy to wonder why the yogic texts carry on so much about detachment. When we’re faced with loss, grief, or failure, it looks much more appealing—our practice in detachment becomes a lifeline that can move us out of acute suffering into something close to peace.
Yet we can’t leapfrog into detachment. That’s why the Bhagavad Gita recommends developing our detachment muscles by working them day by day, starting with the small stuff. Detachment takes practice, and it reveals itself in stages.
Stage One: Acknowledgment
When we’re dealing with a major loss or strong attachment, we always need to begin by acknowledging and working with our feelings. These feelings are the stickiest aspects of attachment: the excited desire we feel when we want something, the anxiety we feel about losing it, and the sense of hopelessness that can arise when we fail to achieve it.
Acknowledgment doesn’t just mean recognizing that you want something badly or that you’re feeling loss. When you want something, feel how you want it—find the wanting feeling in your body. When you’re feeling cocky about a victory, be with the part of yourself that wants to beat your chest and say, “Me, me, me!” Rather than pushing away the anxiety and fear of losing what you care about, let it come up and breathe into it. And when you’re experiencing the hopelessness of actual loss, allow it in. Let yourself cry.
Stage Two: Self-Inquiry
Once you’ve felt your feelings, you’ll need to process them through self-inquiry. To do this, start by probing the feeling space that the desire or grief or hopelessness brings up in your consciousness, perhaps naming it to yourself, and gradually breathing out the content, the story line. (It sometimes helps to talk to yourself for a while beforehand, to take care of the part of you that needs comforting. Remind yourself that you do have resources, recall helpful teachings, pray for help and guidance, or simply say, “May I be healed,” with each exhalation.)
To begin the self-inquiry part of the process, bring yourself into contact with your inner witness. Then explore the energy in the feelings. As you go deeper into this energy, its knotty, sticky quality will start to dissolve—for the time being. In any process for working with feelings, it’s important to find a way to explore your feelings that allows you both to be present with them and to stand a little aside from them.
Stage Three: Processing
In the third stage of detachment, you begin to become aware of what has been useful in the journey you’ve just taken, in the task or relationship or life stage you’re working with, regardless of how it all turned out. The mother who came back after her son’s birthday and thought, “At least I saw him,” was experiencing one version of that recognition. Many of us reach the third stage of detachment when we realize that we have actually gained something, even if it’s just a lesson in what not to do.
A young scientist I know spent two years on a career-defining study and was nearing a breakthrough when he picked up a journal one day and found that someone else had gotten there before him. He was devastated and lost his enthusiasm for his work. “My mind kept coming up with hopeless thoughts,” he told me. “I’d find myself thinking, ‘You’re just unlucky; the gods of science won’t ever let you succeed.’ I didn’t even want to go to the lab.”
He learned to move through his hopelessness using a combination of tactics: mindfulness (“It’s just a thought”), talking back to it (“Things will get better!”), and prayer. He told me he knew he’d begun to detach (the word he used, actually, was heal) when he realized how much he’d learned from the research he’d done, and how it would come in handy later.
Stage Four: Creative Action
The scientist will have reached the fourth stage of detachment when he’s able to start something new with real enthusiasm for the doing of it, rather than out of the need to prove something.
Loss or desire can paralyze us, so that we find ourselves without the will to act or else acting in meaningless, ineffective ways. One of the reasons we take time to process is so that when we do act, we’re not paralyzed by fear or driven by the frantic need to do something (anything!) to convince ourselves we have some degree of control. In the early stages of loss, or in the grip of strong desire, it is sometimes better just to do the minimum for basic survival. As you move forward in the processing, however, ideas and plans will start to bubble up inside you, and you’ll feel actual interest in doing them. This is when you can take creative action.
Stage Five: Freedom
You’ve reached this stage when thinking about your loss (or the thing you desire) doesn’t interfere with your normal feelings of well-being. Desire, fear, and hopelessness are deeply embedded in our psyches, and we feel their pull whenever any remnant of attachment exists. We know that we’ve begun to achieve real detachment in a situation when we can contemplate what’s occurring without immediately getting blindsided by these feelings.
The fifth stage is a state of true liberation, which the sage Abhinavagupta describes as the feeling of putting down a heavy burden. It’s no small thing. Every time we free ourselves from one of those sticky feelings, we unlock another link in what the yogic texts call the chain of bondage.
Detachment as Offering
Whether we’re doing it daily or as a way of dealing with a big bump in our road, practicing detachment is easier if we do it with a soft attitude. I have a huge amount of respect for the Zen warrior approach to the inner life, the one in which you heroically renounce your weaknesses and tough out the hard stuff, perhaps using your sense of humour to give you the power to move forward. But when I try to detach in that way, it seems to lead to a kind of emotional deep freeze.
So instead, the way I ease myself toward detachment is to practice offering. I connect myself to the inner Presence (the Vedantic texts call it Being/Awareness/Bliss), and then I offer up whatever it is that I’m doing, whatever I’m intending or wanting, or whatever I’m trying to get free of. That’s the time-honoured method set forth in the Bhagavad Gita: Offer the fruits of your labour to God.
Every spiritual tradition includes some form of offering (and some form of God), but for detachment practice, the two most powerful ways to offer are to dedicate your actions and to turn over your fears, desires, doubts, and obstructions to the one Consciousness. Offering our actions helps train us to do things not for any particular gain or personal purpose but simply as an act of praise or gratitude, or as a way of joining our consciousness to the greater Consciousness. Offering our desires, fears, and doubts loosens the hold they have on us, reminding us to trust in the Presence—the source of both our longings and their fulfilment.
When we begin to let go, it’s as if everything begins to break down. All our concepts and beliefs that we use to use to define ourselves by slowly begin to dissolve until they are no longer there. Our expectations fade and our awareness expands until reality becomes something very subjective and impermanent. We begin to realize that every individual is uniquely special and on their own path. Then, we are able to release the need to control other people, we are able to take responsibility for ourselves and begin to live more deeply from our own truth—knowing everyone we meet and every situation we encounter is, most likely, just another lesson in letting go.
So, next time you practice yoga, instead of thinking about it, talking about or analyzing it, try just being it.
Practice of Karmasa – Do your best without get attached to the result, without wanting the fruits of the actions – BE THERE HERE AND NOW – DON’T FORCE – JUST DO YOUR BEST – THEN LET IT GO – DON’T GET ATTACHED AND DESTINITY WILL APPEARS TO YOU
Mantra is one for letting go. “I release all that no longer serves me. I am safe. All is well.”