Vairagya: Reactionless Awareness and the Yoga-Sutra

June 13, 2010 By: Michael E. Crowley Category: Mind Body Spirit, Yoga

Patanjali as an incarnation of Adi SeshaI started reading The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali as translated by Chip Hartranft this week on the advice of a friend.  I like to start from the ground up when I learn things and The Yoga-Sutra is the root of the tree as far as yoga goes, I’m told, so I’ve been keen to get my hands on a copy.

I haven’t been disappointed, even though I’ve only gotten through Mr. Hartranft’s Introduction and the first section, “Integration.”  I did have a moment at first when, after I took a good long look at what the book covered and its emphasis on consistent internal discipline and meditation and conscious effort, when I thought to myself, “I want to run with scissors instead.”  The end goals of an enlightened attitude and transformed consciousness just seemed impossibly abstract, and unconnected with anything that I had experienced up to that point in my life.

I ended up re-reading the first section several times before I began to see the real merit of it.

Vairagya: Reactionless Awareness

I posed a question in a post before my trip to Chicago last month: “What if having a hard time holding a certain pose, or sustaining my focus, was just an observable fact that could be recorded, understood, and then dealt with by continued, mindful effort over time, rather than being a reflection of my personal worth?”

It turns out I was unwittingly describing the precept of vairagya, defined in Mr. Hartranft’s translation as “the willingness to let a phenomenon arise without reacting to it.” Patanjali makes the point that our reactions to events rise out of learned responses to experiences, like my reaction to a life of meditation and discipline and mindfulness.  I learned, somewhere in childhood, that no one who does anything disciplined has any fun, has any friends, and never gets to play.

This is, of course, not true but then I’ve had some intervening decades in which to rethink the whole concept of reward vs. effort.  And, I’ve realized that I haven’t learned helpful lessons from some of my experiences, so there is validity to the idea that learning to let go of a preconditioned response “reveals the newness and originality of the unfolding moment”, to quote Patañjali.

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