The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.
As an atheist, I struggle with this idea of “the soul”, but can find meaning if I substitute “the self” or “ultimate reality”, but perhaps this is straying too far from what Patanjali intended. Other interpretations use “supreme consciousness” or self.
Iyengar lists five stages of detachment:
1. Disengaging the senses from action
2. Keeping away from desire
3. Stilling the mind
4. Mastery of desire
5. Supreme detachment
The qualities referred to here are the gunas: sattva (luminosity or serenity), rajas (vibrance) and tamas (inertia or dormancy). Hopefully we will return to these gunas again, as I feel I do not understand them completely at present.
Iyengar describes the practice of yoga (in the wider sense, rather than just asana) as the impetus for climbing the ladder to enlightenment or samadhi. By practising detachment we can pull the ladder up behind us.
For iyengar, practising yoga can help us to free ourselves from the trappings of consciousness. I might go even further and add that we would also seek to be free from the unconscious. In psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious mind is the cause of much suffering, whether from childhood trauma or just past experience. The goal of psychoanalysis is to bring the unconscious to the fore, to see what is there, thereby freeing the mind of those forces which cause suffering. Another way of doing this is through meditation – noticing those “negative automatic thoughts” (in CBT lingo) and just letting then be, observing our reaction to them without judgement. So the yoga sutras predict the whole Western psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic tradition!
Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires
Being detached from one’s desires is seen as a sort of freedom, rather than some sort of hardship. Iyengar says that the only way to achieve this is through willpower.
The goal is indifference, and i suppose that means also indifference to the practice itself. This reminds me of Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind stating that meditation practice should be “nothing special”. It is easy to practice when it goes well, when we achieve that asana or our mind is still during meditation. But it is easy to get discouraged when we are stiff or our mind is noisy. Being indifferent doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy things. It’s Ok to enjoy the practice, notice that enjoyment, but do not expect it every time, or make that enjoyment the goal of practice. Similarly, it’s Ok to enjoy spending time with your children, but the enjoyment should not be the goal of that interaction, nor should we expect it every time. I find this quite a liberating concept.
The sutra does not explore from what things we should detach ourselves. I suspect it is detachment from everything that we should aspire to, even the practice itself. This is not easy, but perhaps the first step is to notice when we feel attachment to something. Try this in the course of your day – next time you want a chocolate or your child to be better behaved or to have a ‘good’ meditation session (whatever that is) just step back and think “attachment is here”. Surely the first step to detachment is awareness of attachment.
1.12 Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness [Iyengar]
These thought patterns are mastered through practice and non-attachment
This sutra is a key one, as it outlines the two things upon which the whole of yogic practice rests: practice and detachment. The thought patterns referred to are from 1.6:
- correct knowledge / perception
- incorrect knowledge / perception
- imagination / fantasy / daydreams
So these five fluctuations in our minds can be stilled or quietened through practice and detachment. Iyengar describes these two aspects as being polarised – practice is the positive aspect (what you do), detachment is the negative (what you don’t do), together forming a perfect balance. If we still the mind, we can see and understand things as they really are. As we will go on to see, the yamas are the detachments (e.g. from stealing, from lying, from violence), and the niyamas are the practices (e.g. contentment, cleanliness, self study), along with asana, pranayama and meditation.