A new year brings a felt sense of a new beginning. As we turn the calendar page, we reflect on the past year—especially what didn’t go so well for us—and resolve to change our habits to make the year ahead happier and healthier. This often takes the shape of a New Year’s resolution where we either deprive ourselves of something (no more chips and cookies; no more staying up until midnight; no more binge-watching the next big series), or one where we promise to do something tangible (increasing our active in-zone minutes while exercising daily; eating primarily organic and local food; getting up by 6 a.m. to meditate). But many of us drop these resolutions after a few days or weeks, and find ourselves with the same problems as before—with the added baggage of self-condemnation when we drop our resolution. Then we give up in defeat, thinking, “My problems are bigger than me.”
Our problems are not bigger than us. We are bigger than our problems.
But the ancient wisdom of the Yoga Sutra tells us otherwise: Our problems are not bigger than us. We are bigger than our problems. What is more, yoga gives us the tools to work with ourselves on every level, so that we can actually experience ourselves as larger than our problems and not just understand it superficially. Experiential wisdom is the best way to make real, deep, and lasting changes. It is at the heart of yoga meditation.
The Art of Letting Go
Instead of adopting a new habit this year, try actively letting go of what does not serve you—what compromises your happiness and peace of mind in the form of certain attitudes, emotions, and reactions. This is the essence of vairagya as we learn in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1:15. Vairagya is often translated as non-attachment, but the etymological meaning of this word means to make our mind devoid (vi) of any coloring or smearing (raga).
Instead of seeing the beautiful landscape all around us, it is as though we are wearing dark, filmy glasses that distort our vision. These lenses are our long-term and deeply embedded habits (samskaras and vasanas) that make up our personality and drive our thoughts, words, and actions. More often than we’d like, the lenses through which we view the world are smeared with fear, anxiety, anger, irritability, uncertainty, and judgment of ourselves and others. These smearing agents color our interactions with family and friends, our work and hobbies, and even seep into our yoga and meditation practice. Left unchecked, these tendencies start to hijack our mind, our time, and our energy. So where do we begin to make changes?
Uncoupling our awareness from what limits and drains our mental energy, and recoupling our awareness to what nourishes and energizes us, is at the heart of yoga meditation. The first half of this—the uncoupling process—is vairagya. The Yoga Sutra gives us a road map of where to begin with vairagya and how to follow it through several stages of refinement, as our mind’s lens becomes less cloudy and we start to see our long-standing problems melt away. Here is a quick, practical guide for how to begin working with vairagya. (For a more thorough study, read Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra. And to start a complete, time-honored system of meditation from the ground up, read Pandit Tigunait’s Vishoka Meditation).
3 Steps to Start Practicing Vairagya
- First, resolve to do the work necessary to eliminate your long-standing holding patterns that keep your mind from being positive and joyful. This is the yatamana stage of vairagya: making an initial effort.
- Before or after your meditation, contemplate and journal about some of your day-to-day problems (bullet points are fine). Where does my mind get away from me? Where do I start to fall into the pit of negativity? What makes me stressed, agitated, or upset, and how can I reframe my reaction into something more positive? Write down a few of these. This is the vyatireka stage of vairagya: identifying and prioritizing our mental tendencies and holding patterns.
- Narrow down the few points of concern that you will start to address, and focus on one thing to work on first. As you look at your list from #2, notice how many of these problems that are seemingly coming from the outside are actually fueled by your attention and emotional reactions. Then acknowledge and begin to work with a few of the most pressing ones.
Disengage from what does not serve you, and make way for the light of wisdom to dawn.
As you cultivate the practice of active vairagya over time, the mind becomes clearer and negative samskaras from your initial area of focus will fall away, pulling negative samskaras from other areas of difficulty in its train like a magnet pulls filings. Then practice further refines into one single stream of focus that remains—one sense or stream of emotion that keeps capturing our mind and holding it hostage. This is ekendriya, and comes with time, self-honesty, and the subtle practice of continued work with active vairagya.
The Gifts of Active Vairagya
The process of letting go of what used to hold our attention, our time, and our energy in its grip is a much harder but much longer-lasting and rewarding practice than the quick fix of a New Year’s resolution. So this year, instead of a long list of resolutions that we may or not follow, let’s make a sankalpa (a higher, wisdom-driven intention) that we will start the process of active vairagya—disengaging from what does not serve us—in order to simplify and unsmear our mind and make way for the higher virtues (the light of wisdom, intuition, clarity) to dawn. We all hope for a better year, but also know that certain events are out of our direct control. Whether we meet with stormy or sunny days in the months ahead, this practice of active vairagya will continue to unfold, illuminating our mind and bringing inner strength and joy.