Q: I have been practicing yoga for more than 10 years. I have been trying to practice non-attachment and stay balanced in all circumstances, but in spite of my best efforts, there is one situation that always causes me to lose my balance (and my temper). This is so discouraging that I find myself wondering if I have what it takes to succeed on this path.

A: There is no reason to be discouraged. Even though it may not seem like it, you are well on your way to reaching your goal. What you need is a broader perspective. In the yoga tradition, the process of non-attachment (lower vairagya) unfolds in four distinct stages. It is a process of freeing the mind from negative habits, which is what you are doing. The four stages of lower vairagya culminate in higher vairagya, the state of consciousness in which we are fully established in our core being.

Non-attachment is a process of freeing the mind from negative habits.

The first stage in the process of cultivating non-attachment is yatamana, “the process or force behind making an effort.” In this stage, we acknowledge we have problems and make an effort to overcome them. We recognize we have fallen into some bad habits, so we try to figure out where we get stuck. For example, you make friends quickly and build expectations around them just as quickly. When your expectations are not met, you brood. That is a problem and you know it. In addition, you stay up so late that it is difficult to get up in time to do your practice. Plus you check email, Instagram, and Twitter dozens of times a day. And so on. Make a list of such things. That is yatamana. You are in the process of making an effort to know your problems and gathering your strength to free yourself from them.

You have a limited pool of time and energy, however. You can work on this problem or that one, but you cannot work on everything at once. While trying to deal with your smoking habit, for example, you are also trying to eliminate your habit of overeating and your habit of consuming too much sugar. At the same time, you have some less concrete problems—being tossed by unpleasant emotions, for example. Because it is impossible to deal with all your problems at once, select a few to focus on. This is the second stage of vairagya, called vyatireka, “isolating one from another.”

The remedy is to look back and see how far you have already come.

So out of the 10 or 20 problems you discovered in the first stage, here in the second stage you isolate a few and work on those. You decide some of the problems are relatively trivial and can be left as they are for a while, but others are quite serious. They are having a more damaging effect on you than a bit of extra ice cream or wasting time scrolling through Instagram. You pick a few of these more troubling problems, isolate them from the rest, and work on those. This gives you a sense of satisfaction and fills you with a sense of self-worth, because you have made a decision to put yourself on the right track.

Then you realize that one problem is especially obnoxious and flares up as if it has a life of its own. This is the stage at which you find yourself now. It is the third stage, called ekendriya (eka means “one”; indriya means “sense”). This problem pertains to one of your senses—tasting or touching, for example—or to your thought processes.

Many people become so disappointed in themselves at this stage that they lose their way. If you do not know that this is a natural phenomenon that happens to everyone on the path of the inner quest, you may become frustrated and quit.

The remedy is to look back and see how far you have already come. In the beginning you had 20 problems, for example, and 15 of them have vanished; 5 remain and you are dealing successfully with 4 of those. Only one seems to be stronger than your current level of will power, trust in yourself, and trust in providence. Instead of giving in to discouragement, remind yourself that you have already completed 50 percent of your journey and are now somewhere between 50 and 75 percent. That is a considerable achievement. By applying your power of determination, you will pull yourself out of your current difficulties. Use your wisdom and trust divine providence.

As you continue walking on the path you will arrive at the fourth stage of lower vairagya, called vashikara. Vashikara refers to the ability of the mind to stay under control. At this stage, your knowledge pertaining to yourself and your understanding pertaining to the world around you is so clear that you are unaffected by the best of the best and the worst of the worst. With faith, persistence, and patience, you will achieve this lofty degree of mental clarity and attain the balance you are seeking.

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A