Abhyasa and Vairagya

Freedom without discipline is no freedom at all because the mind pulls us in a thousand directions. Without an anchor, the mind wanders. A human being has an average of 6000 thoughts a day, most of which are the same as the day before. To be disciplined means to be a disciple. Which means keeping the mind free from its own inherent ability to remain in ignorance and to be free from its ability to suffer. This means to live in observation, sensitivity and quietness. This makes us open to learning. Not learning this or that, but learning about the self and all its myriad forms.

Like so many things in this world, discipline is highly misunderstood. Discipline is not mindless repetition. Repetition means habit, and discipline is not the cultivation of a habit. At the moment when the inner eye (or what we usually call awareness) is awake, habit is not present, at least at that very moment of awareness and attention. Where there is awareness, there is no place for habit. And if there is awareness, even if the mind is wandering, there is no attachment to this inner impulsive movement. That is, the movement creates no cyclic ripples in the surface of the consciousness, and so, the contents of the “lake” can still be seen. In the asanas, there are actions to be attended to. Actions involve drawing of the senses, to use them for inner work. And with each action is a sensation, which leads to perception. All this can be expressed in words, but real understanding comes only through practice, and no amount of verbal logical discussion can really bring about this inner experience. And what is more important is that, it is not that once such an experience has been had, the journey ends. To the contrary, the inner sensations and perceptions keep expanding the understanding of consciousness, only leading towards “no end”. Just as the outer space keeps on expanding, inner space too is limitless and goes on giving. Action is linked to respiration and sensation to circulation of blood and oxygen. When respiration and circulation function harmoniously, the inner eye then begins to perceive. We exhale and act with a surrender, then the experience follows. We don’t know what that experience is going to be, but it is always new, always fresh and vibrant. There is an experience of lightness and compactness at the same time. The mind does not wander at all. This non-wandering stable mind, Patanjali calls Samadhi.

In the yoga sutras Patanjali uses the word Abhyasa defining it as the effort made to bring steadiness in the consciousness. The effort towards inner stability is the first step. 

तत्र स्थितौ यत्नोऽभ्यासः ॥१३॥

tatra sthithau yatnaḥ abhyāsaḥ ||1.13||

Practice is the effort to stabilise the mind.

Sages and seers have often used the metaphor of a lake. When there are no ripples on the surface of the lake, the lake reflects both its contents and its surroundings. In fact when the yogini or yogi has reached the state of Nishpatti Avastha (which means to say a person who is in a highly aware state, with an unbroken stillness) even though they are in that quietness they are able to think without creating ripples on the water “like a goose gliding above the water without touching the surface, hence creating no ripples”. The goose here represents thought and water the consciousness.

Maharishi Patanjali, after the word Abhyasa uses the word vairagya. Vairagya is having an unattached attitude to what has been already experienced. So abhyasa means to live in the experiencing, and vairagya means to let go of what has been experienced, so that the mind is always open to the new and not stuck in the past.  To understand Patanjali, we can also use the words of Sri Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita. He says that the intention behind our actions is much more important than the result of the action itself. Why do we do what we do? Then he guides us by saying, “act without fear and selfish desire”. But then he goes on to say, “You have the right to act, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Let go of the expectations. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your acts, nor be attached to inaction.”  

9.30 api chet su-duracharo bhajate mam ananya-bhak

sadhur eva sa mantavyah samyag vyavasito hi sah

2.47 Karmani eva adhikaras te ma phaleshu kadachana

ma karma phala hetur bhur ma te sango’stva akarmani

If we can first take a good look at our true motivations, we may begin the process of transformation and maybe, move towards freedom, which we don’t know the meaning of. But to look at ourselves, we need inner eyes. Eyes that don’t cheat us. Eyes that are not clouded by fear and desire. As long as our eyes are blinded by the six enemies of the mind, kama (lust or objectification of men and women), krodha (rage), lobha (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (delusion), and matsarya (jealousy), we have not even begun to move in the direction of true freedom. We are the slaves of these natural tendencies in the surface level of human consciousness. All of these six inherent qualities of the human mind stem from Fear and Desire. They keep the mind in bondage to the material existence, hence not allowing the action to come from the core of one’s existence. Do we really know our motivations?