How can I practice “dispassion” when there is such suffering?

Statue of Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras

On Equanimity, Dispassion and Empathy:
Everyday we experience ups and downs, things that bring a smile to our face or a knot to our hearts. For some the trials and suffering others, homeless in the streets, a child crying, an argument between lovers and so on will elicit an emotional response. Even those apparently numb who can look straight ahead when walking by a sick or homeless person, even they will likely experience some form of anger or ill will when desires are thwarted, or may reserve their empathy for those they choose to be close to, even though blocking out others. What is your experience? How do you integrate these teachings of yoga in daily life? Have you encountered puzzling or incongruent teachings that are hard to wrestle with?

So many of us will find ways in our day to soothe our hearts, in community, in entertainment, in substances, in sense pleasures, either seeking more empathy for our new sorrow, or seeking an up, an elated moment “to get my mind off of what I felt.”

Recently I was teaching the Yoga Sutras for a Yoga Teacher Training Program, and a participant spoke with passion how this point of view seems to be an excuse to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the world, to not care for human life; and how this teaching was puzzling, creating what I would call a healthy caution, a watchful curiosity about the teachings, a distance. This person values compassion, and saw, possibly in the teachings a rationale for staying in one’s own selfish place, ignoring the sufferings of others. How then to integrate the teachings personally, not see them at a distance, a way to judge others?

This is potent stuff. And I’m sure many yoga students who have heard this have asked themselves the same thing, had a similar response. How can I be “dispassionate” or “detached” while cultivating empathy and compassion? Seems to make no sense, nonsense! So what is one to do?

There are two key teachings that surface here:

  1. That what we call “I”, the self, is not that which is born and dies, hence nothing lost, nothing to grieve in death of the body. That while indeed this body is born and will die, “I” am the awareness, the conscious perception experiencing the body through the senses and the mind. The fact that I can witness my own thoughts makes me the subject, and the thoughts the object; and the object of awareness is always separate from the one aware. “Idam sarira kaunteya ksetram ityabidhyate…” Baghavad Gita 13:1 a verse that opens up discussion on the nature of the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object of perception; “This body, this assembly, is the field known, the knower is the one who knows the field.” Thus When Krsna teaches there is no reason for grief, it is a misunderstanding to say this condones killing, rather it is a call to understand that which is never born and never dies, the nature of Being, of “I”. This understanding is not matter of belief or faith. This takes exploration with an accomplished teacher, and cannot be unfolded adequately here.
  2. … Samatvam yoga ucyate.” – This evenness of heart/mind is yoga.
    ~ Bhagavad Gita II-48
    On the teachings of Karma Yoga and Bhakti (Understanding the nature of actions and results is Karma Yoga, and Bhakti is a devotional attitude towards actions and results.
    This verse opens up discussion about our responses to our own likes and dislikes, ragas and dvesas, attractions and aversions, in relation to results of our actions, and the desires themselves at the heart of every action. The verses do not say that we should not have desires, which is non-sense, but rather if results of action do not go according my desires, why should I feel less than? Why extreme elation when I get what I want and sorrow when I do not? How can sense pleasures attained, or objects aquired, or perceived success and failure, improve or diminish the nature of Being, the very nature of changeless conscious wholeness?

Those of us who pursue yoga as a personal practice hear of non-attachment, or dispassion, vairagya, or equanimity in the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Bhagavad Gita, and may wonder how to reconcile this with compassion and empathy.

I propose there is a flaw in the language used, and the methods of teaching that lead to the above conclusion.

The teachings in the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita are full of references to values of compassion, kindness, empathy and non-violence and we know the texts will brook no internal contradiction, so we have to explore the meaning of “samatva” “sameness of heart/mind” of “vairagya” often translated as “dispassion” which is a problem, like a game of telephone, misunderstandings get passed on from book to book over time.

So the teaching is not to lack passion for non-egoic, sattvica, values. Nor is the teaching about being cold emotionally, rather it is about knowing my Essential Nature, my Ground of Being to be unswayable, unassailable whatever the external circumstance, experience of others, discomforts of the body, heart or mind. In knowing one’s Essential Nature, in no longer superimposing objects known to me onto my nature or happiness, Vairagya arises. Vairagya is a manifestation of understanding of one’s Essential Nature, Atma; a manifestation of jñanam, of knowledge one’s self.

I witness success and failure, likes and dislikes, attractions and aversions, ragas and dvesas, my own sadness and happiness; knowing Being, the witnessing awareness, is no less than in sadness than in “happiness.” Then in fact Inner Joy for no reason is present much more often, without seeking the next “up.” Then in the face of things beyond my control, I am no less than. We should not confuse extreme emotional reaction with caring, nor confuse equanimity, peace of mind, with non-caring.

The teachings are first about my own emotional state, my understanding of self, my sense of security and adequacy, and developing a discerning understanding that my wholeness and contentment is not truly subject to what are perceived as external forces: someone else’s sorrow, catastrophe, bad weather, success and failure, and so on through the many dualities and polarities we perceive in this world. Knowing myself to be a whole conscious Being (satcitananda atma) what can diminish wholeness? Whatever happens to the body, Being is never diminished. It is only my misunderstanding of my own nature that would allow “external” occurrences to yank me like a yo-yo through elation and depression, up then down then seeking an up again. Usually seeking the “up” from an external source, other person or sense pleasure or bodily comfort. See my piece on “Happiness, Now and Thou” for more on this seeking.

Pain is fact of life, my own and others, it is my thought about the pain that causes suffering. The decline of the body is a fact, helplessness and despair come from non-acceptance of what is. Discomfort is merely sensation met with mental resistance. This is no ordinary thing, and takes rigorous mental training and understanding of the nature of “I” to assimilate.

If I understand the nature of Being, how can sense discomfort diminish my knowledge of wholeness, and pervasive Inner Joy, joy for no reason? From that place I act with compassion when I can, and acceptance when I cannot, not judging others actions or deciding what they may or may not be feeling. People will do many bizarre things for many motivations, why should I guess what motivates them, or talk about my perception of their selfishness? Yoga teaches us to work on our own behaviors and attitude. Through acceptance of the results of actions regardless of like or dislike the heart/mind is purified; this is karma yoga. Then that mind may be better able to process and understand the nature of consciousness, the nature of “I.” The the world around us, our perceptions of others behaviors changes as well. This is yoga.

Special thanks to Swami Dayanda Saraswati, Swami Tattvavidananda Saraswati and Swami Viditatmananda Saraswati for the teachings that illumine my understanding. Any errors or limitations are my own, and are evolving.

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2 Responses to “How can I practice “dispassion” when there is such suffering?”

  1. Naima says:

    “Discomfort is merely sensation met with mental resistance.” I have really been coming up against discomfort and struggle, attempting to train to walk a 1/2 marathon. I am amazed at my brain’s ability to dissuade me and try to trick me into mental resistance.

    I think the question “How can I practice “dispassion” when there is such suffering?” is a great one. I love your answers and thoughtfulness especially in relation to what the yogic tradition teaches.

    The spiral of spirit goes within to the still point as well as in all directions outward. I find that it is easier to deal with the suffering of others if I follow spirit outward into infinity. The view gives me many alternative ways of being, other than being stuck in soothing my heart in the list of ways you mentioned.

    Thank you for this post!

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