The Kleshas in Detail: Ragas or Attachment

15This week at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our exploration of the five kleshas – the obstacles that prevent us from realizing our inherent peace – with a more detailed look at ragas or attachment.  We’ll look at the various and perhaps unexpected forms attachment can take, how it distorts our worldview and causes distress, and the ways we can use awareness of ragas to reduce our tendency to fall into misunderstanding and the suffering it causes.

Defining Ragas 

In certain respects, attachment is a difficult concept to define – in much the same way that it can be hard to gauge the fragility of a thing until it breaks, it can be hard for us to know we are attached to something until we begin to suffer the pangs of loss.  For this reason, the definition offered by Patanjali gives us a valuable tool and it’s where we’ll begin our discussion.

Patanjali defines attachment as: “Identification with what we like…” – that is, when we start to think of both ourselves and in turn the world around us in terms of our personal preferences.  As discussed in our previous article, this habit (which is part of egoism) naturally results in a dualistic view of the world – a view which in turn results in alienation and suffering.

As you can see, this definition has the great benefit of allowing us to see attachment long before we experience the disappointment, frustration, and pain inherent in loss.  By noting the fact that we are beginning to allow our likes to dominate and color our view of ourselves and the world, we can use this awareness to consciously shift our thoughts and in turn spare ourselves the pain inherent in attachment.

Attachment vs. Appreciation 

Now that we have a basic definition, it’s important to note a common misconception about ragas, which is that avoiding attachment means we can’t or shouldn’t enjoy things.  The Yogis emphasize the exact opposite: just because we are not attached to things does not mean we can’t appreciate them.  In fact, one of the key insights of Yoga philosophy is that it is only when we let go of attachment that we are able to truly appreciate people, things, and events as they are, untainted by our personal agendas.

Understood this way, we can see that moving beyond ragas is not about giving up things we like but rather letting go of the expectations around them.  The yogis realized it is not loss per se that hurts us but rather failed expectations – the stories we tell ourselves about what we need or how happy we will be when we achieve a goal.  In fact, when we build assumptions, the pain is directly proportional to our degree of investment.  As Swami Satchidananda used to remind his students, the beginning of disappointment is when we make “appointments” with ourselves – that is, when we say: “When I have or do this, I will be happy…”  If we can perceive this, we can shift our behavior and become free of disappointment and loss, even as things come and go.

Once we understand that, we can enjoy things in the present moment without fabricating stories about the future.  Again, it should be understood, in the Yogic view we still can and should strive to make things happen – we simply learn to do so in a way that is open, allowing us to dedicate ourselves fully to the process without the tension and pain inherent in attachment to the outcome.  In this way, we can enjoy both the process and the results, however things may unfold.

Attachment, Non-Attachment & Neglect 

Obviously, in speaking of attachment it is natural to think of its compliment, non-attachment, which can also be a complex idea to clarify.  This is amplified by the fact that non-attachment tends to be a threatening concept for many of us, as we all have at least a few areas of attachment in our lives.  Fortunately, deepening our understanding of ragas can help improve our understanding of and relationship to non-attachment as well.

When we hear the term non-attachment, we often think of either austerity or aloofness, but it is important to understand the Yogic concept of non-attachment expressly eschews both of these.  From the Yogic perspective, self-denial is itself a form of attachment – attachment to the idea that we need to mortify the flesh or “scorch” desires in order to be free – and this of course is every bit as deleterious as attachment to pleasure.  Likewise, negligence can be seen as stemming from attachment to selfish needs or inertia.  In this sense, true non-attachment is distinct from both of these qualities.

In the Yogic view, it is only when we let go of attachment and the ego-based view inherent in it that we can truly connect with things and people around us.  By releasing the assumptions and judgments present in attachment, we are finally able to interact with things and people in a way that is caring and appreciative rather than controlling.  In this sense, non-attachment can be seen as the antithesis of both denial and apathy.  Through true non-attachment, we are able to enjoy things as they are and seek to instigate change with a clarity and power only available to us when we are free of attachment and fear.

Attachment vs. Love & Commitment

A parallel to the distinction between non-attachment and apathy is the important clarification of the difference between attachment and love.  Many of us when we hear of the issues with attachment and the merits of its opposite find ourselves thinking: “I can see the validity of this, but I could never abandon my family or partner….”  But again, the Yogis completely understood and very much address this.

First off, it’s important to understand that family is every bit as vital a part of Yogic life as monasticism.  In fact, the Yogis realized only a small percentage of us are meant for monastic existence, and even those of us who are need householders, both for their support and for the opportunity to share the teachings.  So the central teachings of Yoga are addressed equally to those who choose a life of celibacy and those who choose marriage and family – the key is understanding differences in form, particularly with issues such as attachment.

The Yogis realized when we love someone – whether our partner, our child, or even our teacher – from a place of attachment, we distort both them and ourselves.  For example, when we need our spouse to act a certain way or worry about how our children “reflect on us” or even judge the behavior of others in our community, we begin to put pressure on them – a pressure that eventually causes friction and distress.  Even when this pressure comes from a “good” place – for example, when we worry about the financial well-being of our child or health of our partner – it can still create friction in our relationships.

By contrast, when we can come from a place of openness – caring about their well-being while remaining free of attachment to a particular outcome – we are able to support them in a way that will help them feel good about themselves whatever might come to pass in their lives.  In this sense, non-attachment does not preclude commitment or dedication – whether to a partner, our children, or even a spiritual community – but rather gives us the tools to act fully and without reservation.

Ragas in Daily Life

As with the other kleshas, the concept of ragas is only as valuable as our ability to apply it on a daily basis.  Again, any time we begin to experience friction or discomfort around a situation, the concept of attachment gives us the tools to ask: “Is there an outcome here that I am telling myself I need in order to be happy?  Are there stores I am telling myself about the future that are potentially setting me up for future pain and keeping me from enjoying the present?”

Once more, this story can be about a material result or an ideological one – the issue is the projection into the future and the assumptions behind it.  If we are saying: “If only he would understand this…” or “If only I could achieve this thing, everything would be all right,” again we are setting ourselves up for future frustration and challenge while depriving ourselves of the here and now.

By seeing this, we can then choose to actively “soften” our view of a particular situation.  We can begin by asking: “Is this outcome really essential in order for me to be happy?  If even the exact opposite were to come to pass, might there not be a way in which that could be every bit as good…?”  By taking the time in this way to re-think our assumptions, we open ourselves to the fullness of life and to the opportunity to experience joy, not only in “success,’ but also in what our attached selves might call “failure.” In this way, we can multiply the happiness in our own lives and set an example for all around as to how they can do the same…..

In Our Next Article… 

Now that we have taken a look at asmita, we’ll continue in our next article with an in-depth look at dvesha or avoidance, including the Yogic understanding of how it arises, the ways it can manifest in our lives, and how we can use that greater awareness to shift in a more positive direction.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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