Q.364 – Dispassion

Q: I think I understand “Dispassion” and it’s importance, I’ve read “even loathing for worldly objects”. But I do have some passions or so it feels like it. For instance, I enjoy fabric and sewing “alot” is this just Brahman? At times it feels like an addiction. I don’t think there are judgements againt whatever passion one may have?? I guess I am just a bit confused. I am I guess in the beginning of my journey.

A (Ted): The Sanskrit word for “dispassion” is vairagya. Vairagya is defined as “indifference to the results of one’s actions.” Thus, dispassion is not so much a matter of the absence of desire as it is a matter of not depending on the satisfaction of any desires one does harbor for one’s sense of wholeness, completeness, and wellbeing.

 As long as one is ignorant of one’s true nature as whole, complete, limitless awareness, one’s desires spring from a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. In other words, discomfited by the mental, emotional, and physical limitations with which one seems afflicted as an apparent person, one feels that if one obtains certain desired objects, attains a certain desired status, achieves certain desired goals, accomplishes certain desired feats, or becomes established in a certain desired state of mind, then one will transcend the limited, inadequate, incomplete person one takes oneself to be and consequently become better or whole or even enlightened.

 The problem with this belief is that no limited object can provide permanent or complete fulfillment nor can the performance of any limited action by a limited entity produce a limitless result.

 As mentioned, desire—even passionate desire—for objects is not in itself problematic. In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna, speaking as the self, declares, “I am the desire that is not opposed to dharma (i.e. universal ethical law).” Indeed, the myriad scientific and artistic achievements that have taken place throughout history are the fruit of desire. Desire only becomes a problem when it asserts a binding influence over the apparent individual person and compels the person to act at its behest rather than his or her own free will and so weakens the apparent person’s integrity that he or she is willing to contravene dharma in order to satisfy its demands.

 The scripture’s endorsement of “loathing worldly objects” is a bit strong and should be taken as a hyperbolic expression of the idea that one should use discretion with regard to the attempt to satisfy one’s desires through the pursuit of object-oriented joy. The basic point being emphasized in such extreme terms is that an attitude of indifference toward worldly objects should be cultivated by one who seeks peace of mind and freedom from the likes and dislikes that serve only to agitate the mind, extrovert its attention, and prevent it from turning inward and focusing on the self.

 This attitude of dispassion or indifference toward worldly objects is born of the discriminative understanding that constitutes the essence of Vedantic self-inquiry: atma-anatma-viveka, the discrimination between the self and the not-self, the real and the apparent.

 Though the essential nature of reality is non-dual, for the purposes of analysis and to break the apparently deluded self’s assumed connection with the objective phenomena that comprise the apparent reality (i.e. the manifest universe), Vedanta delineates two fundamental categories of existence: the subject (i.e., me, awareness) and objects (i.e., everything perceivable or conceivable on both the subtle and gross levels of being). Moreover, it says that the subject alone is real, while all the objects known to the subject are only apparent, including the relative subject, the mind-body-sense complex that constitutes the apparent individual person whom the self when apparently conditioned by the deluding power of maya (i.e., ignorance) takes itself to be. The subject, whose nature is limitless awareness, is atma, the self, and the objects are anatma, the not-self.

 This discrimination does not negate the existence of objects. Objects obviously exist, for they could not otherwise be experienced. It does, however, negate their fundamental reality. Vedanta defines as real only that which cannot be negated and is not subject to change. All objects, however, are subject to the parameters of time and space and are, thus, rendered limited and mutable. Hence, no object is real. Moreover, all objects are dependent upon awareness for their existence, for it is only in the “light” of awareness that any object is known and, thus, can be considered existent.

 The bottom line is that only the self, the limitless awareness in which all objects appear, is real, while all objects, both subtle (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and sensations) and gross (i.e. tangible items, physical environments, and embodied beings), are only apparently or dependently real (i.e., have no independent self-nature; are nothing more than apparently independent entities arising from, consisting of, abiding in, and subsiding back into pure awareness similar to the way a wave arises from, consists of, abides in, and subsides back into the ocean).

 Once the understanding that results from this discrimination is fully assimilated, one stops pursuing objects in the vain attempt to derive permanent fulfillment and lasting happiness from them. One realizes that one is both whole and the whole and, thus, requires nothing other than oneself to complete oneself. Moreover, consequent to the understanding that due to the non-dual nature of reality nothing can enhance, diminish, taint, or in any way affect one’s essential nature as pure, limitless awareness, one no longer depends on specific circumstances to make one happy. Thus, dispassion naturally arises. Now one is able to enjoy whatever objects, circumstance, and experiences present themselves without seeking to get joy from them.

A (Venkat): Dispassion / detachment / disinterestedness is the sine qua non of a jnani – a liberated being. For that being no longer identifies with the narrow body / mind / ego and its interests, but rather realises its non-separation with all there is. And if everything is non-separate, nondual, what is there to have an attachment to? That does not necessarily mean that the body / mind of a jnani ceases to act in the world; it may continue to do so, perhaps even with apparent passion, but those actions are no longer motivated by egoistic desires, or any internal attachment to the outcome of those actions. Indeed there is a much-referred to King, Janaka, who despite being a jnani, continued to rule his kingdom (see the beautiful Astavakra Gita).

 The Bhagavad Gita – essentially a masterclass in detachment and in what the Chinese sages call wei wu wei (acting without acting) – has a definitive sequence of verses describing how the man of steady wisdom behaves (Chp 2, vs 54 et seq):

 “The Lord said: O Partha, when a man completely casts off all the desires of the mind, his Self finding satisfaction in Itself alone, then he is called a man of steady wisdom.

 He who is not perturbed by adversity, who does not long for happiness, who is free from attachment, fear and wrath is called a muni of steady wisdom.

 He who is not attached to anything, who neither rejoices nor is vexed when he obtains good or evil – his wisdom is firmly fixed.”

 In addition to being a descriptor of a sage, dispassion / detachment alongside a penetrative discriminating analysis between what is real and not-real, are the two critical tools for self-realisation. However, forcing yourself to be dispassionate / detached is not the route; there are many ascetics who have renounced the world, but not found enlightenment. Buddha himself went through this asceticism to find that it did not yield anything.

 The critical step is understanding what advaita vedanta is pointing towards, and then using your discrimination to impartially, dispassionately examine both what it has to say, and what that implies about who / what you are. As this takes over, and your understanding deepens, the dispassion / detachment also deepens, without you having to force it; and that in turn leads to a more subtle discriminative analysis. You could say a virtuous circle.

 So, dispassion / detachment – like so many things in life: happiness, love – is something that cannot really be practised or aimed at directly; it is an inner attitude which arises and grows.

A (Dennis): I believe it was Greg Goode who once said that you have to want to realize the truth so much that you are prepared to die for it. This may be a bit extreme but it is probably true to say that, whilst you have lots of other desires or one particularly strong one, unrelated to truth-seeking, then you will never get Self-knowledge. viveka and vairAgya have been mentioned above but mumukShutva – the over-riding desire to discover the truth has not. It is important! You have to get things into perspective – viveka – and become dispassionate – vairAgya – to the extent that you recognise those traits and activities that help you on your path towards Self-knowledge and those that do not.

2 thoughts on “Q.364 – Dispassion

    • Very nice article. It cuts to the core of so much that goes on politically and why that gap of rich/poor continues to widen.

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