Defeating the ego: the art of non-attachment
You’re sitting in a train carriage. The carriage is a narrow, confined space, and the people across the aisle are talking to each other in tones that are louder than they realize. You don’t want to listen in on what they’re saying, but you can’t help it: the voices drag you in, and before you know it you’re caught up in the details of somebody else’s life.
On my weekly commute to teach yoga classes in Sydney, I often hear fellow passengers quoting facts or expressing opinions that I believe are wrong. Part of me wants to leap up, turn round and correct the misinformation. But is my belief correct? Or am I just trying to impose my world view upon others?
What we believe relies primarily on two things: our ability to think and what we give our mind to think about. Our senses govern what food our mind gets, and they’re not always sensitive enough to give us the complete picture. But our mind itself is also very good at misconstruing data and reinterpreting it to satisfy our preconceived ideas. It has the ability to create fiction from fact and fact from fiction. In other words, we don’t always think clearly.
In yoga the behaviour of the mind is subdivided into distinct sections. The lower mind is in charge of computing the constant sensory input and determining the correct action: when we touch something hot we instinctively withdraw our hand. Another part of the mind is in charge of keeping our memories. It serves as a reference library that we can peruse at anytime to guide our thoughts and actions.
Although our memories can be misleading, the part of the mind that usually gets us into the most trouble is what yoga calls asmita, or “I-ness”. Asmita, like Freud’s ego, is all about the self asserting its dominance.
The thought “I am” is one of the earliest that occurs to us in our lives – and is also, incidentally, the shortest complete sentence in the English language. If you’ve ever listened to (or been) a frazzled parent trying to tame a tantrum-throwing toddler, you know all about that instant of self discovery, as the little darling hits the age of two and suddenly decides he or she should be the pivotal point of the world.
From this point on, we spend most of our lives being convinced that we know best. As a result, we try to influence things for the better, or at least what our “I” has determined will be better. When asmita dominates our personality we colour our experiences to suit our beliefs rather than searching for the truth. All of this adds up to a pretty hazy picture of the world.
The good news is that we can consciously choose to step beyond the clouded picture we’ve created. Yoga stills the mind so that we can step beyond our current world view. To achieve this we need to learn the art of non-attachment.
Non-attachment is learning to listen without reacting, to observe without opposing, to speak without trying to influence. It’s an incredibly difficult art because it’s the reverse of how we spend most of our lives behaving.
However, if we begin to interact with ourselves and the outside world in this manner we often find different ways to behave. We find ourselves creatively responding to situations rather than reacting according to memories and preconceived ideas of what we think is right.
Non-attachment gently liberates us from our ego, clarifies our thinking and helps us to act without becoming attached to the outcome. It helps us to understand and appreciate the truth in other people’s beliefs – and it makes listening to other people’s conversations a much less stressful experience!
Image by postingallyoursecrets.