The Meaning of Vairagya:
Desire, Attachment & Dispassion in Yoga (& How to Practice Detachment in Yoga)
What is Vairagya?
A Practical Definition of Vairagya as the Practice of Detachment and Dispassion
What Does Vairagya Mean? And How Does One Practice Vairagya?
What is the meaning of vairagya as “detachment”?
Detachment from something is just noticing the way(s) in which your awareness is absorbed in (or determined by) said thing; detachment is becoming conscious of how your awareness was pre-occupied at any given moment. The result of “detaching” from something is just a different sense of said thing; most basically, you become aware that there is something about “you” (as awareness/consciousness) this is not reducible to the thing that was determining your awareness.
In our practice of detachment, we are first able to see how our awareness is pre-occupied with conditional/temporary things in our experience such as thought/thinking, emotion, etc. Eventually, we are able to see how our awareness is consumed by our habitual ways of being. Freed from personal interest, we are then able to “complete” self-awareness as we recognize the ways in which our awareness is possessed or determined by certain non-optional features of our experience, such as embodiment. The practice of vairagya is the practice of bearing witness to the ways in which your awareness is consumed/possessed/incarnated. (We can think of these as “attachments”.) Detachment begins by cultivating a relatively stiller “mind” (usually via some form of focused attention).
Of the ways in which our awareness is possessed by our habitual ways of being (i.e., thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving), the yogin is particularly interested in noticing how our habitual ways of attempting to run away from any inner dis-ease/discomfort/anxiety (and running towards something what the habitual self thinks will eliminate its discomfort). The yogin is interested in noticing how being stuck in this cycle (of securing one’s identity and running from inadequacy—of attachment) produces and re-produces suffering. When we notice these things—i.e., when we experience “detachment” from them—this loosens the “grip” (or attachments) that our habitual self has on the world (the very self that keeps us stuck in destructive habits associated with self-preservation and self-elevation). And, of course, the moment we try to fix any of this, we are no longer detached, and are only reinforcing the very problem we were attempting to subvert. Our awareness is now consumed by—attached to, determined by—the desire to fix/self-transcend.
Over time, as our attention becomes more and more focused, we are able to see the myriad (more complex/sophisticated) ways in which our attention is pre-occupied, the most important of which is the most primitive form of self-consciousness: desire—the impulse to self-transcend.
What is Dispassion in Yoga? And What is the Difference between Detachment and Dispassion?
What is the meaning of vairagya as “dispassion”?
Among the many forces that are always already determining our awareness, some are not optional (such as embodiment). One such non-optional force is something like mood. Vairagya as dispassion is just the practice of noticing of the way(s) that mood is determining our experience.
But here we mean something more fundamental than what we ordinarily consider to be “mood”. Ordinarily, we think of ourselves as being “in a mood” when we are experiencing some emotion with particular intensity (whether we can name it or not); for example, we identify ourselves as being “depressed” when we are particularly sad, or we think of ourselves as being “angry” when we are particularly irritated (i.e., more sad/irritated than is “normal” for me). And we might even say that, more often than not, we’re not even in any particular mood.
The meaning/experience of vairagya as dispassion just is making contact with the very (non-optional) moody nature of experience itself, of bearing witness to the way(s) mood “characterizes” or “colours” or “attunes me to” (or even “tunes”) my experiencing of the world in any given moment. Mood “discloses” the world to me in a particular way or, in other words, it discloses attachment or attachments. Vairagya as dispassion is just the practice of noticing of the way(s) that mood is determining our experience.
The practice of vairagya as dispassion is the practice of noticing how our experience always already feels a certain way (it has a basic “tone”), and how this basic feeling reveals the world to me in particular ways and, therefore, makes available/unavailable to us certain ways of being. Vairagya [vi-rāga] is noticing that our awareness always already has a kind of feeling tone to it, and that this feeling tone determines my way(s) of being (thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving, etc.).
What is an Example of Vairagya?
Vairagya in Meditation & Vairagya in Everyday Life
Perhaps the simplest way of experiencing what is described as “detachment” (in a very small, limited context) is in the practice commonly referred to as “noting” in contemporary mindfulness meditation practices. In introductions to mindfulness and “noting” practice, “noting” is just noticing that one is unfocused—for example, that one is thinking—and is no longer focusing on one’s breath (or whichever object). In this moment of noticing that one is distracted, one experiences becoming re-focused. In so doing, one has “detached” from being absorbed in the momentum of thinking, etc. In yoga, this experience of vairagya teaches us the meaning of vairagya (and is more useful of any definition thereof).
Stillness allows us to see movement, in this case to see how our (whole) habitual self is moved by (or attached to) our world, to see the meaning/experience of attachment. As we cultivate a capacity for stillness and noticing the movement of our attention, we are able to see more complex/sophisticated ways in which our attention is pre-occupied in our everyday life, including—perhaps especially—by desire.
And, of course, the moment we try to fix any of this, we are no longer detached, and are only reinforcing the very problem we were attempting to subvert; our awareness is now consumed by—attached to or determined by—the desire to fix/self-transcend.
Why is Vairagya So Important?
Attachment & the Meaning/Experience of Vairagya as Freedom
In yoga, you realize your freedom in bearing witness to the ways in which you are determined. (Or, stated differently, freedom is self-awareness). Vairagya just is this practice: vairagya is noticing the ways in which your awareness is determined. Whether we call our practice “vairagya” (or dispassion or detachment) or not, it remains a central practice in yoga.
The context within which vairagya is practiced is a spiritual one; that is, it is practiced in the process of the cultivation of one’s sense of wholeness. This basically requires the recognition one’s individual existence is not a self-contained one—that “you” do not-self-exist but rather are a product of (or “belong to”) something that precedes (and exceeds) you. Vairagya is the practice of detaching from the myriad ways in which we are denying (and evading) the fact of this basic implication in the (self-moving) effort to try to self-elevate/self-perfect (much like an ocean wave trying to become its own entity). In other words, vairagya is the practice of detaching from (or “noticing”) desire.
Understanding Desire in Yoga: Self Consciousness and Ahamkara
The desire to escape (or “transcend”) the insubstantiality of our ego—to literally become something, become a(n independent) thing—is deeper than any individual desire. This most primitive desiring precedes our explicit self-conscious desires (such as, I want a new car/house/partner/job/body, and/or more money/fame/status, etc.). It is desire—which is the most primitive form of our self-consciousness—that confirms my existence to myself (even if I’m “unsuccessful” in becoming something). Desire confirms my existence as a real, active thing with determining power: it is the experience of being compelled beyond myself, to transcend myself, to consume. And desire is not something I learn to do/have but is rather always already “there”, even before I am explicitly self-conscious.
In desire, I am defining reality in terms of my own needs and not on its own terms. Money/fame/status, etc. all allow me to demand others’ recognition of the (increased) weight of my existence. Desire also confirms my existence as a real, passive thing that can be compelled/impelled: desire strikes me (as something that is not me) but does so from within—it appears to me as my desire. In desire—this most basic relationship to appearing—I find myself, I find a self, so to speak.
If I find myself impelled to rid myself of desire—if “I want to get rid of my desires”—this wanting only confirms the very thing I am trying to subvert. For this reason, the yogin isn’t primarily concerned with explicit, self-conscious desire. Any analysis of desire that begins with explicit, self-conscious desire is already too late. Desire, in other words, is not an imaginary thing that one may or may not have, but is rather constitutive of having a self.
Bearing Witness to (or “Detaching” from) Desire in Life
Instead of focusing on explicit, self-conscious desires, the yogin relies on practices that foster direct awareness of self-consciousness itself as always already produced by desire. The yogin is interested in making its way to the original impulse to be (a) something, to self-exist, to secure itself as an independent entity, to the pre-personal appropriative impulse or habit/activity of ahaṃkāra: I-making. But the yogin is not interested in making contact with this primitive impulse in order to eliminate it, but rather just to notice it (and become comfortable with the sense of inner lack that it produces and reifies) so that its awareness is freed of this appropriative quality that does not permit contact with Reality, that does not permit contact with oneself.
Of course, becoming comfortable with your sense of inner lack (which motivates seeking reification in the world) means becoming comfortable with the very thing that you are: freedom—the uncertainty of being undefined. And, in becoming comfortable with your freedom, you release yourself of the burden to hold onto others (and the world) in ways that allow you to stay “on top” of your anxiety and maintain (the security of) your identity, and you release others from the relentless grip of your compulsive need for their recognition. Instead, as you become comfortable with your own freedom, you become comfortable with theirs, and instead of feeling compelled to demand their recognition, you instead receive their free recognition—i.e., recognition borne of their own free will and not via your claim to centrality (via your accumulations).
But, of course, if you prioritize any of this (vairagya, yoga, meditation, detachment, dispassion, etc.) so that you can achieve freedom, or more recognition, or some form of personal perfection—i.e., invincible mental health, spiritual enlightenment, inner purity, etc.—you’re really only reinforcing the problem (and continuing to deny your freedom and, therefore, an essential component of yourself).
What is the Result of Practicing Vairagya? What Happens After Vairagya?
There is no “after” vairagya. The consequence of this practice is not that you arrive at some other place that is “outside” of experience where you are no longer subject to the vicissitudes of outer/inner life. Rather, the result of the practice of vairagya is just a (radically) different relationship with what is. Perhaps ironically, the result of “detachment” is more intimacy—with oneself, with others, and with something like “life” itself. This intimacy is cultivated as we become detached from our habitual ways of being in the world, ways of being that are defined by self-interest/preservation/elevation. In other words, the result of the cultivation of vairagya is experience that is less infected/affected by the kind of self-consciousness that re-produces suffering, the kind of self-consciousness that wants to self-transcend so it can self-exist, that wants to escape the discomfort of dependence—of incompleteness—and become its own ground. The result of vairagya is yoga (and yoga is just what remains when we’ve noticed—or “detached from”—this impossible quest).
In yoga, you realize your freedom in bearing witness to the ways in which you are always already determined. (Or, stated differently, freedom is self-awareness).
This article about the meaning/experience of vairagya, detachment in yoga, dispassion in yoga (and related concepts/practices such as attachments, desires, etc.) is part of our series of articles on a spiritual approach to yogic philosophy.
In our article on the meaning (or experience) karma yoga, we discuss the meaning (and describe the experience) of something that could readily be defined as desirelessness. In our article on the meaning of self discovery, we explore how the process of self-awareness is inextricably tied to our experience of other people. Our section on yoga practice contains a comprehensive guide to meditation (and answers a number of frequently-asked questions about mediation).
Commentaries on the theme of pre-personal desire abound in the texts of the Dharma religions. For those looking to explore the theme of pre-personal desire in western philosophy, see Section B (entitled, “Self-Consciousness”) of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. And for more on the moody nature of experience in western philosophy, see German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 work, Being & Time (Division I, Chapter 5, Part A, Section 29).
Canadian philosopher John Russon provides a rich and accessible discussion of desire in each of his three books on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: The Self and its Body in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1997, see pp.53-76), Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology (2004, see pp.59-69), and Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel’s Science of Experience (2016, see pp.14-15 and pp.77-95, the latter in which Russon also considers Deleuze & Guattari’s study of desire in their 1972 book, Anti-Oedipus). Russon presents an accessible discussion on the topic of mood in lectures 7-10 (particularly lecture 9) of his lectures on Heidegger’s Being & Time on his YouTube Channel.
For more on the basic articulation of the problem of anxiety and the ego, see the work of David Loy. For spiritual aspirants looking for an introduction to Loy’s thinking, consider his book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (2008, Wisdom Publications). For those with some background in Continental philosophy and psychotherapy, consider Loy’s book, Lack & Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism (2018 , Wisdom).
A more practical discussion of the meaning (or experience) of sitting with anxiety can be found in Judy Lief’s 2022 article, ‘Unraveling Anxiety’.