Detachment or indifference?

I’ve always considered myself as a caring person, mindful of others, to the extent of sometimes putting other people’s needs in front of my own. So when I started studying the 8 limbs of yoga, particularly the yamas and niyamas, which describe a sort of “guideline” towards self-realization, I was taken aback by the way the philosophy was centered on oneself.

Among the 5 yamas (“life management rules”) are for example brahmacharya (living in the path of the divine, which leads to celibacy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Both refer to the idea of “letting go” of all attachments, not only of material things but also of people. Now, material things, I can understand and see how we can apply it to everyday life, by responsible consumption or decluttering for example. But people, I found it hard to wrap my head around the idea of detaching oneself from family and friends.

The first step is understanding that nobody “belongs” to anybody. Of course, being jealous or trying to control people is pointless, you cannot hold on to people, the result is usually the opposite of what you are looking for. But what yoga theory tells us goes beyond that.

Santosha, which means “contentment”, is one of the 5 niyamas (“qualities of a yogi”). Being content means being nor happy, nor sad, the mind is stable. Contentment comes, once again, from being detached. When applied to people, it basically means that you should not be attached to anyone so that their behavior or your relationship do not affect your own state of mind, i.e.  no one can make you happy or sad. You are content with who you are and what you have, and only you are responsible for your own inner peace and joy. Detachment sounds a lot like indifference or not caring, which is why it seems so harsh and difficult to apply to one’s life, and I am probably not the first person to think “this is not for me”.

But this concept kept making me think and research, until something clicked in my mind and I realized that it was not about being indifferent but actually selflessness. Not just doing selfless actions like charity or helping people in need, but pure selflessness. When the intention is good, and you don’t expect the fruit of your actions, not love, not gratitude, not even joy.  If doing a selfless act makes you feel good, then it is not pure selflessness. So, when you reach that level of selflessness, another person’s actions or feelings do not affect you because you don’t expect anything. If your action makes another person happy, then it’s good, but if your action makes the person unhappy, it’s also good because your intention was good and you are still content.

To me, understanding this theory is already a big step in my yoga journey. It made me realize I might have been relying too much on my relationships with family and friends for my own happiness. Thinking of myself has always made me feel selfish, but I think I now understand you have to be first selfish in order to become selfless. The same way they tell you in a plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others, you have to be comfortable and content with yourself before trying to help others. Taking this yoga course was a selfish thing for me, but it’s taking me on a path to self-understanding, self-loving and who knows, maybe real selflessness.  I’m not saying I will reach pure selflessness, or even that I want to, but I can try to lean towards it and work on slowly detaching myself from external things that do not matter and not letting my emotions guide my actions et (over)reactions. We are not all headed to enlightenment: take what feels right for you, experience and learn, that is what yoga is about!