On Detached Action
as noted in Dao De Jing, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali
by Dylan Bernstein
Throughout the history of spiritual studies, truth seekers have been confounded and confused by ancient texts that describe action. The Dao De Jing, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga Sutra all grace the topics of effortless action, non-doership and detachment. These venerable guides to self-discovery and proper living often give the student mind-boggling contradictions. One is told to sense without sensing, die without dying, do without doing and so on. Are these ancient teachings hiding some deeper understanding of existence ... or is the answer simply staring us in the face?
I had been sporadically practicing yogasana and sitting Buddhist meditation throughout all my teenage years before I dove deeply into the Dao De Jing . The short masterpiece attributed to Lao Tzu mentions a state of wei-wu-wei , literally translated as action without action. It also tells us to do without doing, leaving nothing undone (D63). As I studied many different interpretations and translations of wei-wu-wei and the Dao itself, I came to conceptualize a way of acting without exerting effort. Some say that this method of action is accomplished by returning to one's natural condition, letting go of pretense and perhaps even free from verbal thought. Some even posit that the effortless quality of wei-wu-wei manifests because the actor is able to erase the distinction between herself and the act. Without mentioning specific practices, Daoism lays out the blueprint for a higher state of existence. In this state, the non-doer is only letting the action flow through her body:
"The highest aim is to be like water, benefiting all things without ever competing..." (D8)
"Nothing in the world is softer than water and yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong." (D78)
Thousands of miles away and much later, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra came forth to offer seekers more specific ways to reach this effortless state -- a state free from identifying with the fluctuations of consciousness. Though there is no evidence of any Daoist influence, both traditions seem to have discovered similar underlying truths. In contrast to the Dao, Patanjali emphasizes the need for practices in order to reduce the chatter of the mind and the afflictions which cause them. Yet before Patanjali elaborates upon any specific practice, he notes the components needed for success. Practice is to be sustained without interruption over a long period of time -- abhyasa. When one chants the sutra, the very same breath cautions that practice must be detached -- vairagya. (PYS I.12)
The nature of Patanjali's vairagya may seem cloudy at first. Perhaps one is to first foster less association with all that their senses and mind experience (I.15). Later, in supreme states, the seer could be free from identification with any and all of nature's transformations (I.16). Presumably, the seer would then not identify with the body-mind, which is always changing and subject to nature's play. This supreme detachment reinforces the Patanjali goal of identifying only with unchanging, eternal consciousness itself.
Patanjali also mentions the importance of vairagya in the mystical third chapter of the Sutra, Vibhooti Pada. Here myriad supernatural powers are described, such as the ability to walk on water or communicate with animals. These powers may include lofty states of existence amongst the gods and celestial creatures. Yet Patanjali is crystal clear that these states are to be renounced and transcended. Though they may appear as powers in worldly life, they are but obstacles to yoga's highest benefits (III.38). When Patanjali describes supreme mastery over all conditions and complete omniscience, he immediately cautions that only by detachment from these accomplishments can the yogi progress towards the final state of liberation (III.51 - 52).
Patanjali clearly counsels that one must be detached from the results of one's practices, no matter how marvelous or incredible those results happen to be.
Abhyasa and vairagya are mentioned within the same breath in another one of Classical India's yogic guides, the Bhagavad Gita. As Lord Krishna advises the noble Arjuna on the nature of action and the practices of yoga and meditation, Arjuna asks:
"How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace? Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, violent, powerful, trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind."
And Lord Krishna replies:
"It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered through abhyasa and vairagya." (BG 6.34,35)
Lord Krishna and Patanjali agree upon the need for detachment within meditative practices. The Bhagavad Gita further emphasizes the need for detached action within all aspects of daily life. A primary theme is karma-phala-tyaga, renunciation of the fruits of one's actions. Krishna promises that it is through this attitude of non-doership that the cycle of rebirth can be broken and liberation attained. And Lord Krishna is clear that renouncing the results of one's actions (tyaga) is not the same as renouncing the actions themselves (sannyasa). Arunja is repeatedly encouraged to act, yet to be detached from the results of his actions, as they are not his to claim.
Krishna's tyaga and Patanjali's vairagya are pathways for developing detachment. The more one is able to act in accordance with these principles, the more one's existence resembles Lao Tzu's Dao. The essence of these three seemingly mystical spiritual guides can be pared down to simple instructions: Remain detached, specifically from the results of actions. All of the higher states of transcendence, effortlessness, Dao, Zen, Advaita, Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori and the like seem to sprout from this same soil. Once the seeker, student or practitioner has intellectually realized what the sages offer, her only task is to experiment with living that wise advice. Of course, the actual implementation is likely to be difficult and presents a unique set of challenges, perhaps better grappled with in another article. For now, let us rest in knowing that these diverse spiritual traditions agree on the type of action which the wise seek to cultivate. Hopefully, this is more than just food for thought, it can become the basis for activity as well.
Regarding my personal journey, the early study of the Dao was incredibly useful, especially as I had already established practices within asana and meditation. Furthermore, it has been invaluably reassuring to watch my studies of the Gita and Patanjali knit together and reinforce the notions towards which Lao Tzu was pointing. We are lucky to have access to all of these teachings today. Yet they are often not clearly understood, not to mention integrated within daily life and practice. Perhaps the verbal contradictions befuddle modern readers before they are able to pause and observe the meanings behind the words. Or maybe for some, the teaching has become so accessible that it is easy to overlook the unlimited potential that lies within the message. We might be wise to cherish the lessons offered so clearly from these beneficent scriptures. Over thousands of years, the teachings have remained constant, still and unmoving. At first, they may be difficult to detect, but once seen, they're impossible to ignore. To me, it seems these lessons are simply staring us in the face.