Contemplating non-attachment

Book I, Sutra 15, “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

This sutra asserts that non-attachment is essential to the practice of yoga.  Attachment is derived from the things the mind is attracted to through the body’s senses (drishta = seen; anursravika = heard), a metaphorical way to describe worldly things that we perceive.  Rather than go for things the mind wants, one should be able to discriminate whether the things we perceive are actually good for the self or not.

When the mind is attached to worldly things, the practice of yoga cannot be fulfilled because the mind is distracted.  When the mind is distracted by desires, the mind cannot rest and be at peace.  Meditation is only possible when the mind is free from attachment.  

The absence of attachment is related to the lack of expectation of outcomes.  When one is free from expectation, one cannot experience disappointment no matter what the result.  When we remove attachment and expectation from any endeavor, the pursuit of that endeavor becomes intrinsically rewarding, as opposed to extrinsically rewarding.  Thus we are more able to enjoy the journey (e.g. the process), rather than be focused on the outcome itself (e.g. the product).  When the mind is free from personal interest, we do our work well and feel joyful, because we are enjoying the work for experience itself, not the outcome.

Attachment and lack thereof has considerable impact on creativity and innovation, beyond meditation and yogic practice.  Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that we are the most creative when we’re focused on the process and being in the present, and least when we’re focused on the product or outcome1.  “When we are concerned about the product, we worry about how it will be judged, evaluated, accepted, and rejected.  Our ego is put on the line.  Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, and new products.”  One who is process-oriented is intrinsically motivated, engaged in the creative endeavor for the joy of doing it, while a product-orientation is by definition extrinsically motivated.

Outside of creative and artistic endeavors, the absence of non-attachment in the business world has perhaps had dire consequences.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted experiments in which he looked at the performance of subjects in situations where their compensation was directly tied to how well they performed on a variety of cognitive skills and mechanical tasks.  By connecting compensation to performance, he created conditions in which subjects became extrinsically motivated instead of intrinsically motivated.  Higher bonuses successfully motivated subjects to perform better on mechanical tasks, but actually led to poorer performance on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills. Ariely and his team found similar results from experiments conducted in the U.S., Britain, and India.  “If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.”2

In the context of education, the emphasis on grades and testing introduces unhealthy attachment and creates an environment that is antithetical to the point of education:  learning for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge and then wisdom.  The consequences of our test-oriented education system is devastating for our children:  less interest in learning for learning’s sake, less interest in taking on challenging tasks (since they are motivated to get good results, not to take intellectual risks), and more superficial thinking.  Research by Eric Anderman and his colleagues have found in a 1998 study of middle school students, those who “perceived that their schools emphasized performance [as opposed to learning] goals were more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviors.”3

Zimbardo, Ariely, and Anderman’s research are evidence that non-attachment is essential for creativity, performance, happiness, and intellectual well being.  Interpreted broadly, Sutra 15 Book I has significant implications for every aspect of our lives.


1 Zimbardo, P. and Boyd, J.  The Time Paradox (Free Press, 2008), p. 122.

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, (1 Feb 2010),

3 Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.

The Friendly Letter

My soon-to-be 7 year-old daughter has been subjecting us to reenactments of her lessons from school lately, using the whiteboard in the girls’ playroom.  In the moment, these lessons are a mixed blessing; we get insight into what she is learning at school while being bossed around in the evening as we catch up on the day’s emails, finish dinner and clean up, and get ready for bedtime.  The lessons have ranged from “From Seed to Tree” to “The Works of Leonardo da Vinci” to “What is an Adjective?”, complete with lesson, review, Q&A, and homework.

Last week, we had a lesson on The Friendly Letter.  We learned about friendly letter structure, formatting, and proper greetings and closings.  For homework, we randomly drew names of another member of the household and were assigned to write a friendly letter addressed to that person, due in one week.  As if we weren’t busy enough!  We procrastinated, hoping Sophie would forget about the whole thing, but she never does.  She even made notebook paper for us by drawing blue lines on white paper, an orange line for the margin, and punched three holes along the side (I told her I had notebook paper, but she insisted on making it for me).

And then, we started to experience the magic of The Friendly Letter.  I received my letter shortly after the assignment was made, from my father, written in Google Docs and emailed to me.  It was brief, but I was moved by his expression of his love and the sense of permanence and sincerity from his written words.   Over the following few days, notes of love and appreciation trickled throughout the house from one person to another.  For the recipients and receivers of The Friendly Letter, it has been a moving experience, an opportunity to reflect on the goodness evident in our lives, to practice kindness, and to nourish our relationships with each other.

Thank you, Sophie, for the lesson on The Friendly Letter.

Contemplating the 3 C’s

I’ve been taking a yoga teacher training class (PURE) through Equinox with Michelle Myhre and Keith Erickson. Both are passionate and inspiring teachers and practitioners; in fact, when I signed up, my intention was not to become a yoga teacher but rather, I was motivated because I wanted to learn all Keith and Michelle could offer about yoga. Although this training has been a huge commitment that has required a lot of time, money, and energy (160 hours of classes plus 40 hours of practice, observation, and assisting in class required), I’m extremely grateful I took the time to learn the skills to do healthy things for the body and soul and be able to share them with others.

I opened this past weekend’s class with this dharma talk I wrote, a derivative of the commencement speech I gave at the College of Engineering at my alma mater last month:

Come into a comfortable seated position with your spine erect. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils. Take notice of your body… what’s happening within you today? Take notice of your mind… how is your spirit today?

We are near the end of our eighth week of our yoga teacher training; only two more weeks to go. We’ve devoted our weekends, and weekday mornings and evenings to this journey. Along the way, we’ve bonded as a community and have grown to know each other’s souls and bodies. What brought each of us here, and what will we take away as this training comes to an end?

For today’s opening, we will contemplate the lifecyle of learning and growth. I call them the three C’s: curiosity, courage, and confidence. Let’s meditate on these three C’s.

First, curiosity.

We all wanted to be part of this yoga teacher training because we are curious about yoga and are interested in learning more. Curiosity is the basis of learning and creativity. It’s more about asking the right questions than the answers themselves. On the yoga mat, being curious opens ourselves to discovering and connecting with our minds and bodies. Off the mat, our curiosity allows us to discover and fuel our passion. Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Now let’s talk about courage.

How many of us know someone who has said to us, “I don’t want to try yoga because I’m not that flexible?” Or “I don’t want to try do X because I’m afraid of Y?” Maybe we have felt that way at times too, when we had to make something out of nothing, or when we engaged in an activity even though we didn’t really know what we were doing.

On the mat, we summon our courage to go into poses that may be new, or seem awkward or unnatural. Whether on or off the mat, courage is the willingness to face whatever is in front of us. Maybe it’s fear of failure. Maybe it’s a fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s a fear of rejection. Whatever it is, when we gather the courage to face whatever is in front of us, we emerge stronger, more resilient, more flexible, and those qualities will withstand whatever failure, rejection, and uncertainties we encounter in life. Courage gives us the strength to take risks, and where there is risk there is opportunity.

The last C is about the value of challenge and adversity and the confidence gained from it.

Each of us made sacrifices to be part of this yoga teacher training. We devoted significant time, energy, and money to be here. Along the way, we had doubts about our ability to fulfill all the commitments required of this training. How could we possibly complete all the reading, writing, and practice hours while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities and commitments? And yet here we are all still here. We are doing this!

On the yoga mat, as we practice asana, we are physically and mentally challenged. Sometimes we don’t know if we can get into the pose, or stay in it long enough. But when we do, we feel awesome!

Adverse conditions help toughen us mentally and build confidence. We can choose to blame failures on factors we cannot control, or we can believe we have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what we can control. When we take on new challenges, a little at a time, we build our confidence to take on more ambitious endeavors. And thus the cycle of learning and growth begins again, with curiosity.

Let’s bring our hands together and offer our salutations to Brahma, for curiosity which cultivates passion and creation; to Vishnu, for courage through which we persist through whatever we face in front of us with optimism, and to Shiva, for adversity and the confidence and joy gained after we overcome challenges.

Guru Brahma
Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshath Parambrahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha

(tr: Guru is the creator Brahma, Guru is the preserver Vishnu, Guru is the destroyer Siva. Guru is directly the supreme spirit — I offer my salutations to this Guru.)

Who is the inventor?

The other day, Sophie brought home stencils and coloring pages about inventors including George Stephenson and Leonardo da Vinci. It prompted an interesting discussion with Charlotte as the two of them argued as passionately as I’ve ever seen them.

Sophie: “Leonardo da Vinci invented the airplane.”
Charlotte: “No, he didn’t! The Wright brothers invented the airplane.”
Sophie: “YES! It was Leonardo da Vinci. We learned that in school.”
Charlotte: “No, Leonardo da Vinci only drew designs for airplanes but he didn’t make it up into the air. The Wright brothers built the first airplane that made it into the sky.”

In fact, Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s. He made hundreds of drawings that illustrated his theories on flight. One of his ideas, the Ornithopter flying machine, was a design that da Vinci created to show how people could fly, and was the basis for the modern day helicopter.

Who is the inventor, the designer or the builder?