Commitment and Detachment


Theosophy VIDYA 2 Comm

[The magazine Vidya , edited by associates of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, USA, published the following article in its Summer 2018 issue; here is a slightly revised version.]

Commitment tethers one to a line of action, a person, an object or a value. Through commitment come depth, skill and understanding. It is through continued contact over a long period of time that real love and understanding develop in a relationship. It is only through return to the studio again and again that skill at the canvas or the piano flourish. Commitment is the way we get past surfaces and gain access to the depths. But before those depths are gained, commitment may feel an irksome confinement, a difficult subjugation of the wandering mind and heart to a rather small parcel of real estate. We may feel, as in the lyrics of a 1970s rock song, “That sweet devotion is not for me, just give me motion and set me free.”

Just because one is tied to something, the commitment is not necessarily noetic and sattvic. A true commitment is a voluntary binding through self-chosen values. It presumes experience, questioning and self-selection. An authentic commitment must be grounded in self-validating truth. But there are also shadowy commitments, stemming from tamas, grounded in fear, inertia or a false sense of specialness. These may include bonds of inherited religion or political affiliation and constitute not refuges for the spirit but fortresses against dangers or demands of a hostile world. Real commitment always requires fortitude, and everyone experiences the doldrums of mere formality from time to time. But the mark of a truly vital commitment is periodic renewal of vision. Just as a tree brings forth new leaves in spring, so commitment is revitalized by the sap of meditation.

It would seem at first sight that the terms commitment and detachment point in opposing directions. While commitment ties and binds, detachment loosens and liberates. When applied to the inner life, confusion can be especially acute. Is there value in joining a particular spiritual tradition? But wouldn't this be unnecessarily narrow? Might one miss out on valuable practices and ideas from other traditions? What about breadth and eclecticism? But then, what about the dangers of cafeteria spirituality, the mere tasting of this and that, and never really sticking to anything long enough. One thinks of the metaphor of the man who dies of thirst while digging a well. It wasn't for lack of effort. But he dug a little here, a little there, and never stayed on one spot long enough to reach the water table.

Even when a spiritual path is chosen, one is faced with the conflict between the world and the spirit. Are one's attachments in the world inherently opposed to the detachment of the spirit? Is one's commitment to family, trade and society totally incompatible with one's inward commitment? The monasticism and asceticism that have flourished in various traditions stem from a recognition that the training of inner faculties is facilitated when the environment controls for distraction and every day cares. In this sense commitment and detachment are not opposites but complements. A deeper commitment to the inner life necessarily entails detachment from the world. They are not opposed because they apply to different objects.

The secular monasticism of theosophical life seeks to reframe this tension between the world and the spirit. The Voice of the Silence and the Bhagavad-Gita are replete with wisdom addressing this very thing. Both affirm that spiritual development is compatible, even enhanced, by active involvement in the world.

“Both action and inaction may find room in thee; thy body agitated, the mind tranquil, thy Soul as limpid as a mountain lake.”

“Shalt thou abstain from action? Not so shall gain thy soul her freedom. To reach Nirvana one must reach Self-Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge is of loving deeds the child.”

Neither is the spirit so fragile nor the world so fallen that life or law compel separation. Theosophical metaphysics is not escapist but Bodhisattvic, advocating the transformation and redemption of the world as mandatory service. Kurukshetra and Dharmakshetra, the region of conflict and the realm of learning, become indistinguishable. Intelligent involvement with the world may be regarded as an expression of seva (service), activating love and compassion through direct proximal contact with need.

The fifth chapter of the Gita opens with Arjuna asking, “At one time, O Krishna, thou praisest the renunciation of action, and yet again its right performance. Tell me with certainty which of the two is better?” The philosophy that Krishna espouses is both yoga and sannyasa, commitment and detachment, not merely one or the other. Krishna answers that only a child sees the two as separate; to the wise they are the same. Detachment, says Krishna, is best achieved by devotion through action.

Krishna warns against the mere outward curbing of action, without mastering the mind, calling such a superficial sannyasi a "false pietist of bewildered soul.” We are encouraged to stabilize the mind and purify the heart through action. Chapter 6 begins, “He who, unattached to the fruit of his actions, performeth such actions as should be done is both a renouncer of action and a devotee of right action Know, O son of Pandu, that what they call Sannyas or a forsaking of action is the same as Yoga or the practice of devotion."

Perhaps it is difficult at first for the Western mind to understand why action in the East is regarded as bondage. We might recall, however, that the word for action is karma. In addressing virago, detachment, the fourth in the series of seven transcendental virtues, The Voice of the Silence warns, “Thou hast to keep thy mind and thy perceptions far freer than before from killing action.” In the eighteenth chapter of the Gita, Krishna suggests that conflicting opinions about the nature of action abound. “By some wise men it is said, ‘Every action is as much to be avoided as a crime,’ while by others it is declared, ‘Deeds of sacrifice, of mortification, and of charity should not be forsaken.’”

The expression ‘killing action’ sounds like hyperbole. But maybe this is less difficult to understand if we think of the human mind as dual, serenely reflecting buddhi above, yet agitated by kama at the grosser level. The surface of a lake when disturbed by wind interferes with the calm reflection of the mountain. Passion and attachment reinforce the personal identity, and its sense of separateness from others. Interested action, too, plays into our expectations, our sense of entitlement, and our desire to control and appropriate results. All of this is “killing action” because it slays our perception of authentic identity and enduring values. “The mind is the great slayer of the real, let the disciple slay the slayer.”

Krishna's answer for achieving detachment amid worldly commitments is to reframe action in the context of universal yagna – to act, but to remove 'self from the motive. That little package we call ‘self’ is pure phenomenon and ultimately unreal. The yagna chakra, or wheel of sacrifice, is real: the majestic orbit of all interdependent phenomena in the one great universal body. Krishna's yoga is not a habitual or passive conformity to established social roles, but the heeding of a higher call, the dignity and privilege of voluntary participation within the great order of being. This requires some appreciation of yagna, a term imperfectly translated by the English word ‘sacrifice’. In Chapter Ill of the Gita the wheel of sacrifice is portrayed archetypally. “Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action. Know that action comes from the Supreme Spirit who is one: wherefore the all-pervading Spirit is at all times present in the sacrifice.” Krishna says that man was infused at his creation with the sacrificial spirit, and his appointed dharma is to keep this wheel of interdependence turning. This is to elevate identity, to act for and as the yagna. The binding power of action (mental, emotional and physical) comes from acting for self. It stems from and reinforces distorted perception, and produces habitual, even addictive, patterns. “All actions performed other than as sacrifice unto God make the actor bound by action.” On the other hand, “All the actions of such a man who is free from self-interest, who is devoted, with heart set upon spiritual knowledge, and whose acts are sacrifices for the sake of the Supreme, are dissolved and left without effect on him.” Again, ”Whoever in acting dedicates his actions to the Supreme Spirit and puts aside all selfish interest in their result is untouched by sin, even as the leaf of the lotus is unaffected by the waters. The truly devoted, for the purification of the heart, perform actions with their bodies, their minds, their understanding, and their senses, putting away all self-interest.”

The conception of the universe suggested by this teaching is that of a great field made fertile by sacrifice. Yagna is nothing more than the intercourse of form and formlessness, the breathing of one into the other, the perpetual circular transformation of the two. Every creature, object or event is only a crystalized particle, a transient precipitation from this field. In the great Adi Yagna we live, move and have our being. We are of the sacrifice and belong to the sacrifice. At no point do we separate from it, except in our own delusive imagination. The dissipation of form is but a return and re-fertilizing of this field, benefitting myriad of others who repeatedly take form in this arena of evolution and experience. To act merely for personal results, then, is not only to make one's mental life insecure through attachment, anxiety and anger, but to unnecessarily narrow one's vision with delusion.

If we think in this way, then, we can learn to regard every form of commitment as yagna and become sensitive to the myriad fields that fall into decline and sterility without it. This begins with our personal mental and moral states. Meditation is the yagna that restores and protects the health of the womb of mentality. Decoupled from personal ambition, meditation may be taken up with renewed commitment as the impersonal duty of a universal mind-being. And there are larger fields: the mental and emotional tone of family life, the culture at one's place of work, neighborhood culture, civic culture, national culture. All these fields are harmed by self-action or healed by selfless sacrifice. Can there be any more graphic expression for all of this than the present damage to the physical environment of the earth through irresponsible profit and exploitation? Krishna says that those who dress food for themselves alone eat the bread of sin, being sin incarnate. We must learn, rather, to partake of the remnants of the sacrifice. This has nothing to do with the guilty self-debasement or foolish martyrdom of so-called “self-sacrifice” in the West. These dark images start and end with the personal self and are incapable of rising to the transcendent majesty of Krishna's yoga. They turn yagna on its head; they attempt to render the transcendent in personal terms, instead of forgetting personality in the quest for impersonal understanding. What is meant by eating the remnants of the sacrifice is only logical: as the whole is greater than the part, so one's duty to truth takes precedence over the desires of the small self. Krishna assures Arjuna that the gods will never fail to grant one's true needs. Faithful practice restores trust in the faithfulness of Law.

Diligence in one's own commitments is the natural outcome of taking this perspective. But so also is gratitude for the many exemplars of sacrifice, who through their selfless commitments have renewed the hopes and transformed the knowledge of others, and so given a turn to the Wheel of Dharma. This is archetypally presented in the doctrine of the avatar of the fourth chapter of the Gita. Whenever there is a general decline in virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice, divinity takes human form, and “moves a man with men.” Robert Crosbie wrote that the adept is like one who opens a well, long dry through lack of maintenance. Such is the task of great reformers. But the avatar is like one who digs a new well where none had been and revitalizes the hearts of many, so that the blind may see, the lame may walk, and the dead are restored to life.

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