Thursday, March 15, 2012

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.




References

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

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, Wired.co.uk (1 Feb 2010), http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/03/start/dan-ariely-bonuses-boost-activity-but-not-quality

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.