My hyperbolic husband has been jokingly throwing that phrase around during this global pandemic, especially since our home city of Seattle has been practicing social distancing for about a month. He’s been reacting well to isolation – focusing on his hobbies, happily cooking us healthy meals, reveling in the introvert’s paradise of no social obligations. I, on the other hand, have been working through darker spaces: hours of Netflix and YouTube bingeing, self-reproach about how little I’ve been working or moving, and missing my normal teaching schedule. I do have some days when I’m happily ‘on vacay’…which alternate with days of on-and-off, scare-the-cat volumes of crying.
Despite avoiding social media right now, I’ve picked up on a couple of trends that are circulating the interwebs, which pretty much reflect our household. Some folks are embracing the isolation – ‘Learn new skills!’ ‘Finally finish that home project!’ – whereas others are going stir crazy or finding the worldwide unrest extremely stressful. Ultimately, while there’s no right or wrong way to react to these unprecedented times, I think we could all benefit by touching base with a classic line: “It is what it is.”
This phrase, too, has been circling around. And while I absolutely adore it, the current pervasiveness of “it is what it is” has me wondering how much reflection goes into this rather profound statement. In fact, many people seem to interpret the phrase as a variation of “Life sucks, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Sure, many people feel that way right now, but pump the brakes for a second – because, when viewed in the proper light, “it is what it is” can be THE opportunity of this pandemic.
When taken in context with the yogic concept of vairagya, we have an unparalleled opportunity for spiritual and mental growth available to us. And here’s the best part – it doesn’t have to look “pretty.” Or “productive.” Coming to terms with vairagya, the ultimate acceptance of “it is what it is”, is a simple (though not always easy) way to grow during this corona craziness and beyond.
“What Is” and Vairagya
So what is vairagya? It’s a practice we can train ourselves in, where we ‘see without color,’ i.e. notice what’s happening, as it’s happening, and don’t add anything to it. The Yoga Sutras say that when we can avoid getting stirred up, we can see things for how they really are – which essentially makes us un-fuck-with-able. Because what messes with us the most? Our own reactions! How much power would you have if they took a backseat?
Let’s imagine a couple of scenarios, shall we? You’re working from home, on a Zoom meeting, and the internet inexplicably stops working. What would normally happen? Frustration, teeth grinding, yelling at the router, tearing out your hair? All of these reactions to the circumstance. What would it be like if you noticed it stopped working, immediately accepted that this is what’s happening, and calmly proceeded to search for solutions?
Another example: you’re trying to homeschool your kids. No matter how often you’ve asked them to concentrate, or work on a project, they will not focus…until you reach a breaking point, and either give up, or aggressively lay down the law. What would it be like if you could recognize their lack of attention, take a breath, and not take it personally? What if you had enough patience and creativity to keep trying to engage them, without becoming upset or frustrated – even if it never works?
This is the opportunity of vairagya – allowing circumstances to exist as they are, without resisting them. It’s giving yourself a little space to detach from “the plan,” whether that plan has been around for years or moments. This month, the entire world is offering us scenario after scenario where things refuse to go as planned! Where our routines, our habits, and our most treasured definitions of “normal” are being thrown helter-skelter into the wind. Can you relax into the fact that this is what’s happening? That it is, no matter your preferences, what the world is right now?
There are two big pitfalls when approaching vairagya as a practice. (After all, since when is anything as straightforward as we want it to be?) And while they’re distinct, they have a lot of overlap.
Firstly – we try to force “detachment” as an outcome, not a process. How hard can it be, right? Just stop reacting to things, stay calm in all circumstances. And when that doesn’t work? We suppress the feelings that arise in an attempt to get to the appearance of being detached. (Protip: This approach doesn’t work. At all.)
Secondly – we have a firmly rooted notion of what it’s supposed to look like, both internally and externally. In the examples I used above, vairagya looks like being calm and collected in adversity – which, when you’re dealing with circumstances that drive you up-the-wall crazy, may seem 100% out of reach. How can your mind ever quiet down to that extent?
Even if vairagya does start working, you might interpret this as being boring, uninteresting, or living a life without joy. Why would you want a life with no color? How can you achieve goals or have fun experiences if you’re detached from desires and emotions?
Vairagya is neither an easy, effort-full achievement, nor a goal of complete and emotionless calm. Its secret lies in the willingness to let things happen, not in some perfect execution of staying relaxed. As you remain open to the experiences occurring around you, there is a learning curve of staying present no matter what comes up.
Now here’s the clincher – one of the biggest things that will come up are your emotions.
You heard me right. We’re not trying to stop having thoughts, emotions, or feelings – we’re trying to be present with them showing up, and start noticing them on a slightly detached level so they can happen without us adding anything. Remember how I’m handling this pandemic? I am Not. Calm. At. All. I am a hot mess most days of the week – and I am practicing being okay with being a hot mess.
This is part of the learning curve. Some days, yes, we may be so chill that our composure is genuinely unruffled when external circumstances arise – and we’ve practiced vairagya. Other days, we may go through a circumstance-emotion-reaction loop, then step into vairagya, finding a willingness to experience the internal conditions without adding layers of judgement, frustration, self-satisfaction, or thought spinoffs. Eventually, as detachment becomes easier, we’ll move towards complete freedom – where our choices reflect deep values and stability, not a reaction to what feels good or bad in a given moment.
Willingness to allow anything – even a pandemic – creates that little bit of sanity-preserving space. So I give you permission to feel whatever you’re feeling during this time. Motivation? Anticipation? Excitement? Great. Anxiety? Frustration? Fear? Bravo. It’s all valid. Each flavor of reaction, every outside circumstance that affects you, gives you an opportunity to choose. Will you spiral indefinitely, adding fuel to the fire of your thoughts? Or will you practice vairagya, at any level, and stay present with exactly how it is, and what it is, right now?