In Yoga, we often use the term “vairagya.” It is often translated as “dispassion” or “non-attachment.” But, sometimes it is confused with “indifference.” So, what does non-attachment mean? Does it mean you are indifferent, you don’t care about anyone or anything? No. If you are completely disinterested, if you take it literally and don’t any interest whatsoever, it is impossible for you to live. Are you not interested in eating your breakfast? The minute we finish the breakfast, we think of what to prepare for lunch. We are interested in eating, in sleeping, enjoying; we are interested in living. If we are disinterested, even the life breath will not come back when it goes out. There is an unconscious interest, or desire to live, so the ribcage expands to create the vacuum that draws in the air. It is not possible to live without any interest whatsoever. Even if you are going to lead such a disinterested life, you would be having an interest in such a life! How can we call it a disinterested life? So we should not take it literally. Instead, let your interest be selfless.

How do you know if you have cultivated vairagya? How would dispassion or non-attachment look in your everyday life? Very simple: Whatever you do, do it completely for the sake of others; don’t expect anything for your own sake. If your interest is for the sake of others, the benefit of the humanity, or for the benefit of your neighbor, and not for your own personal interest, this attitude is called selflessness.

Selflessness means that whatever actions you perform—and this is the instruction from Sri Krishna’s to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita—don’t look for the fruits of those actions. What does that mean? Let go of your interest in any personal benefit that may come from your actions. Why? Because when there is no selfishness at all, you are happy. The happiness comes by itself. Don’t we all want to enjoy that happiness? If you expect that happiness, that could be called selfish. Then, if you are not given an opportunity to serve, so that you can have that happiness, you get disturbed; you get disappointed. You feel unhappy with the person who denies you that opportunity to serve. That’s what happens when we expect some personal satisfaction from our actions.

Happiness is bound to come when our actions are done for the benefit of others. When it comes, take it. You don’t deny it and you don’t dislike it. You neither like it nor dislike it. Because if you say “No, I don’t want this happiness,” then, again, there is a selfishness there because you are saying I don’t want it. A purely selfless person will accept the happiness that naturally comes, and if it doesn’t come, will not be disturbed. Rise above the likes and the dislikes, so that the mind can be always kept peaceful and balanced. That is the great benefit in living a selfless life, a “disinterested” life. Your interest is in being selfless and you are disinterested in being selfish—that is the simple way of understanding it.

It’s true, that in a way, it’s selfish to say that you don’t want to lose your peace; you don’t want to get disappointed. To want to retain your peace always, is a kind of selfishness, but by that kind of selfishness, you are not disturbing anybody, you are not bringing harm to anybody. On the other hand, when you lead a life like that, you set an example for others to follow. By your contented life, by your peaceful life, others are inspired. When the candle burns, it gives light. But as it gives light for us to see, it destroys itself by burning. If you put a candle in a dark room, without any lighting, you don’t see the candle. The candle cannot express itself. But once you light the candle, not only does the candle allow you see everything around you, it also allows you to see the candle itself. Would you say that the candle is selfish because it wants to show itself and that’s why it’s burning? We don’t say that. While allowing others to see other things, it has to show itself.

So, while bringing peace to others, we express our own peace and that is not considered to be selfish. Action for the sake of action, and not for the fruit of the action, is the purpose of this life. The entire world is the Garden of Eden. And the apple represents the fruits, or the results, of our actions that we are asked not to take for ourselves. That is the Nature’s law. For whose sake is it forbidden to eat the fruit? It is for our own sake. Because the minute you expect something, the minute you try to keep the fruit of your actions, your action itself loses its purity. It won’t be perfect any longer. Your mind, with which you are doing the action, loses its tranquility, its equanimity. It builds tension and anxiety. How many people get stage fright when they come for the first time to give a talk? The first time you have to come to the platform, you probably hesitated. Why? Because you want to give the correct lecture that all will appreciate. You expect their appreciation and you don’t want their criticism. So the very expectation of that leads to tension. You’re afraid. Will people like it or will they just ignore it? Will somebody ask some question that you cannot answer? All kinds of fears come because, indirectly, you expect their appreciation. That’s why expectation in the mind brings about a restless condition.

Only when you are disinterested in having something for yourself, can you be completely interested in the welfare of others. That is what is called Karma Yoga. Karma means you are interested in your action and the result. In Karma Yoga, you are interested in the other person’s welfare. There’s no personal interest. So karma will bring the fruit and while enjoying the fruit it will lay more seed for future karma. By that cycle—cause and effect, action and reaction—we will be bound, and we will remain continuously limited. But in Karma Yoga, we just do something and don’t have to worry about the result, so we are not bound, we are not disturbed.

You can do anything in life, and still be disinterested in personal gain. What about an artist? If an artist is not interested in name and fame, but is interested in other people’s enjoyment, then creating that art is a selfless action. When you create something such as poetry or a painting, it means that you experience something within and it comes out in words or colors. You give your expression to your experience. If you express it by the heart, it is art. Every artist simply expresses what they have already experienced or are experiencing so that others can enjoy it. You are not interested in it for yourself; you are only interested in expressing it for the sake of others.

All true and fine art is divine art. That means, it comes out from your innermost self and you are presenting it for humanity. But if it is being created for your name, fame, or monetary benefit, it’s not a divine art; it won’t really live that long. How many people write poetry? How many people write books? Have you ever bought a book or a magazine prior to boarding a plane and then when you leave the plane and walk away, you leave the book or magazine? That is all there was to that book. The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita are also books. But they are living books, because they are based on an experience; they are the outcome of the higher mind and therefore they live long in the minds of people. That kind of reading art is the outcome of a disinterested or selfless mind.

So, whatever you do—if you really want to be happy and peaceful—do it with selflessness; do it with disinterest in any personal gain.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda