An Argument Against the Development of Passivity as a Spiritual Practice
In some Eastern Systems of Personal Development there are only three questions that are considered of importance for the student to answer: Who am I? What am I? Where am I? The answer to each of these questions seem simple enough for the Westerner to answer, but only because the meanings of Who, What and Where are viewed differently in the West. In the East however, these questions often form a life’s work for the student of Yoga. Many never get past the first question for it is a type of question that defies answer from the intellect alone.
Who am I? cannot be answered through the mind, it can only be experienced. To come to an awareness of Who I Am through personal experience, the student must become proficient in the use of a number of tools, each designed to open a level of awareness of the world that exists beyond that of the physical. The different forms these tools come in make up the body of the Eastern Yogic disciplines.
The Eastern Yogic traditions are not to be confused with the form currently popular in the West which focuses primarily on only one school of Yoga, Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga, as it is practiced in America, has become little more than a form of physical fitness with little emphasis on the development of the spiritual self.
One tool used in the Eastern traditions to facilitate experiencing the answer to Who Am I? is through the expansion of one’s knowledge of self during meditation (another one of those answers that until you have experienced it yourself, seem to be leading you in a circle). The student is taught that to expand one’s knowledge of self it is important to clear away all things that are “not you” during the meditation. A key aspect of this practice is the development of Detachment. There are numerous reasons why Detachment is a key to much more than just a meditation practice, but for the sake of this discussion we will only address the process, not the justification for its importance.
Detachment can be reached in two ways:
(1) Detachment through Denial (will)
(2) Detachment through Perspective (experience)
Detachment through Denial is generally the first form of Detachment that a student can find some success in mastering. I should make it clear at this point that Detachment through Denial is in no way related to the psychological coping mechanism of being “in denial”. Detachment through Denial simply means that once the student has recognized the existence of a personal desire or craving for an object or a situation, they consciously decide to exercise their will to “deny” the desire or craving any power over them. Obviously a lot easier to say than to accomplish, but change can come about through conscious effort with time.
The value of developing a state of Detachment in one’s personal development is described by Patanjali in his Kriya Yoga Sutras:
“Detachment allows one to remain in the presence of our true Self. It is characterized by the feeling of calmness, despite the presence of many objects of attention or potential distractions. This calmness is the emblem of detachment and includes not only an outward passivity, but an inner equilibrium.”
Kriya Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Siddhas 
In the Sutras, the distractions referred to are “cravings” for objects and/or situations. Detachment reached through Denial through exercising the Will over cravings for objects – things – emotions, as described by Patanjali, will not eliminate the cravings, but through Denial they will be under a reasonable level of control. The goal of the continuous exercise of Denial of a specific craving is to get to the point where the mind “forgets” the form of the craving, and the amount of energy that must be expended in exerting control over that specific craving will become minimal, and thus less of a distraction.
The intent of developing this sense of Detachment during meditation is that as it becomes a permanent part of your “inner self” it will spill over into the remainder of your life resulting in your eventual development of a complete sense of Detachment from the daily affairs of the manifest, mundane world. Development of a complete sense of detachment means you experience the experience, but you have no reaction to it. Someone gives you a raise for a job well done, you have no emotional reaction; someone fires you for a job not well done, you have no emotional reaction to it either. But here is where a problem can arise from our efforts to become a more spiritually developed individual.
If one is living in a Monastery with walls to protect you from the outside world, and a rigid social structure to function within that provides protection from the individuals that you interface with, this level of detachment can be safely practiced.
For the rest of us, Detachment through Denial, when used in balance and in its proper place can be beneficial, but the use of this method in the mundane world, as opposed to the artificial environment of a monastery, can result in unintended consequences.
The fact that we must be aware of is that the overwhelming majority of our fellow inhabitants of this planet neither understand, nor are much interested in understanding, our interest in developing a sense of detachment. As a result, they can misinterpret one of the aspects that manifests in an individual as they develop a sense of Detachment through Denial.
“This calmness is the emblem of detachment and includes not only an outward passivity, but an inner equilibrium.” (Emphasis mine.)
The appearance of “outward passivity” has become a prominent goal in many of the Westernized Yogic and New Age Philosophies. It has been promoted as a character trait to be prized and developed on its own, rather than recognized as an outer manifestation of an inner development.
The snag is that Passivity developed as a personality trait alone, can actually draw conflict.
Ok, that is a pretty strong statement and one that seems to be counter to most of the Spiritual Development movements popular today. To be able to put this statement into context and to understand the social process involved, Passivity must be viewed in terms of one of the many personality related energy signals that we unconsciously radiate.
As a Human Consciousness (Soul) made up of a complex compilation of pure energy patterns, we constantly radiate information in the form of signal patterns (waveforms) that our fellow beings are aware of on a “sub-conscious” level. Someone instinctively knows when we a feeling down, or ill, or angry. They get this knowledge from the signals that we transmit just as a part of being an active consciousness, and then they interpret the pattern received in terms that they are familiar with as a result of their own energy patterns. In other words, they recognize the signal pattern of the emotion of say, happiness, in themselves, so when they receive a similar signal pattern from another individual, they interpret the signal to mean that the other individual is “happy”. In a Parapsychology Laboratory this process is studied under the classification of ESP, but it is a process that goes far beyond the limits that mainstream science has placed on the laboratory definition of ESP.
One segment of these patterns, the Active Personality, is associated with the type of person or personality type that we exhibit under normal social conditions. This personality type can be portrayed as a signal pattern located within a frequency spectrum where one end of the spectrum is labeled as Totally Passive, and the other end of the spectrum is labeled as Totally Aggressive. It is doubtful that anyone remains long at either end of the spectrum, except possibly for a brief moment in time, or that anyone is at any given position in between the two extremes for all situations in their life.
[Totally Passive – Assertive – Totally Aggressive ]
(lower frequency) – Active Personality Spectrum – (higher frequency)
The flow of energy between individuals whose personality types are normally located at different positions on the spectrum between Passive and Aggressive is similar to that experienced in Thermodynamics, the science of heat. In Thermo, the direction of flow of heat is always from the material of greater temperature to that of lesser temperature. Since heat is simply an expression of the rate of vibration of the material, the direction of flow is from the material that is vibrating at a higher rate, or frequency, to that which is vibrating at a lower rate, or frequency.
If you equate Aggression with the higher frequency of the warmer material, and Passivity with the lower frequency of the cooler material, you find that Aggression automatically flows towards Passivity. This flow occurs as a natural process without thought in most individuals and its sudden appearance can frequently be a surprise to them. It is an unconscious reaction, although some people do find that allowing their aggressive side to come out results in their getting their way, and then come to consciously use it.
The goal in our personal development is to strike a balance between the two extremes of being either totally passive or totally aggressive. This balance point can be described as Assertive.
Assertiveness does not refer to a specific point or frequency on the spectrum. Rather it refers to the process of conscious decision making involved in the individual’s attempt to maintain a balance in their interactions with other Human Consciousness’s. Balance refers to being able to maintain whatever position we have chosen to occupy between the two extremes in the Active Personality energy spectrum.
For example, if we are interacting with an individual who is further toward the Passive end of the spectrum than we occupy, we can consciously decide to control (consciously reduce) our own level of aggression, thus preventing the flow of our more aggressive energy to that individual. In this way we prevent the imposition of our Will over theirs.
Likewise, if we find ourselves in a situation where someone else is attempting to exercise their Will in an aggressive manner with the intention of exerting control over us, we can respond by increasing our own level of aggression by a sufficient amount to first block, and then push back their aggression.
To maintain balance, to be Assertive, one must be capable of both reduction and amplification of their personal position on the passive – aggressive spectrum. The point at which an Assertive person resides between the two extremes of Passive and Aggressive is not some magical mid-point on the scale. The Assertive person adjusts their position to reflect the situation that they find themselves in. Focusing on remaining as close as possible to the Passive end of the scale actually stimulates aggression in others. It is the same principle as the flow of heat in thermodynamics discussed earlier.
Our culture has promoted a passive approach to both personal and international interactions for the last 50 to 60 years. One of the unfortunate outcomes of this shift in the approved method of response to aggression towards the passive end of the scale can be seen in the rise in the number of cases of “bullying” of children and young adults in this culture.
In the world of international affairs, our passive response to attacks on our embassies, the USS Cole, the Marine Barracks in Lebanon, and other passive actions such as our withdrawal from Somalia after the Battle of Mogadishu, directly led to influencing the level of aggression openly exhibited by individuals like Osama bin Laden.
Our lack of “appropriate” response to these events influenced the decision making process that resulted in the attack on the World Trade Center. We know this from bin Laden’s own words. After our withdrawal from Somalia bin Laden described the US as a paper tiger who no longer had the will (had become passive) to stand up to those who were prepared to attack it, and as such it was now possible that the United States could be defeated in matters of armed conflict.
These types of situations can, unintentionally, arise when Detachment through Denial and its accompanying outward passivity is practiced without taking into account the outer world we function in. If we are successful in becoming completely detached from the outcome of events in our lives, we not only give the appearance of being Passive, but in fact we do become Passive, accepting of any form of Aggression, without limits, that we may be subjected to.
The second way of reaching Detachment, Detachment through Perspective, comes to the individual almost as a side effect, as they develop an understanding of Who Am I? As the individual, through practice, experiences the expansion of one’s knowledge of self, the location of items on their lists of things that are “important in their lives”, and of things that are “nice to have but that are not all that important”, and of things that are “no longer important” in their lives at all, began to shift, with more and more items moving to the “no longer important” list.
It is at this point in the individual’s development that a different kind of detachment process begins to occur. At this point the person becomes detached from cravings and desires, not as a result of a conscious decision, but as the result of the process of putting things into perspective.
Because the individual who is practicing Detachment through Perspective will typically appear to be calmer, more centered, outwardly they will present much the same appearance of passivity as occurs in the person who is practicing Detachment through Denial. But there is a significant difference. Because the outer appearance is as a result of an inner change, it is not fixed in one place on the Active Personality Spectrum as it is when the outer appearance is as the result of a decision to not allow events to trigger any emotional response, regardless of the provocations involved.
Detachment as a result of perspective allows the individual to evaluate each situation and apply the appropriate response (be assertive) without that response being based on emotion. Remember, this was the original goal of developing a sense of detachment, the ability to control ourselves through conscious choice, with the choices being grounded in our personal values, in place of being driven to act (being distracted) by our emotional response to stimuli.
So, since it can take a lifetime to develop Detachment through Perspective, and working on our program of personal spiritual development utilizing the process of Detachment through Denial can result in inviting aggression by projecting passivity, what are we to do?
I would suggest that the individual who is working on a program of personal development, in addition to the kinds of meditative processes used to acquire a sense of detachment that are outlined in works such as Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga Sutras, spend some time meditating on just what constitutes a reasonable response to the various kinds of situations that an individual is likely to encounter in their daily life. By using the concept of Assertiveness detached from emotional response as a guide in determining what constitutes a reasonable response during their meditations, if or when one of the situations meditated on arises, the individual will be better prepared to react to the situation appropriately.
 Kriya Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Siddhas, Translation, Commentary and Practice by Marshall Govindan