Avidya: Knowing That You Don’t Know
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.
I should be suspicious
of what I want.
-Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I often feel under qualified to be addressing the topics I address each month on the blog and in satsang. Similarly, most of the last decade teaching yoga has been plagued with incessant self-questioning as I try to make sense of how a neophyte like myself winds up teaching such a deeply transformative practice when I’ve yet to be fully cooked. On the other hand, if students (or anyone else, for that matter) wants to talk about missteps, falls from grace, attachment, egotism, or feelings of overwhelming vulnerability, then I’m your person— no question!
As much as we are loath to admit it, a large part of a true practice involves seeing our vulnerability and fragility. Many people engage in spiritual practice to seek power—and while, yes, yoga practices have the potential to bestow feelings of heightened awareness and energy upon the practitioner, they also engender greater sensitivity and openness—as well they should, since sensitivity and openness are the keys to unlocking the door to who we really are. At its core, this yoga, this practice, is a practice of letting go—letting go of patterns detrimental to the aim of yoga, eventually leading to the sacrifice of any and all ideas and concepts of who or what we think we are for the realization of the true Self, jivatman.
The key of the above statement is to understand the dynamic of letting go of something lesser in order to open to something greater. A prisoner must first leave their cell before experiencing the fullness and freedom of life beyond bars. Likewise, we turn our attention away from the smoke and mirrors of the world and our egos (the primary force behind the world-as-we-know it) and turn our attention inward toward the light of our true being. The life of the Buddha symbolizes this letting go on many levels: initially leaving the palace as Prince Siddhartha to wander the world; in seeing the horrors of the world, Siddhartha becomes a wandering yogi; and in seeing his entrapment in the extremes of asceticism, he lets go of the final stronghold of his ego before his ultimate realization, thus transforming from Siddhartha (one with the power of attainments) to The Buddha (one who knows).
We begin the second book of the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada, the book on practice, not with a simple how-to guide to enlightenment, but with an introduction to what hinders us from yoga. Patanjali refers to these as simply the klesha, or afflictions, “Avidya, asmita, raga, dvesha, abhinivesha kleshah”—The hindrances to yoga are ignorance, the sense of a separate self, attraction, aversion, and clinging to the status quo. (trans. Ravi Ravindra)
Avidya, popularly translated as ignorance,literally means to “not-see.” We normally understand ignorance as not knowing, or misunderstanding, but the Sanskrit makes a direct correlation between not knowing to the act of not seeing, an act that refers to senses and to the realm of experience more than to the act of thinking. The implication is not that we aren’t thinking (in fact, we’re probably doing more than enough thinking); it’s that we aren’t seeing. Seeing precludes and blends with thought, as do all our senses, and the sutras are clear about how that process works. If our perceptions are errant, what is the outcome of that misperception? Errant perception leads to errant thought, which results in unproductive action. If we cannot see ourselves clearly, how can we engage in any practice and any path of action that can properly address our current situation? Often we engage in practices that reinforce the dominance of the ego rather than the practices that serve the development of the essence of our true Self. Practicing in such a way is like taking cough syrup to cure a fever.
Asmita translates somewhat messily into English as “I-am-ness,” which is an attempt to turn the verbal, active statement of “I am” into a whole practice or entity unto itself, rendering it a noun. The fact that such a word exists in any language is a testament to the fact that we are well practiced in the art of reaffirming who we are, or who we think we are. Here we see the need to strive against the current of Cartesian thought, which dictates, “I think, therefore I am.”
Thoughts left unmanaged spring forth from warped perceptions, resulting in the belief that we are what we think. These thoughts are generated from the outer world—television, internet, magazines, religious and political propoganda—this is what is seen when our vision is turned outward. That perception then blends with our sense of self. We then associate ourselves with things of temporary nature—money, religion, politics, sex, food, clothing, and even the intellect. As these things inevitably change, we suffer and attempt to refill our continuously emptying coffers, thus perpetuating the cycle of samsara.
In coming to know who we are, it is impossible to avoid being faced with who we are not. The test of faith is to continue with the work despite the pain and difficulty of letting go of the smaller self. Over time one comes to see that letting go of our ideas of who we are and old emotional patterns is the hard work that smaller renunciations are preparing us for.
What lies beyond us and above us cannot be fully comprehended by our limited and fractured awareness. Our sadhana is preparing us to see what we can’t yet envision. We are tilling the soil in preparation the seeds of understanding. We let go of fast-food enlightenment in exchange for real nourishment. Letting go of our ego driven desires and appetites, we open to the possibility of true love.
Join me this coming Sunday at Purple Yoga for our monthly satsang. This month’s topic is on the hindrances to yoga: the afflictions, covered in yoga sutra 2.3 – 2.9. If you have a copy of the sutras, feel free to bring a copy for your own personal reference. Also, the time for satsang has changed to 5 pm – 6:15 pm. Donations are greatly appreciated.