Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Approaching Avidya; Pulling Down the Veil

We all have those of moments where we look back on our past and think, "If I only knew what I know now..." - you can probably complete this sentence a hundred times over! We all think about times in our lives when our older, perhaps wiser selves would probably have taken a different path had we been able to see clearly. Hindsight is 20/20, right? There is a really useful concept in yoga called Avidya that helps us understand the veils that obscure our vision when we are seeking the truth. Desikachar, in his book The Heart of Yoga, describes it thus, "Avidya literally means "incorrect comprehension," describing a false perception or a misapprehension." The opposite of Avidya is Vidya, or "correct understanding, knowledge, illumination." In layman's terms, Avidya is that film that seems to cloud your vision when you are misunderstanding something. It is commonly held that Avidya is what keeps us locked in our samskaras, habits that we hold in our actions and our perceptions. Also, when we hold that we are separate and alone in this world, rather than part of the greater whole, that is subscribing to Avidya.

Desikachar states, "Avidya is the root cause of the obstacles that prevent us from recognizing things as they really are. The obstacles are asmita (ego), raga (attachment) dvesa (refusal) and abhinivesa (fear)." Patanjali's Yoga Sutra addresses asmita in verse 2.6: "False identity results when we regard mental activity as the very source of perception."* Have you ever run into a situation you just couldn't think through? Your mind keeps running into a brick wall, over and over and over again. Often it can be in very dark times, when we are trying to reason out an illness, death or other traumatic event. Maybe you were at a crossroads in your life, like that last scene in Cast Away, where Tom Hanks is in the middle of nowhere, with four possible directions, trying to decide which way to go. At that point, what do you do? Asmita would be believing that your mind could reason it out; Vidya, or right knowing, might be following that tug of your heart. Where do you truly feel you need to be, in your gut, your soul, your core - whatever you want to call it? Some people might call it a guardian angel, some intuition -- but you just know that you can't reason it out, you have to feel it out. You have to go with that inner knowing that what you are doing is right. Try this practice to help you counteract asmita: Sit in meditation, with your hands gently placed over your heart. Repeat the mantra, on the inhale "I will follow my heart." On the exhale, "I am listening to my heart." Try to do this for 15 minutes each day (or just at each red traffic light!).

Ragah (attachment) is next, in verse 2.7, "Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness."* Ever experienced "shopper's high"? You bought that new TV, shirt, car, whatever, and for some period of time, this new thing brings you feelings of happiness with the satisfaction of your desire. But once that purchase loses it's "new car smell", the happiness fades. Someone who loses themselves in ragah might relentlessly pursue new things, whatever the cost to their total happiness and might lose some things that can actually provide lasting happiness, like community, family and intimate relationships. Try this practice to counteract ragah: Whenever you feel the need to purchase something to improve your mood, think of something you can do for your neighbor or friend. Even a friendly smile to a stranger is a fine replacement for a unnecessary desire. When you replace unnecessary consumption with service to your fellow humans, we all win.

The third obstacle is Dvesa (refusal). "Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past connected with particular objects and situations."* One common way this can manifest is approaching having a new relationship after suffering a broken heart. It's common to swear off the desired sex while the heart deals with the wound. In regards to this particular situation, a shift in attitude can help you reduce dvesah. You first need to become aware that you are refusing out of habit - not an easy thing in itself! To counteract dvesa, try listing things you dislike. Then try to remember exactly why you dislike them. If you run into some that you can't reason out, experiment by experiencing that thing again. Practice non-reaction and note what happens. You may realize you can unplug from that dislike quite easily once you become disconnected from the habit.

And finally, the fourth obstacle is Abhinivesa (fear). "Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise."* This can be the mo'daddy of all obstacles. Fear can take you down a deep, dark spiral that closes in on itself. It is a big challenge to break out of our cycles and circles of fear. The hard thing about this one is that fear can be completely rational, and completely irrational. It requires deep focus of your the whole of your being to release all fear, and it is by far the most difficult to overcome. The pinnacle feeling is that we are one with the universe, and we realize, deep within the core of our being, that we are just one infinitesimal speck of light amid all the other specks of light, and there is absolutely nothing to fear. To stay there, however, well - isn't that why we practice yoga?

Learning about these veils that cloud our perception is really helpful in our pursuit of Vidya, or right knowing. When we see clearly, we can make decisions in accordance with our heart, for the right reasons, without undue influence from the past and free from fear. We find ourselves in an atmosphere of deep peace, eyes wide open and ready for the dawn of the new day, eager for the challenges ahead. Can you see the light blooming just over the horizon?

*All translations are taken from T.K.V Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga

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