Last week, the Lotus Love Skool students were assigned one Sanskrit word or phrase each from the Sadhana Pada chapter of the Yoga Sutras. We were asked to research the word or phrase, and give a five to seven minute oral presentation about its meaning and application. Each presenter was invited to share with the group how the word pertains to him or her in particular.
The result was a beautiful, powerful day of listening, learning, and bonding. I think we all left the room with greater respect and love for one another. In honor of our safe space policy, I won’t repeat anything that was said, but I will take a moment to elaborate on my own assigned word, avidya.
To quote the sutra as translated by Swami Satchidananda, Ignorance is the field for the others mentioned after it, whether they be dormant, feeble, intercepted, or sustained…Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, and the non-Self as the Self.
To break it down simply, the first form of ignorance (regarding the impermanent as permanent) can be seen in our tendency to grasp at one’s circumstance, whether good or bad, and react to the circumstance as if it will never change. The second form of ignorance (impure as pure) is expressed in the mistaken attitude that one’s negative words, thoughts, and deeds are instaed positive and on the path towards communion with purusha (the unchangeable Self) and satya (truth). The third form (regarding the painful as pleasant) involves engaging in habitual, often destructive behaviors that satisfy some immediate desire or craving (drug use, excessive drinking, harmful relationships) but ultimately cause greater suffering. The fourth form, which is perceiving the non-Self as Self, encapsulates the first three kinds of ignorance. In all instances, the individual loses sight of Oneness.
The word avidya is rooted in the word vidya, or knowledge of the true nature of all things. Avidya is often described as a veil that can be penetrated through the cultivation of a spiritual practice. Many of us arrive at yoga through asana and become progressively more interested in the other limbs: yama, niyama, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi. As one becomes more advanced in the practices of ethical living, breath work, meditation, sense restraint, and highly attuned mental concentration, the veil of avidya becomes less and less opaque. No matter how sweet one’s attachments may seem, once the veil of avidya drops away, the bliss experienced is beyond any apparent gratification those attachments can provide.
During our Sutra circle (which lasted for approximately six hours with a thirty-minute lunch break), people opened their hearts wide and gave new blood to this ancient text. I, however, stuck to a pretty tidy, textbook-y spiel on avidya. I’ll admit, I was anxious about sharing too much. Since my word required a detailed explanation, I felt I had to keep my personal story in check, or I would have become distracted and flustered. That evening, after a long and emotionally demanding day of training, I was inspired by my satsang to earnestly meditate on how avidya shows up in my own life.
In the most mundane sense, I’m a grasper. When a situation is serving me, I like to hold on. And even when it’s bad, I would typically rather dance with the devil I know as opposed to the devil I’m not familiar with. I have stayed in relationships way past their expiration date, and I have even lived in places that made me unhappy out of determination to “tough it out”. Either way, I experience suffering in the face of change as a result of this grasping, which is a symptom of my desire for permanence. When I get down to brass tacks, I see that all of my anxiety, panic and dread of transience stems from my very basic, yet very powerful, fear of death. Cutting through this expression of avidya means making peace with my own mortality and the mortality of my loved ones.
According to yogic philosophy, the only thing that does not pass away is purusha, or the eternal, universal, immovable Self. The body may die, but purusha exists far beyond the slow decay of flesh and bone. When I hold on to identifications (where I live, who I associate with, what activities I engage in, how much money I have, how I look), it is a denial of purusha. We tend to think that these things make us who we are. For example, if I go out a few nights a week and drink heavily, then I might be considered relaxed, fun company. But when I identify with my habits and with the way I am perceived by others, I limit my own evolution. I begin to do and say things because I believe that these are the things people are responding to, and if people are responding positively to my habits (whether life-affirming or self-destructive), then I feel compelled, consciously or not, to maintain that image. Not only am I regarding the painful as pleasant (because hangovers are definitely the former), but I am also cocooning my Self with lots of small-self trappings.
Then I began to consider identifications such as gender, race, and sexuality. We are still subjects in a highly politicized world, are we not?
This is where I find the most conflict with this notion of avidya, division and the journey towards oneness. How do we meditate, act, speak, and pray in the spirit of union and love if the divisions of gender, race and sexuality confront us daily? How do we critique avidya if we are busy critiquing the very real implications of what it means to be a woman, or a person of color, or a transgendered individual in the context of a systemically sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ageist world? The issue of self-identification is an increasingly popular topic of discussion. There are concerted movements popping up all over that aim to empower the disenfranchised through homegrown, community-generated discourses of self-identification.
I suppose the question that hangs in the balance, for me, is how the concept of avidya does or does not conflict with identity politics. Is yoga the answer to all of these modes of alienation and separation? If we all became more aware of the four types of avidya, would we find that there is no true division and only the perceptual, psychological, intellectual illusion of division?
Is it possible for me to state, for example, I am a woman (and thus must face certain obstacles that people not of my sex and gender can avoid), and still seek to lift the veil of avidya? Or is it inevitable that in making that statement, I am perpetuating my own ignorance of oneness? Does the insistence that self-identity (or externally imposed identity) isn’t “real” its own, equally dangerous form of ignorance?
By the end of the weekend, and by the end of this article, the only thing I can confidently say is that the conversation around avidya is a snake that eats its own tail. In this life, is it possible to make statements of identification and still maintain that I am not that identification, and truly carry the torch of satnam?
We didn’t come to any conclusions that day, but it was more about telling stories that spoke to the way a text takes shape in the world. I won’t attempt to wrap up the questions presented here in a nice, neat, journalistic package. Above all, I would love for this to be an open, honest discussion. Please lend your voice to the comments section below, and let me know what you think about avidya and identity.