In talking with many people who are on a path of growth I get the opportunity to witness; witness their walk and turn inward to witness my own. When we step back, sometimes we can see the error of our ways and with guidance learn a more positive approach. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras teaches about the concept of avidya. Let’s look at what avidya is and how it plays a part in our lives.
What is Avidya?
Avidya literally means “incorrect understanding”. The opposite is vidya or “correct understanding”. Avidya in some ways is the characteristics and habits that we develop because of our life experiences. For example, say a friend falls to the ground and we extend a hand to help them up and they smack it. We would be confused, maybe even hurt or angry. But they are our friend and so we reach out again, but again they smack our hand. In fact each time we try to help them we get the same result. Eventually, we no longer offer assistance to them with a fear of what may happen.
Let’s move forward a month and another friend slips and falls. Will we help them? By this point, it will at the very least cross our mind that we could be slapped again. Of course we want to help, but our past experiences tell us we may not get the result we hope for and in fact we may be hurt in the process. We may even replay the event in our mind so much that we become traumatized and decide never to help anyone who falls. This is avidya.
Avidya is like a tree and it’s sometimes easier to recognize the branches. The first branch is asmita or the “ego”. Asmita makes us think we need to be the best, the fastest, the coolest, the richest, the prettiest, the skinniest, and so on.
The second branch is raja. Raja is demanding. For example, Sue went shopping for furniture and found a table she’s been looking for and was so happy and excited to have something new for her house. Today, Sue wakes up and wants to go again, get something else. Even though she may not need anything and it may not be good for her budget, she wants to feel good like she did yesterday. This is raja.
Next is Dvesa. In a way, it’s opposite of raja. Dvesa is when we reject things. When we no longer help a fallen friend because we are afraid we will get hurt again, like our example. We may even reject things that are unfamiliar even if we have no reason. We reject people, thoughts, places, and things because of what we relate to them or because we can’t relate to them.
Last is abhinivesa or fear. Fear affects us more than we realize. In our society it’s best to blend, to be part of the norm, to do what is expected. When we express ourselves in a way that is individual or different we have doubts. These doubts can be about our jobs, relationships, about being judged, about our looks and the aging process, and so on. Think about the amount of doubt that goes through your mind on a daily basis. Thoughts This is abhinivesa.
Just like a tree, avidya grows. It may be slow and subtle then before we realize it the roots have overtaken and we are immersed in negative thoughts and fears, not thinking clearly because avidya is like a cloud over our eyes. At that point, we are living in an illusion and cannot see the truth. This can be in a single are of life or many.
The good news is yoga helps us to see. It helps to remove the cloud by practicing the philosophy. The practice teaches that what happened yesterday is not guaranteed for today. If yesterday was great and I want it all over again or if it was bad and I never want it again. Today is a new day and with this day we are renewed and all of our experiences are new.
Take time this week to see what you cling to and what you reject. See what branches of avidya are creeping into the garden of your mind, body, and your spirit. Acknowledge it, then begin the process of letting go by allowing yourself to feel how you feel, accepting it. Next, move your awareness into the body and see where the roots are on a more physical level, imagine them unrooting and releasing in whatever way that unfolds.
Om Shantih, Shantih, Shantih
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