Lauren, a Los Angeles yoga teacher, slipped in a lunge while teaching and injured her ankle. Because she’s a practice-through-the-pain kind of yogi, she didn’t even stop to assess the injury before continuing her class. When she finally got to the doctor, she discovered she would have to stay off the ankle for at least a month.
For Lauren, this triggered a deep identity crisis. Since her teens, her strong body has been the source of her well-being, her self-esteem, and, in adulthood, her income. She can still teach, and her injury may even turn out to be an incentive to deepen her understanding of alignment. But because the “me” she has always felt herself to be is so tied to her physicality, the accident has left her deeply disoriented. Of course, she tells me impatiently, she knows she’s not her body. But knowing that doesn’t seem to cure her feelings of self-doubt and fear.
George has a different issue. His wife has told him she’s involved with another man and wants to have an open marriage. George feels shocked, abandoned, and insecure, which leads him to thoughts like “I’m not good at relationships” and “I’m not lovable.” Essentially, he feels the same disorientation that Lauren does. “I don’t know who I am when the person I love doesn’t want me,” he says.
Both these people have suffered a wound to their sense of self. A psychologist might say that the external blow cracked open some of the fissures in the fabric of their identity, bringing up feelings that probably stem from their childhoods. But from a yogic point of view, this feeling of groundlessness is actually an invitation to each of them to look seriously at the question: “Who do I think I am?”
Deeper than the trauma itself, deeper even than the memories that may be contributing to their feeling of personal derailment, Lauren and George are both suffering from the core misunderstanding that the yogic texts call avidya—a basic ignorance of who we are and of the underlying reality that connects everything in the universe. Their current situation is an opportunity for each of them to recognize this fundamental misperception—to look into the nature of identity itself.
When everything you have relied on seems to dissolve, you get not only a glimpse of the cracks in your psychological infrastructure but also a chance to examine the source of the problem, which gives you a better shot at getting free of it.
The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom or knowledge—the wisdom earned through deep practice and experience. The prefix a indicates a lack or an absence. In the yogic sense, avidya means something that goes far beyond ordinary ignorance. Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality. The core ignorance we call avidya isn’t a lack of information, but the inability to experience your deep connection to others, to the source of being, and to your true Self. Avidya has many layers and levels, which operate in different ways. We see it threaded through every aspect of our lives—in our survival strategies, our relationships, our cultural prejudices, the things we hunger for and fear. All forms of cluelessness and fogged perception are forms of avidya. But behind each of avidya’s manifestations is the failure to recognize that essentially you are spirit, and that you share this with every atom of the universe.
For instance, one common way you can see avidya in action is in the habit of thinking that other people should treat you better or that you need someone’s approval to feel good about yourself. You might “know” that this isn’t true—that people often act without regard for the welfare of others and that making your self-esteem contingent on how others feel about you is a bit like trying to buy zucchini at the Gap. If someone points out to you that you are responsible for your own inner state, you might think, “I know!” But knowing that truth intellectually doesn’t change your feelings or behavior. It doesn’t stop you from trying to cajole or manipulate your friends and partners and children into acting the way you think you “need” them to act—perhaps demanding continual reassurances of love from a partner, or looking for constant evidence of being needed. Intellectual knowledge alone doesn’t have the practical power to help you. For that knowledge to become vidya, or true wisdom, you need to understand it on a visceral level. Until you do, you are suffering from avidya on the level of relationships, with all of the attendant discomfort and pain. And the same goes for every other type of avidya.
More Than Skin Deep
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.5, we are given four useful clues for identifying when we have slipped into avidya. Each clue points to a particular way in which we take surface perceptions for reality. It cautions us to look deeper—to inquire beneath what our physical senses or cultural prejudices or egoic belief structures tell us. “Avidya,” the sutra says, “is to mistake the impermanent for the eternal, the impure for the pure, sorrow for happiness, and the not-Self for the true Self.”
If you explore this sutra, it can lead you to a profound reflection on the illusory nature of perception. Even a casual look at history reveals that each advance in science and culture has called into question beliefs that our ancestors took for granted—everything from the idea that Earth is the center of the solar system to the notion that matter is solid. The primary purpose of the sutra is to question our notions of identity. But, at the same time, it offers a window into some of our garden-variety forms of cluelessness.
Notice how Patanjali’s definition applies to so many levels of ignorance. Mistaking the perishable for the imperishable? That’s the everyday denial that keeps people believing they can depend on fossil fuels indefinitely, or jog on asphalt without damaging their cartilage. It’s that hopeful belief that your romantic passion will last forever, or that another person’s love will give you security. On a deeper level, it’s what keeps you from seeing that your conception of “me”—”my personality,” “my self”—is not stable and is certainly not permanent, that just as your body is an ever-shifting configuration of atoms, so your internal sense of self consists of thoughts about who you are (as in “I’m pretty” or “I’m confused”), feelings like happiness or restlessness, and moods such as depression or hopefulness—all of which are subject to change.
Mistaking the impure for the pure? That could apply to our misperception about the purity of bottled water, or to an unconscious spiritual attitude, like believing that being a vegetarian or a Buddhist or a yogi will protect you from the inevitable suffering of life. But when you apply the sutra on a deep level, you see that it is describing the ignorance that makes you mistake what is a passing state—a complex of thoughts and emotions and bodily sensations—for the pure consciousness that is your true Self.
Believing that sorrow is happiness? That misperception has been kicking our butts since the first time we longed for a toy—believing that having it would be the best thing ever—and then grew bored with it. Real joy is the natural delight that arises spontaneously from within us, the delight in life itself. It’s not that a good date or a powerful yoga session or a delicious meal can’t trigger joy. But the kind of happiness that depends on something else, even something as subtle as a session of meditation, always ends, and when it does, it leaves an emptiness in its wake.
Mistaking the false self for the true Self? This is the essence, the linchpin, of the whole structure of avidya. It’s not just that you identify with the body. You identify with every passing mood or thought about yourself, without recognizing that within you there is something unchanging, joyful, and aware. Thus, someone like Lauren, whose true Self is vast, brilliant, and made of love, comes to feel that her life is in ruins when a torn ligament keeps her from practicing Warrior Pose II.
Taken together, these flavors of avidya cause you to live in a kind of trance state—aware of what’s obvious on the surface but unable to recognize the underlying reality. Since this personal trance is fully supported by the beliefs and perceptions of the culture around you, it’s difficult for most of us even to recognize the existence of the veil. To fully dismantle avidya is the deep goal of yoga, and it demands a radical shift of consciousness. But the good news is that just recognizing that you’re entranced is to begin to wake up from the dream. And you can begin to free yourself from its more egregious manifestations by simply being willing to question the validity of your ideas and feelings about who you are.
Avidya makes you believe that the way you think or feel things are is the way they actually are. You can step past this misperception by looking at what your mind habitually tells you and questioning its conclusions about reality. Then, go a step further and notice how feelings create thoughts, and thoughts create feelings—and how the reality they construct for you is exactly that: a construct!
One of the great moments for catching your own avidya is to tune in to the first conscious feeling that surfaces as you wake up in the morning. Then, notice where it takes you. For several days recently, I woke up feeling lonely and slightly sad. This is not usual for me, so it caught my attention. I would emerge from the prewaking state and open my eyes to a gray sky (we were having a lot of morning fog on the California coast that week). I’d feel a dull, sinking energy in my body. Within seconds, something would grab hold of that feeling, identify with it (“I’m sad”), and expand it into a dulled, gray inner landscape. This automatic process is the action of what in yoga is called the “I-maker,” or ahamkara—the mechanical tendency to construct a “me” out of the separate components of inner experience. The inner dialogue ran something like this: “Oh, no, another gray day. Gray skies make me feel depressed. I need to get out of this climate. No, I shouldn’t blame the weather. It’s me. I have these depressed family genes. It’s hopeless!” Before I even got out of bed, I had written off my entire day.
Because the thought stream is so pervasive and the habit of identifying with it is so deeply ingrained, it takes some initial effort to recognize what is going on at a moment like that. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that these mechanisms of identification and self-definition run on autopilot. They’re like the crawl on CNN. The mood, the thought, even your feeling of “me” is a loop. It may be a repetitive loop, but if you look closely, you see that, like the crawl, it’s just passing through. The problem—the avidya— occurs because you identify with it. In other words, you don’t think, “Here’s some sadness,” but, “I’m sad.” You don’t think, “Here’s a brilliant idea.” You think, “I’m brilliant.” Remember, avidya is “to mistake the impermanent for the eternal, the impure for the pure, sorrow for happiness, and the not-Self for the true Self.” In your internal universe, that means habitually mistaking an idea or feeling for “me” or “mine.” Then you judge yourself as good or bad, pure or impure, happy or sad.
But none of these feelings are you. They are just passing through. True, they may have deep roots—after all, you’ve been identifying yourself as this or that for years. Nonetheless, to let that sad feeling define you is as nutty as it would be for the actor playing Julius Caesar to come offstage and issue commands to the stagehands as if they were his soldiers. But we do it all the time.
That morning, I remembered to work with the feeling (something I might not have done had I woken up feeling more positive). I closed my eyes and breathed into the lower belly, felt the sensual bliss of the breath inside my body, and watched the feelings. I remembered that I am not my thoughts. I also noticed how my sadness acted like a pair of blue-tinted glasses, coloring everything, so that a friend’s failure to call me back looked like rejection (she was only busy with a deadline) and even the branches on the oaks outside my window seemed to droop (in another mood, I might have noticed their leaves sprouting toward the sky).
<then the sun came out. Within seconds the sadness had dissipated. Now, the self-identification mechanism was busily saying, "I'm happy! That was just a reaction to the weather. I'm fine. I'm a joyful person! My practice worked!" In fact, my mind was engaging in the same process—grabbing the mood, identifying and "describing" it as happy, then identifying myself as "happy." To free myself from avidya demanded that I free myself from identifying with the happy mood, too.
What you’ll notice here is how the basic misperception—taking the non-Self (that is, a mood) for the Self—leads inexorably to feelings of aversion (“I can’t stand being depressed”) or attachment (“I feel so much better now that the sun is shining”). And these feelings bring up fear—in this case, fear that the sadness would be permanent, or that I was trapped by my genetic predispositions, or that I needed to change where I was living.
Lifting the Veil
Dismantling avidya is a multilayered process, which is why one breakthrough is usually not enough. Since different types of practice unpick different aspects of avidya, the Indian tradition prescribes different types of yoga for each one—devotional practice for the ignorance of the heart, selfless action for the tendency to attach to outcomes, meditation for a wandering mind. The good news is that any level you choose to work with is going to make a difference.
You free yourself from a piece of your avidya every time you increase your ability to be conscious, or hold presence during a challenging event. You can do this in dozens of ways. For instance, you can increase your consciousness about your connection and responsibility to the planet by sensitizing yourself to the energy in the natural world, in wind and water and trees. You can increase your awareness of your connections to others by listening better and by practicing kindness—but also by sinking your awareness into the heart center and trying to tune in to others from that interior place. You increase your consciousness of yourself by noticing your blind spots, or by noticing your emotions and their effect in the body.
Sitting with the Self
Meditations that tune you in to pure Being will begin to remove the deeper ignorance that makes you automatically identify “me” with the body, personality, and ideas. On a day-to-day, moment-to-moment level, you burn off a few layers of avidya every time you turn your awareness inward and reflect on the subtle meaning of a feeling or a physical reaction.
These types of intervention are not just key spiritual practices. They are also practical self-help techniques. When George asks himself, “Is it really true that my wife’s involvement with another man damages my sense of self?” he has a chance to recognize that his wife’s choices are not statements about who he is. This calms his anxiety, which gives him some leverage for moving forward. Noticing where the sadness and disorientation sit in his body, feeling his way into the sensations around the sadness, might lead him to look for the root feeling behind the fear and disorientation. He might notice that he has a hidden belief about himself, like “I’m unlovable,” and recognize that it comes from childhood and is not really related to the current situation. He could then practice with the sad feeling, maybe breathe it out, or substitute a positive thought for the painful belief, and notice how either practice changes his mood. In this way, his self-inquiry practice gives him support and clarity as he decides how to handle his wife’s request for an open relationship.
Avidya is a deep habit of consciousness, but it’s a habit that we can shift—with intention, practice, and a lot of help from the universe. Any moment that causes us to question our assumptions about reality has the potential to lift our veil. Patanjali’s sutra on avidya is not just a description of the problem of ignorance. It’s also the key to the solution. When you pull back and question the things you think are eternal and permanent, you begin to recognize the wondrous flux that is your life. When you ask, “What’s the real source of happiness?” you extend your focus beyond the external trigger to the feeling of happiness itself. And when you seek to know the difference between the false self and the true one, that’s when the veil might come off altogether and show you that you’re not just who you take yourself to be, but something much brighter, much vaster, and much more free.