I was recently watching a TV sitcom where a character had been deeply offended by her friend. After a full day of nursing her resentment, the character realized the rude event never happened—she had only dreamed that it had. Like the flip of a switch, her misery vanished.
It reminds me of the parable of the man walking outside during twilight. He shrieks at the sight of a coiled snake and runs, tripping on a stone and breaking his leg. A neighbor overhears his cries and comes out with a lantern. Holding the light up, it reveals not a serpent, but a pile of coiled rope.
The reactions of the resentful woman and the fearful man are both examples of avidya. The term is often translated into English as “ignorance.” More accurately, however, avidya means the “absence of correct knowledge.” In Sanskrit, “a-” means “absence of,” and “vidya” means “right knowledge.” In Buddhist teachings, this concept is called “wrong perception.” Our yoga teachings would have us explore this concept as the human tendency to believe a wrong perception.
See also: 40 Sanskrit Words Every Yogi Should Know
A Western translation of ignorance implies knowing nothing at all. Avidya, however, suggests that we do know something, but that we have interpreted or understood it incorrectly. In the Yoga Sutra, Swami Satchidananda translates Sri Patanjali’s teachings on avidya as “when we are convinced the impermanent is permanent, the impure is pure, the painful is pleasant, and the non-Self is Self.” (Sādhana Pada, Sutra 5).
For example, ending a relationship may bring up strong, painful emotions. In the turmoil, you think, “I’ll never get over this pain.” But emotions, like all else, are impermanent. In the darkness of the breakup, the belief that your pain won’t end is like that snake. In time, when night transforms into day (which it most certainly will), you will recognize that your emotional state was not permanent after all.
Avidya teachings remind us that even positive achievements can be wrongly perceived. I heard a podcast of a comedian who explained that early on in her career she became a sudden sensation. Work boomed, as did her confidence. But after just a few months the contracts dwindled, the attention waned, and her sense of self-worth plummeted. Avidya might have make her think she had become less talented when in fact she was the same person with the same talent both when her career soared and when it sank.
Remedies for avidya
Avidya is one of five human afflictions, or kleshas, that cause suffering (duhkha). While suffering is part of life, there are ways to reduce how tightly it clings and how long it lasts. In the case of avidya, the remedy for wrong perception is right perception. There are many ways to seek and practice it:
Go into study mode. One form of right knowledge, or vidya, arises from intellectual or material knowledge—things we learn through study. An example: learning the correct definitions of words and ideas as we are doing in this article, and applying them to your life. As you continue your exploration of Sanskrit, you may find even more nuanced ways to translate this concept and others. To avoid avidya, set an intention to achieve right perception by continuing to seek and study with an open mind.
Observe your experiences. Transforming perception also comes from looking more deeply and objectively at your own experiences. Are they what they seem? I once was waiting for an important email. My mind crafted a list of catastrophic reasons for why I wasn’t hearing back (seeing snakes everywhere, so to speak). Upon further consideration, however, I realized there’s nothing wrong with taking time to reply. It was a false perception to believe my urgent priorities must be the same as others’. I eventually received a reply. The “delay” to which I had been clinging was no delay at all.
Seek higher understanding. Vidya comes from seeking higher knowledge and learning to recognize universal truths, which will put temporary pains and misperceptions into the correct perspective. This right knowledge may come from sitting with a wise mentor, or from studying teachings like the Yoga Sutra, which helps us see general, transferable truths such as what is non-eternal, or anitya, and what is lasting, or nitya.
Take your time. When you find yourself ruminating or feeling reactionary, pause, breathe, and say to yourself, “I might not be perceiving everything accurately right now.” Your first goal is not to figure out why you are stewing, or to determine if you are correct, but rather to remind yourself that every situation has various shades of possibility that may change over time.
Our work as practitioners of yoga is not to learn to see in the dark. Instead, it’s to remember that we are as likely to misperceive as to perceive. Clinging and reacting to our immediate perceptions may cause anxiety and add more suffering, like the man in the story who ran from an imagined snake. Sometimes, all we need to do is pause, breathe, and turn on the light.
Rina Deshpande, EdM, MST, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher. Learn more about yoga’s rich philosophy, with Rina’s course “The Culture & Practice of the Yama.” A $300 value, included with your Outside+ membership.