Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Svadhyaya ~ stillness and movement, courage and change

"We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think." - The Buddha

This month’s topic, svadhyaya, or self-inquiry, in many ways is the foundation for all of the other yamas and niyamas. We can’t have ahimsa, non-violence, without self-inquiry. We can’t have santosha, contentment, without self-inquiry. It is only through our own self knowledge that we are able to practice satya, truthfulness. It is only through self awareness that we are able to practice aparigraha, non-grasping. Truly knowing and acknowledging our deepest selves, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” is the only way to create real and lasting change in ourselves, in our relationships, in our communities and in our world. So we might even say that svadhyaya is at the heart of The Samarya Center’s mission statement: fostering individual change as a means to radical social transformation. Svadhyaya, self-study, is a necessary practice for individual, and hence community or global change to be achieved.

It is important to note that svadhyaya is not just about this kind of self-awareness. Although at The Samarya Center, we focus heavily on this ability to know our part in a conflict, or to accept our faults, or to celebrate our many strengths and put them to good use, svadhyaya is also the concept of self-knowledge in terms of self-realization, or self-knowledge as God realization, “knowing our own true nature.” It also refers to “study” as in study of the scriptures and spiritual texts to gain insight and reflection into our Self as part of the divine cosmology. Contemporary yoga writer Judith Hanson Lasater describes svadhyaya as more than just mental clarity. It is the deep acknowledgment of the oneness of Self with all that is. In other words, to practice svadhyaya is to begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world. To practice svadhyaya is to find God in the person standing in front of us at this very moment.”

I have been thinking a lot about this concept at all of its many levels. I have been noticing how often we hold on to an idea, or a grudge, or an insecurity, simply by choosing to not be self-aware, and to deny or defend the very actions that cause us pain and suffering. Here is a recent story from my own experience.

Back in October, I attended a five day yoga workshop in Arizona. I was very excited to go when I signed up for the training, but following a series of personal challenges, the intensity of The Samarya Center teacher training, and an interruption of my own grief process after losing a second pregnancy, I was reluctant and less than enthusiastic when the time actually came. When I arrived in Arizona, I was stressed, lonely and physically and emotionally drained. When I arrived at my hotel, I thought more about lounging by the pool than showing up at the workshop in downtown Tempe.

On the very first day of the workshop I became anxious about the content and the process. I didn’t really want to do partner exercises, I didn’t want to do group sharing, and I was having a hard time feeling articulate and interested. When I did do a bit of group and partner processing, I felt misunderstood, misrepresented and frustrated. I was ready to leave the workshop, staying only because I had already paid for it, but I made a deal with myself, still being in “tapas month” mode. I would stay and I would keep a positive attitude. I would sit up front by the teacher and focus on his teachings, and be kind and generous with myself when I felt myself becoming separate. I decided that was my tapas, to keep recommitting, keep showing up, and keep learning. I was proud of my super yogic ability to turn my bad attitude around. I even exchanged some pleasantries with the person sitting next to me. I began to relax and soak in the teaching. That’s what I had come for.

The workshop was a typical American yoga workshop set-up. Everyone had their mats on the floor, sitting on blankets or with back-jacks, intermittently stretching their legs or moving around to adjust their positioning. The teacher stood in front of us and lectured. On this particular morning, I had pulled up all of my emotional and physical reserves and sat down in front and slightly to the right of the teacher. I was feeling fragile but determined. As the teacher began to speak, I became engrossed in the teachings, and was starting to feel a deeper sense of peace and belonging than I had on any of the days prior. I kept my eyes on the teacher as I stretched my legs out in front of me. Suddenly, the woman to my right tapped me on the shoulder. “How unusual,” I thought, “she’s trying to get my attention right in the middle of the lecture.” I leaned over to her, still trying to stay focused on the teacher. She whispered, “In our tradition…” before she said anymore I thought, “oh, she just wants to share a thought she’s having about her practice,” and although I wished she hadn’t interrupted the teacher to tell me, I leaned in to listen to what she had to say. “In our tradition, we don’t point our feet toward the teacher, so you may want to cover your feet.” BAM! I was taken out of every tiny bit of peace I had mustered and sent careening into defensiveness, irritation, judgment, anger and vindication. I just looked at her and said, “No thanks,” then stretched my legs out even further. In that moment, I was instantly back in the 5th grade, but I didn’t care. She was not going to tell me what to do. My mind reeled, “In my tradition, we mind our own business,” “In my tradition, we prioritize non-harming over schooling a total stranger,” “In my tradition, we don’t interrupt our teacher to try to tell another student what to do,” and on and on, and trust me, those are only the PG comebacks that whirled like dervishes through my head. I couldn’t focus. I kept thinking about the woman and her comment. I felt like I was oozing anger, and I felt like I was going to cry. Move my feet? Then she’ll think I’m doing it because she told me to. Don’t move my feet? Then the teacher will think I am disrespecting him, or someone else will tell me again. “I know more about YOUR tradition then you will ever know,” “Your tradition is some dumb Indian thing you are trying to co-opt to make yourself feel legitimized,” even, “I don’t like your mat, or that shirt that you are wearing.”

I managed to make it through the lecture, but carried my anger and insecurity through the asana practice, and on into lunch. I called my snarky support team to tell them of this great injustice that had been heaped upon me. I thought of even more and better comebacks. When we came back from lunch, I managed to not look at the offender. When she tried to engage me, I just ignored her. While I smiled and acted friendly with others, I made sure she knew that we were not friends. It felt really good. Not. But at least I was sticking up for myself. Sort of? I felt surrounded and infused with reactive, even hostile energy. It didn’t feel good, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

In meditation, the image of a still lake is often offered for the quality of mind we are trying to cultivate. I have heard, and used, this image on many occasions. Meditation is certainly one of the practices that might help us to develop svadhyaya. We might say that emotions, thoughts, reactions, are all things that keep us swirling in confusion or illusion - these are like the ripples and waves on the lake. As we cultivate stillness, we get to more clearly see the “bottom of the lake,” or the still point in ourselves, the place in us that is able to be objective, non-judgmental, and reflective. In Yoga, this is our true nature.

On a recent morning in meditation, the image of a lake came to me spontaneously. But this time, I saw the lake that I actually know the best - the lake where my family has a summer house, and where I spent all of my summers growing up. This lake is of the “On Golden Pond” variety, quiet, remote and peaceful. I started to see myself as that lake, but in that image, I didn’t see just stillness. I also saw the activity on the lake, which more often than not consists of things like loons and kayaks. I thought about how the kayaks, like our thoughts, come into our vision in such a quiet and stealth way. They slip through the water, and then they’re gone, moving swiftly and silently. Sometimes thoughts are like that. They seem to come out of nowhere and then they disappear. If we wait long enough, we will surely see the kayaks come back around. So the lake remains very still, even though it has movement and activity. Then I thought of the loons. They are quiet and stealthy too, but they move very differently. They just emerge up out of the lake, then sit, as if they’ve always been there. Sometimes they are silent, sometimes they call out, sometimes their calls are answered. The calls can be loud and have a sense of urgency, or they can be haunting and isolated. Similarly, our thoughts can barely disturb the surface of the mind, but can feel pervasive and lingering, even in their quietness. Other times, our thoughts seem to be calling out, having long conversations of their own, which we do not understand at all, but are compelled to listen to. Then I had another image of the loon on the lake. It was when the loon, suddenly becomes aware of some disturbance, either from our presence, or from something beneath the surface, and dives out of sight. If we had not seen it go under, we would never know it was there. But we did see it, and we do know it is there. And in fact, if we know there are loons in a lake, then we can guess that sometimes they are under the surface, even if we didn’t happen to see them. I suddenly understood: thoughts are like that too. They too go under the surface, and live a whole other murky unseen life. It is this aspect of thought, of consciousness, of self-awareness, that, if uncovered, might offer us an even deeper understanding of ourselves and what drives us. And yet, because they are not immediately apparent, we can deny them. We can pretend we don’t know they exist. Or we can just forget that they do. But we can never know the whole lake without having some understanding of what is under the surface, even when the lake is still. Similarly, we cannot truly know ourselves without committing to curiosity, courage, and excavating the deepest parts of our own psyche. It’s scary going there, but if we want to truly “foster individual change,” we really have no choice.

Back in Tempe, the teacher didn’t seem to mind my feet facing towards him. In fact, he was very vocal about his support for The Samarya Center, so much so in fact, that several people came up to me asking about this amazing organization that their teacher kept championing. My arch-enemy looked at me with sweet, persistent and loving eyes, and asked me, “What does your organization do?” Well, I was stuck. I couldn’t just not answer her. So I took a breath and then started to tell her about all of the wonderful things The Samarya Center does and stands for. She engaged me, even telling me that the organization for which she worked, a company that makes yoga jewelry, had offered us support in the past for our fundraisers, and asked if I would like her to suggest us as a recipient of their donor program. In fact, she told me that she had sample jewelry in her car, and would be happy to send some back with me. I sat there, humbled and confused. I really was mad that she had “schooled me,” but she was a sweet and beautiful woman offering love and generosity. What to do? I took a deep breath. And then told her what had happened in my head. I told her that I was feeling insecure, and that in my fragile state, had been brought back to childhood fears of doing wrong, being the outsider, not being included. She told me that she had been working with trying to stand up for herself, overcoming the “loud voice of her father that always overpowered” her. That she wanted to practice telling me something that was important to her, but that she didn’t know how. When she finally mustered her courage and spoke her truth, she immediately wished she hadn’t and felt conflicted about the situation and how it had turned. We talked about how we could each handle the same thing in the future. I told her I thought she should speak her truth, but that her svadhyaya might come in the form of speaking from her own experience, rather than reprimanding a peer for “breaking the rules.” She told me that she understood how I felt, and that my svadhyaya showed up when I was able to own my own craziness in the situation, and to lovingly acknowledge all the under the surface emotions driving a seemingly disproportionate reaction.

Right after that, our teacher asked us to lie down for Yoga Nidra. We both hunkered down and covered up. We lay there ready for a few moments, and just before the practice began, I opened my eyes and turned to her and said “I’m so glad we talked.” She responded without missing a beat, “I was just thinking that same thing.” We closed our eyes and were led peacefully off into meditation. Minds still as lakes. Loons and all.


  1. Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?

  2. Molly, thank you for sharing this story. The month of svadhyaya has definitely brought awareness in myself about those "loon" emotions that exist below my awareness. By noticing when I feel emotions like anger, jealously or even pleasure brings attention to the fact that yes those feelings do exists but were not very apparent to me. Svadhyaya has guided me into acknowledging those emotions and instead of losing myself within them, explore why I feel that way. I allow myself to experience it but instead of living in that emotion, take a couple of breaths to allow myself to let go of those emotions. I found it to be a very hard but exciting process—much more productive and healthy than how I'd react before (avoidance or getting consumed with them). Svadhyaya is very rewarding and has allowed me to cultivate compassion, love, understanding and true happiness.

  3. thank you Keala, your insight and connection mean the world to me. love,molly