If you’ve perused the most recent issue of Yoga Journal, you noticed that in honor of Earth Day the publication’s focus this month is on promoting healthy seas and oceans. Featuring pieces on topics ranging from beach clean-up to water conservation ideas, there’s nothing overtly extraordinary about this issue, however, it struck me more than usual. Blame it on my beach baby-ness or just good timing, I was compelled to actually sit down and read the thing cover to cover [monumental. srsly]. Specifically, I was struck by Sally Kempton’s “Who Do You Think You Are?,” a piece that challenges us to relinquish our veils of self-articulated identity and awaken from the “trance” we operate within. She challenges us to ask ourselves what happens when parts of ourselves, whether material possessions or physical attributes, are “lost” – who, then, are we? Kempton uses the example of a yoga teacher who sustains an injury that affects her physical performance and a man who loses a lover. Both folks experience an identity crisis. They “lost” pieces of who they were, or who they perceived themselves to be, and felt identity-less without those things.
Discussion surrounding self-definition intrigues me, to say the least, considering a tumultuous late childhood and confusing college years. Moving 16 times before I was 18 years old, I was always the new girl, always out of place and struggling to carve out an identity niche in whatever new teenage society I found myself in. Constantly feeling like I was the only one out there with a confusing family climate [a laughable notion now!], I grasped at any definition I could find. I sought identity through men, peer groups, fashion styles, hobbies, my car [not kidding!], and whatever was there for me to grab onto. And, like the rest of us, at some point either these things were “taken” from me [“taken” because I felt that I was entitled to them] or life did that thing it does so well – things just changed. And then I asked, who am I? And I found another thing to grab onto, to identify with. The cycle repeated itself. That is, until I found yoga, which has a way of making you stare right back at yourself – naked and vulnerable…
Back to the article. Kempton discusses the idea that yogic texts call avidya, which is the “basic ignorance of who we are and the underlying reality that connects everything in the universe.” She points out that avidya is a lack of wisdom that is “far beyond ordinary ignorance.” It is, instead, an ignorance of reality on the whole – a blindness of being and an inability to connect to our experiences with both the self and others. She [emphatically] hints that avidya does not allow us to connect with our true selves, since it keeps us distracted by expectations, labels, and suppositions about how others should treat us. She points out Patanjali’s discussion of avidya, too. In Sutra II.5, Patanjali presents avidya as mistaken perception. According to the Sutra, avidya:
is to mistake the imperfect for the eternal, the impure for the pure, sorrow for happiness, and the not-Self for the true Self.
Key in the Sutra, according to Kempton, is mistaking the “not-Self” for who we really are – that is, identifying with our passing thoughts, moods, and perceptions when, really, the true Self is none of those things. It is, instead, simply existing, being.
After reading the remainder of Kempton’s article, I couldn’t help but think of another piece I read by Shiva Rea, which you can find here. In it, Rea discusses how vinyasa affects our lives on and off the mat – how awareness and linking of the breath to movement doesn’t allow us to get stuck anywhere in our lives, physically or energetically. She likens breathing through a sun salutation to breathing through the peaks and valleys of our emotional lives. Kempton’s article speaks to Rea’s in that they both encourage us to flow – oceanically, even – through our lives, without attaching to an identity or definition. As we literally vinyasa and flow through our practice, how can we possibly energetically get stuck on an idea? The point in Rea’s piece is that we can’t. Using the awareness of vinyasa off the mat, we learn to encounter what’s going on within ourselves, breathe, and then move on, instead of marrying one passing mood or notion which, as Patanjali reminds us, is not the true Self.
So what is the true Self? It is just that. It is. It is existence – pure, content existence, without attachment to fleeting emotions. Remember that. The true Self is not attached to friends, possessions, labels, emotions. It is just, simply, the Self [and it is perfect, just in its existence].
I thought more on the subject and how everything intertwines, all of this breathing and moving and dealing with life’s ups and downs, and then I thought of Mom. In response to any stressor or story of potentially catastrophic life events my mom always says “Just be, darling – this is not who you are.” She reminds me to not get attached to whatever is happening, whatever the worry, anxiety, etc. – to just experience it and let it go, just being the whole time. I never realized how precious those words were until I thought of them in the context of identity, of avidya, or of yoga. And in this context her Just Be sums up this discussion fairly well. I guess she had it right the whole time…
For today, friends, my wish is that you just be [and know that Mom is always right].
This post is part of the April YIOM series. Find details here.