How many times have you looked back on a situation and thought, “Wow, if only I’d seen it from this angle in that moment.” Who hasn’t?! Distance and time always bring clarity, but it’s so frustrating that we don’t always see so clearly in the moment. I guess that’s why they say, “Hindsight’s a bitch.”
Everyone experiences this because in the moment it’s often hard to have a clear understanding of the bigger picture. This lack of clarity in the Yoga Sutras is called Avidya, or “the veil of misperception.”
This is one of the most important concepts in the Yoga Sutras and sheds light on why all people find themselves suffering.
Ultimately, the purpose of Yoga is to lift the veil of Avidya, and the trusty old Yoga Sutras provides us with four tips for how to see more clearly in the moment (see below). Let’s look a little closer at the concept of Avidya. Here’s what TKV Desikachar says about it.
“Now what is this avidya that is so deeply rooted in us? Avidya can be understood as the accumulated result of our may unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years. As a result of these unconscious responses, the mind becomes more and more dependent on habits until we accept the actions of yesterday as the norms of today. Such habituation in our action and perception is called samskara. These [unconscious] habits cover the mind with avidya, as if obscuring the clarity of consciousness with a filmy layer.
We seldom have an immediate and direct sense that our perception is wrong or clouded.
Avidya seldom is perceived as avidya itself. Indeed, one of the characteristics of avidya is that it remains hidden from us. Easier to identify are the characteristics of avidya’s branches. If we know that these are alive in us, then we can recognise the presence of avidya.”
Recognising the Four Branches of Avidya as Warning Signs
This gives a tool to see our blind spots. When we realise that one of the four branches of Avidya (ego, aversion, attachment and fear) is showing up in our lives it’s a warning sign that we’re not seeing the big picture.
Ideally, we then catch ourselves and ask ourselves, “What am I not seeing/understanding?” We’ve explored this concept this week in my yoga lifestyle programs and I personally have done a bunch of journaling about this week. It’s fascinating, sometimes scary, but always helpful what can be revealed.
Below I’ve explained the four branches of avidya with a bit more detail and provided thought provoking journal questions for you to dive deeper into what might be clouding your current vision and understanding. Enjoy!
The Four Branches of Avidya, Misperception
1. Ego – Asmita – Ego pushes us into identifying with things that change, with something other than our inner light (purusha), and expresses itself in statements
like, “I’m the worst/best/right one.”
Journal questions: Recently, what impermanent aspects of myself or life have I been strongly identifying with? How has this been influencing my decisions, interactions and beliefs? When I take a step back, and identify with my observer mind and inner light , what is the deeper truth or bigger picture?
2. Attachment – Raga – Attachment shows up often as demands, cravings, resistance to change and a feeling of needing something we don’t need or know is bad.
Journal questions: Recently, what necessary changes have I been resisting? Or, what have I been craving and/or demanding and is this necessary? How has this been influencing my decisions, interactions and beliefs? When I take a step back, and identify with my observer mind and inner light , what is the deeper truth or bigger picture?
3. Aversion – Dvesa – Aversion expresses itself as rejection of people, thoughts, experiences and especially things that are unfamiliar. Not wanting to see what something is mirroring back to us about ourselves.
Journal questions: Recently, what ideas, thoughts, people or new experiences have I been strongly rejecting? Why? What is that idea/thought/person/experience showing me about myself? How has this been influencing my decisions, interactions and beliefs? When I take a step back, and identify with my observer mind and inner light , what is the deeper truth or bigger picture?
4. Fear – Abhinivesa – Fear appears in many aspects of our life and is perhaps the most insidious of the branches. It manifests as uncertainty, doubt, hesitation, anger, depression and in many other ways effecting our decision, interactions and lifestyle.
Journal questions: What have I been afraid of, worried about, anxious about lately? How has this been influencing my decisions, interactions and beliefs? When I take a step back, and identify with my observer mind and inner light , what is the deeper truth or bigger picture?
How do you remind yourself to see the bigger picture?