Do you know yourself? It’s a big question. One that every religious and philosophical tradition works with in some form or another. Do you know who you are? Do you know yourself?
At the surface, the simple answer is probably yes. You know your name, you know where you live. You know what your body looks like. You have a set of memories that you carry around with you. You have a sense of what you like and what you don’t like. You know how you want others to perceive and describe you. You know what makes you scared. Or angry. Or happy. You know what dreams you hope will come true.
But does any of this kind of knowing—this knowing of the facts of your life—mean that you know yourself? Well, I would say that it depends. It depends on what we mean by the word “self.”
We’re currently studying the niyamas—which are internal disciplines, they’re the foundation of our personal practice. And the fourth niyama is svadhyaya, which is most often translated as self-reflection, but a more direct translation—based on the etymology of the word—would be something like: “to move toward one’s self” or “to study one’s own self.”
Which brings us back to the question of what we mean when we say “self”. What’s the self that we’re studying or moving toward?
The Yoga Sutras describe the state of yoga as the stilling of the changing states of the mind. When we reach this state and the mind stops fluctuating—and becomes perfectly still—the sutras tell us that the seer (the soul, the innermost conscious self) abides in its own true nature. Imagine standing on a bridge and looking down at a lake. If it’s windy and the water’s surface is churning, there’s no chance you’ll see the bottom. But if the day is calm and the water is clear and the surface is perfectly still, you’ll be able to see all the way down. You’ll see every detail of the ground beneath the water.
From the perspective of yoga, all the facts about your life are true. Your name is your name. Your experiences are your experiences. And your ever changing mood is your ever changing mood. However, none of these things tell the whole story. Beneath the surface of these ever changing realities is a deeper truth. But this deeper truth is hard to see. Because, as we know, most of the time our mind is like a churning lake. Which means we don’t see the Ground of our Being with clarity. We see it through the lens of our ever changing thought patterns.
It reminds me of the King James Version of 1 Corinthians 13, which says “we see through a glass, darkly.” Our vision is murky. Instead of seeing the Truth of our Being—the True Self—we spend our lives lost in the churning lake of our mind. And we identify ourselves, we build our identity on the ever changing aspects of life. In Sanskrit, this is called Avidya, which means “not seeing.” Avidya is most often translated as ignorance. And Yoga Sutra 2.5 says that “Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the non-self, which is painful, impure, and temporary.”
In his book The Heart of Yoga my teacher’s teacher TKV Desikachar wrote:
“We seldom have an immediate and direct sense that our perception is wrong or clouded. Avidya seldom is expressed 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 notice that these are alive in us, then we can recognize the presence of avidya.”
In other words, it’s hard to see our own ignorance. Easier to see are the seeds that sprout from the soil of avidya—the seeds of ego, attachment, aversion, and fear.
These are the kleshas—the root cause of suffering and stuckness. When we remain ignorant of our True Self—lost in the ever churning notions of the mind—we take ourselves to be a distinct “I” functioning in the world and it becomes easy to view the world through our own isolated, self-important lens. Our “I” has clear likes and dislikes. Our “I” moves through the world in a constant push/pull of like/dislike, attraction/avoidance. Our “I” moves toward certain people, stories, and situations and away from other people, stories, and situations. Our “I” judges itself as better than others and seeks to maintain its own image. Our “I” lives in fear that vulnerability and weakness might be discovered and seeks to appear always strong and in charge.
Right? Does any of this sound familiar? There are so many things that we take for granted about ourselves and others. We say things like “Oh, Betty just does that” or “Bill’s always been that way” or “I can’t help it, I lash out when I feel ignored.” But none of these personality traits developed in a vacuum. Part of our practice—part of svadhyaya—is working to surface the conditioning and the experiences and the habits that’ve shaped our sense of self.
And, as yogi’s, we have to constantly remember the ever churning lake of the mind working hard to preserve our ego self. We have to be as honest as we can with ourselves and ask: Is my self study a self involved form of navel gazing that simply roots me more and more deeply in the ego self of my personality?
The practice of svadhyaya—of moving toward one’s self—is the practice of examining and cutting through ego, attachments, aversions, and fears. The practice of svadhyaya—of studying one’s own self—is the practice of surfacing negative conditioning in order to be free of it. It’s the practice of getting honest about bad habits so that they can be transformed.
But just like we can’t see the bottom of the lake on a windy day, we can’t see the Truth of our Being when the mind is churning with all the desires of our ego self. If our minds aren’t clear, then we can’t see clearly. Which means that when it comes to understanding ourselves, we need support. We need some outside perspective that can function as a mirror—something or someone that can help us see ourselves more clearly.
Which brings me to a traditional, and I think very cool, understanding of svadhyaya. According to my teacher:
“…svadhyaya refers specifically to chanting texts and mantras that were part of one’s lineage and that were passed down by one’s ancestors.”
In other words, we can study ourselves through the stories of our people. The teaching of Svadhyaya comes from a time before writing, and traditionally referred to the memorization and recitation of mantras, scriptures, and songs, which provided a way to build identity among families and communities. You knew who you were through the stories you’d been taught since birth.
Svadhyaya is an invitation to dig deep into your heritage, your ancestry, into the stories and scriptures passed down through the generations. Now, I don’t want to be overly romantic here. Family history can be wonderful. But it can also be difficult and painful. And more than likely, it’s both. And because we’ve been raised in systems of white supremacy and toxic capitalism many of us have been separated from the wisdom and history of our family lineage. So one of the ways to explore the practice of svadhyaya is through recovery work. Can you trace your lineage back? Can you practice self study through the study of your heritage? And again, let’s not be overly romantic here. Recovery work will bring useful wisdom and some really painful realties. But as the study of epigenetics continues to show us, learning more about our family history and ancestry can function as a mirror for deeper self understanding.
And whether you’ve inherited a sacred scripture or not—and whether you find your family’s religious tradition useful or not—the fact remains that you need something to function as a useful mirror for you. We all need resources that help us see clearly. We all need tools that help us stay grounded. We all need people and teachers that support our search for deeper knowing.
As you practice self-study with intention, what functions as a polestar for you? What helps keep you grounded in the midst of ever churning thoughts? What reminds you of your highest values when all you feel is jealousy and greed? What turns your attention, again and again, toward the Truth of your Being, toward the eternal Self that exists beyond the ego-self and its attachments, aversions, and fears?
Yoga Sutra 2.44 reads: svadyayad ista-devata-samprayogah, which can be translated as “From study of self through inspired texts, a connection with one’s deity of choice is established.”
It’s an incredible teaching. Svadhyaya leads to samprayogah, or union, with ishta devata, which is our chosen deity. Pandit Rajmani tells us that “ishta devata means the essential brilliance of the bright beings we choose to imbibe.”
Listen to that: “ishta devata means the essential brilliance of the bright beings we choose to imbibe.”
As the lake of your mind churns and churns what are you repeating over and over again? Are you repeating thoughts of anxiety or hatred? Is your ego self in charge? Or are you repeating something that helps calm the waters? Something that helps you see into the depths of your being? “ishta devata means the essential brilliance of the bright beings we choose to imbibe.” What do you choose to imbibe?
In your practice of svadhyaya, what do you hold up as a mirror? What mantra, or image, or piece of scripture, or poem, or song points you toward Divine Mystery? In your practice of svadhyaya, what will you take as a constant object of meditation? What will become the polestar that helps you navigate the ever churning thoughts of your mind?
My teacher writes that:
“As we go deeper and deeper into the process of self-investigation and self-discovery, we also go deeper and deeper into our Selves, until, eventually, we dis-cover or un-cover the Divine. One great teacher has described this process with the image of a drop of water dissolving into the ocean. Af first we wonder whether we are the drop. But eventually we discover that we are not and have never been the drop, but only the water itself.”