The Story of Me

Image by The Hanner on Flickr

In yoga teacher training last night, we discussed a chapter of the Michael Stone book The Inner Tradition of Yoga.  The chapter dealt with klesas, or “poisons.”  The klesas are states of mind that we all experience, which keep us from reaching our natural state of happiness and enlightenment.  Different traditions identify different klesas, but the focus for our discussion was those identified in of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra.

These klesas are:

  • avidyā – ignorance of the way things really are
  • asmitā – egoism, the construction of a self around which we organize understandings of everything
  • rāga – attachment to things or to how we believe life should be
  • dveṣa – aversion to things/situations we see as bad or wrong
  • abhiniveśa – fear of death or of endings

The particular klesa we spent the most time on was asmitā.  I find this concept particularly interesting because it fits so well with the writings of many of the philosophers that are seen as foundational in my field of study.

We spend a lot of time constructing a story of the self.  We define ourselves using categories that, in and of themselves, come with stories: sex, age, relational status, job, and so on.  So, I might say that I’m female, in my 40s, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a dean, a professor, a yogi, and a vegan.  All of those labels imply a whole series of cultural stories, and my identification with the labels then makes those cultural stories part of my story of me.  In addition to the obvious labels or categories, we also create stories that describe our behaviors or characteristics, provide rationales/causes for them, predict the future, and explain the past.

To some degree, I think all of this is part of our natural humanness, as symbol using animals.  We are storytellers – it is what we do.  And that suggests to me that it isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a thing that is.  But, from a yogic perspective, it is important to see that these stories not only explain us, they also constrain us.  The veritable wealth of stories I have connected to my being not athletic could fill a large volume.  These stories not only provided a rationale for my reluctance to engage any new sport-like activities, but they also created a barrier that prevented me from doing so.  It was only by getting around that barrier a little that I found yoga.  How much sooner  might I have been able to do so if I didn’t have that story of self?  The story of me also focuses our attention on the division between self and other.  What is “not me” is other, and other is rendered less-than.  These false barriers we create between the energies of the universe, or between the “things” of the physical world, enable us to more easily ignore the needs and experiences of other beings and things, because they are “not me.”

Because we are storytellers, being able to completely drop the story of me is, at the very least, difficult and maybe even near impossible.  But, we can make steps toward understanding that the story is a story.  That the I is not separate from the You.  That the me is not the Self.  Through that knowledge, we can better investigate why it is we construct stories of the self, what needs they serve, and where it is that they separate us from the universal.



Letting go…

Today, I need to work on letting go.  Today, I need to believe that I cannot control what I cannot control.  Today, I need to only be what I can be, and not try to be everything else.  Today, I need to hear these words:

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

Tao te Ching

You are Awareness

In my yoga class today, the wonderful Micki quoted from Ramana Maharishi to start and end the class.  I found the quote very moving and have been contemplating it (between some stressful work tasks) today.  So, I thought I would share…

You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-Self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self. ~ From Be As You Are: The Teachings of  Ramana Maharishi

What does this quote mean?  Many people think that meditating or doing yoga is about attaining a state of awareness.   Awareness then becomes a goal, a state of being that we work and effort toward.  Ramana Maharishi tells us here that this is a faulty and limiting way of thinking about awareness.  Awareness is our natural state of being.  It is only because we have limited ourselves (through what we learn as we grow up) that we do not experience this awareness.  If we can let go of these limits, awareness is there.  We don’t have to “do” something to reach it; we have to stop “doing” something.

So, what is it that we need to let go of?  I think, and this seems correspondent with the teachings of R.M., that what we need to let go of is our tendency to evaluate/categorize/separate/individualize.  When we are tiny babies, we experience the self only in the sense of being the self.  As we grow and learn the expectations of the culture, we start to assign labels to the self.  We go beyond the “I am” to the “I am a woman,”  “I am smart,”  “I am fat,” and so on.  In doing this, we also create the false dichotomy between self and other, “I am not you.”  Now, here is where it gets fun.

One of my favorite communication theorists is Gregory Bateson.  Bateson (and others) make the argument that, in Westernized thought, we tend toward dichotomy in our understandings.  This means we think in terms of opposition (as a nice example, consider how few words we have for the states between too opposites – if it is not dark nor light, it is?  – if one is not tall nor short, one is?  – if one is not fat nor thin, one is? – if the food is not great nor horrible, it is?).  We do this in our understanding of self as well.  What is not self is other.  What is other is not self.  And, we tend to think of the skin as the boundary line for self and other (anything in is me… anything out is not).  Small children, before they learn this dichotomy, do not see the skin as the boundary of self.  A toddler is not disturbed at the notion of drooling into his cup and then drinking it, but an adult would be (you can think of all the other examples of this…. I won’t disgust you by writing them here).  This bifurcation of self and other causes us to see our own experiences as “my successes,” “my failures,” “my problems,” rather than understanding the fully systemic nature of being.

Ok, I’m going to depart from Ramana Maharishi here (because there is a lot to be said about his ideas – much of which I only loosely grasp – and I’m too “pragmatic” to be able to fully embrace the theoretical idea that reality and suffering only exist in the mind and that the only reality is the self… when I start to go there, I want to curl up in a ball in the corner)  and talk about what all of this means to me, rather than in terms of his particular teaching.

  • I need to stop continually evaluating myself – I am.  I am.  I do not need to label myself as good or bad or smart or stupid or thin or fat.  I need to just be as I am.  This is particularly good news and a difficult task for me, because I am a constant self-critic.  Even after hearing this beautiful quote and thinking how right it was, I found myself thinking (during yoga) – “boy, I am a crappy yogi… I am never going to do Pincha Mayurasana, I should give up now.”  How nice, very yogic of me, huh?  Let go… Let go. I am not the body. I am not the body. I am. But, this doesn’t mean that I get to just selfishly ignore everyone else to be whatever I want, because of the next point.
  • I am other, other is me, there is no division.  This is a way of thinking and not a physical state, because clearly the things that happen to the physical bodies of each of us do not happen to all of us (though RM would say they do not happen to any of us, really, but our experience of them is what it is, so let’s just go with that for now).  But, if I stop thinking about myself as something separate from others, individual, distinct, it pushes me to more carefully and fully appreciate and consider the world community, and to realize that what is good for others is good for me (because it’s not “someone else’s problem”).  When people all over the U.S. have adequate healthcare, this is good for me as part of the universal community.  So, why would I not want that?  If I treat others with disrespect, I disrespect myself.  Why would I want to do that?  When I help others, I should not do so as a way of being proud of myself (“Look at me, I donated money and I built a house for someone in poverty.”).  I should do so in the understanding that I am the other, and the other is me, and I act to help the self, which is both of us.  It is not something to feel egotistical and proud about; it is just a responsible part of being the universal self.

Whew. There is certainly much more that can be said about this, and I haven’t even been able to fully explain what I’m thinking here, but it’s a nice start.  I am. You are.