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.