The Practice of Svadhyaya
In life, we inevitably come across situations, experiences, and interactions that cause an uncomfortable sensation in the body. Sometimes it may show as a clenching in the throat when someone is talking to us, or a churning in the stomach when we see someone else receiving praise or recognition, or a burning heat in the chest when we hear of unfortunate news. These sensations show up for us in unique ways and we each have our equally unique and different triggers. When the sensation occurs, we have two choices: figure out some way to get rid of it or figure out a way to go into it. The former is the way that we’ve traditionally been taught in the western world to go about solving our problems—the uncomfortable sensation, in this case posing as the problem or even worse, the person or situation that triggered the sensation posing as the problem. We’ll come up with just about anything to place blame externally for causing ourself that suffering. The latter—figuring out a way to get in to it—is a discipline, or practice, in yoga commonly referred to as svadhyaya, or self study. Its the practice of going deep within and studying the self to really see what is going on internally. Its here that we can begin to confront what is causing us to believe in the blame, believe that we are separate from each other, and slowly release that belief, liberating the soul to open up to the love and connection always available. Patanjali refers to this practice in Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras, II.44. It states: “svadhyaya-ista-devata-samprayogah”, translated by Georg Feurstein as, through self study the yogin establishes contact with the divine. The beautiful thing about this “education of the self”, a phrase referred to by Iyengar, is that it can come from virtually any and every activity in our lives. If we can be open to the idea that every action, every interaction, everything is an inspirational teaching or invitation for us to look deeper within ourselves to make peace with what’s there, we can see that our lives are the classroom for svadhyaya.
Traditionally, inspirational teachings come from a spiritual teacher or guru. In his book Self-Knowledge, Sivananda says a guru is “absolutely free from passion, anger, selfishness, greed, hatred and egoism….He is able to remove the ignorance of people. He can clear any kind of doubt. He can give practical, easy lessons to control the mind and the senses. He can remove the obstacles, pitfalls and snares on the path.” The guru knows the inner workings of the human ego. He or she knows and can remind us that the only direction to go in times of suffering is in. Its clear to them, the ways in which we create all these “blame games” to take the attention off our inner suffering; how we dictate how everyone else should change so we can finally have some peace around here. He or she knows that its when peace is made within the self through deep introspection, through svadhyaya, peace can be made with our external world. The teacher reminds us of who we are, who we’re not, and gives us a moment (or many moments) of peace from our daily suffering. However, he or she cannot do all the work for us. They can show us the path inward, almost like a signpost pointing the way when we’re feeling lost or we’ve made a wrong turn, but its up to us to place one foot in front of the other (or I like to think of it as one breath in front of the other) once the way has been illumined.
Once we have been made aware of the human tendencies then we can begin to apply them in our everyday lives. We can allow each moment and interaction to serve as an inspirational teaching, wherein each relationship becomes an instance of teacher/student. The classical teacher or guru can show us the reflective quality of unconditional love and universal awareness that we all share. But this is not necessarily the same reflection we’ll see when we look at our partner, or co-worker, or parent. These relationships are usually the ones that show us what patterns and defenses we uphold to keep us from living in that state of shared love and awareness. They are the relationships that “push our buttons” and bring up feelings of tension, heart break, anger, resentment. Here is where we can apply the lessons learned from our sat guru. We can remember what’s available all the time to us—this state of being in constant universal connectedness with one another. We can remember the method of operation of the human ego—to create a separate sense of “I-ness”. And through our everyday relationships study how our ego is keeping us from that state of connectedness.
In his book, Light on Yoga, Iyengar states that there are two things that make up this reality: truth and love. When we are in a state of feeling these uncomfortable feelings, usually its because we want things to be different. Common thoughts could be: “They shouldn’t have done that to me.”, “He or she should do it this way.”, “I deserve that more than he or she does.”, etc. So, lets look back at that Iyengar statement. Is there truth or love in any of those statements? Not love, because we’re not accepting the other person for who they are. And certainly your ego thinks those things are true, but in reality its not the case and the following is why. Life happens as it happens in each moment and it absolutely can not be any different then that. By going through in our head how people should be different, or even how we should be different is an argument against reality. An argument that we can keep up forever and never win. It causes great internal suffering that keeps us out of the present moment. If we’re constantly thinking about what could or should have happened in the past or what we wish could or should happen in the future, that means that we’re actually never allowing ourselves to open up to what’s available in each present moment. When we look at those triggers, those “button pushers”, and go into the sensations and thoughts of “shoulds” and “wants”, we can clearly see that the only reason for those painful thoughts and sensations is our own argument against reality—the truth of what’s in front of us.
Svadhyaya gives us the opportunity to go into the sensation and learn how we react, why we react, and take ownership over our sensations rather than pointing the finger at someone else. It teaches us that those buttons of ours that are being pushed are actually the right ones that need some pushing to show us where we need to let go in order to free ourselves from suffering. Once that state of suffering in separateness dissolves it allows us to open up to Iyengar’s second ingredient to reality: love. Love to see that another individual is standing in front of you trying to figure out how to get through this whole thing the best way they know how given their life’s experiences, just like you. We’re all doing the best we can to our ability and we can always love each other for that.
So where can you find support? Remember the words of those who inspire you in this path. Haven’t found a teacher in your area that connects to you where you live? Look no further then the internet. Dharma talks, meditations, and other spiritual discourses are vastly available now on websites and iTunes. Start with Dharmaseed.org and see where things branch off from there. Read texts that support you in remembering who you are. The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita, and Hatha Yoga Pradapika are commonly known as bedrock or tri-pillar for yogic studies and always a good place to start. Overwhelmed by sanskrit terms? No problem! Ekhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Dan Siegel, Adyashanti, and David Frawley are just the start of a long list of amazing authors to check out. Like poetry? There’s Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, really just so many poets that illuminate the way. And remember there’s always yourself. The biggest support you’ll ever have that we spend a lifetime trying to realize.