Avidya (… or the case for working with a teacher)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS) are often portrayed as the canon of Yogic thought. While the evidence that supports this assertion is pretty shaky, there is a good deal of wisdom embedded with the YS. Since I first read Swami Hariharananda’s translation 30+ years ago, I’ve returned to aspects of the sutras again and again. Among the YS best-of elements is its discussion of the impediments, or Kleshas. There are five kleshas that are mentioned in the YS, and my motivation to maintain a close, working relationship with a spiritual teacher is rooted in the first Klesha, called Avidya. Unfortunately, the Sanskrit word avidya is often translated into the English word, ignorance. Ignorance, however, scarcely acknowledges the depth of avidya, and operating with this definition too-often devolves into a spiritual materialism that readily takes on judgmental overtones.

Image result for hariharananda yoga sutra translation
The 1984 translation that first introduced me
to the YS.

I had the good fortune of receiving an inspiring teaching on avidya while at the Mind and Life XXII meeting in New Delhi, India back in 2010. (I wrote about Swami Atmapriyananda’s teaching in a contemporaneous blog posting, so will skip describing it here.) Suffice it to say, Swami-ji made it clear that Avidya was all about expanding awareness of what you did not know that you did not know, and not about recognizing what you already know that you don’t know. There is a difference between knowing what you don’t know (I do not know wavelet analysis), and not knowing what you don’t know (avidya, or spiritual ignorance.)

Swami Atmapriyananda and the Dalai Lama at
Mind & Life XXII

I’ve found that teachers bring awareness to what I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and these insights have proven to be useful in my life. In physical practice, for example, I was not aware of the extent to which I was retracting my shoulder blades in shoulder flexion. When a skilled Pilates teacher pointed this out to me, the insight helped me enjoy much more freedom in my ribcage. I was grateful to reap the benefits of having this pattern pointed out to me.

In my spiritual life, I’ve been grateful to enjoy the teachings and community that I receive by working with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Under Rinpoche’s tutelage, I’ve seen aspects of my thinking patterns and behaviors that are not congruent with how I like to think I’m carrying myself in this world. I didn’t know the extent to which I protected my identifications, and have benefited from having light shone on my thinking/belief patterns. And once I knew what I didn’t know, the ignorance blossomed into the path, and I’ve felt richly rewarded in the process. While I’ve heard people refer to the wisdom of the inner guru and how teachers are no longer necessary, my experience indicates otherwise. Despite decades of dedicated practice, I’ve found that in the absence of a teacher, teachings and dharma brothers & sisters, the mental patterns that lead me astray have largely remained in the shadows of unawareness.

Tomorrow morning I’m off to St. Paul to take retreat with Mingyur Rinpoche, and I am alternately excited and a little bit apprehensive. Excited, because I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to meditate and explore the nature of my own mind; and a little apprehensive, because retreat generally nudges me out of cozy-dharma practice. While I love to feel happy and good, it’s always a crapshoot on how I actually feel when faced with my own mind for hours on end. In the end, however, I’ve always come back from retreat feeling a healthier human being. I am grateful for this opportunity, and hope to share whatever I may learn in future Yoga classes and meditation sessions.

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