What is Svādhyāya?
If you’re not sure what Svādhyāya is, it is one of the 5 Niyamas (daily tools for enlightenment) of the 8 limbed philosophy of Yoga, and it is the practice of self-study. It’s a practice of deepening our awareness, of reflecting back on what we have done in the past as well as paying attention to what comes up on the spot in the moment.
This practice is incredibly helpful and brings an awareness that has the capacity to create space for growth, however, it can sometimes come with a heavy dose of guilt and shame. What is meant to be a liberation is often turned into ammunition against ourselves. As many people have lovingly joked, “self-knowledge isn’t always good news.”
When we start to dive into Svādhyāya, which can really be through any practice that requires paying attention, we get up close and personal with our less glamorous and desirable qualities, sometimes for the first time. What’s revealed to us isn’t all sweet, we begin to see, as Zorba said, “the whole catastrophe.”
Ignorance Is Suffering
I remember getting the first taste of the intensity of my anger in a Power Yoga Class when I was furious with the instructor who had NO idea how long we had been holding Warrior 2 and was clearly the biggest idiot with no business being a teacher.
I remember getting so caught up in my judgment when I was completely hooked on how inconsiderate I thought the guy next to me was, who obviously had never done laundry in his life and had the audacity to have a smell emitting from his sweat mat which was simply unacceptable and prompted me to write frenzied feedback to the studio owners about encouraging their members to wash their mat towels daily! Hah! It’s a gift to be able to laugh at my ridiculousness.
When I began meditating daily I was overwhelmed by the anxiety coursing through me. The constant future-orientation and fear I felt were surprising as I had never considered myself an anxious person in my life. I’ve been in and out of therapy, a form of Svādhyāya, for the past 6 years which has facilitated many insights into my sadness, my shadow side, and the constant tape of negative self-talk looping through my mind.
At one particularly hopeless and exhausted moment, I looked at my therapist and lamented, “ignorance really is bliss.” To which he replied, “no, ignorance is suffering.”
What he was relaying to me in that moment is how ignorance allows violence and aggression to escalate and how this process of self-honesty, or Svādhyāya, is a way of dissolving ignorance, of creating space for new choices and new ways of relating to ourselves, others and the world.
Through practicing Svādhyāya I have come face-to-face with my tendencies to control, to compare myself, to present a certain way for approval, to avoid discomfort. I’ve gotten familiar with my propensity to be jealous, overly-critical, self-doubting, resentful, judgmental. I have gossiped, lied, cheated, and hurt people. I have done things that make me wince to think about. And for a long time I have used this awareness, this self-knowledge, to fuel the core beliefs of “I’m not good enough, not alright, not worthy, not workable, fundamentally flawed,” which is not helpful in moving forward in the process of expansion and growth and perpetuates a closed-offness and constriction.
I recently returned from a New Year’s retreat with Dope Yogi to Isla Mujeres. There, Nicole, asked us to think of a word for 2020. I journaled for a bit, toying with compassion, forgiveness, courage, and confidence. I wrote expansion and circled it. EXPANSION.
The next day she asked us what was getting in the way of our intentions, our words for the year. As I wrote I noticed how stuck I’ve been feeling in shame and guilt. It feels like concrete poured in the center of my chest, filling up my throat. It feels hot, uncomfortable, heavy, paralyzing. It’s begun to shape my way of showing up in relationships with others, with myself and with life.
The gift of Svādhyāya is that I am able to see that. Finally! I may have been in this pattern for over a year, maybe a lifetime, without really being able to clearly see it but “it works if you work it,” so they say in AA, and thanks to the practice of Svādhyāya , I now have an awareness of the guilt and shame I’ve been stuck in that’s holding me back, dragging me down, constricting my vitality, blocking my expansion. Svādhyāya is a liberation in this way. An opportunity to see and then consciously choose a different way. And it is a constant practice that we are continually coming back to. Setting intentions, forgetting those intentions, trying again.
On our trip we made a pilgrimage to Punta Sur which is the home of the Mayan goddess, Ixchel and the first place you can see the sunrise in all of Mexico. We walked in the dark to the edge of the cliff. The ocean was strong, the waves rolling in crashing against the rocks, and washing back out, as the sun slowly ascended above the horizon, filling the sky up with light. It felt powerful, important, a reminder of the opportunity of each day.
One of our local friends, Kenny, became so animated as we recounted our experience. “¡Sí, sí, la energía!” He exclaimed. He shared with us the tradition of the Islanders to have a big party at Punta Sur on New Year’s Eve and spend the morning watching the sunrise. “It’s cleansing,” he said. “You take inventory of the last year and then ahhhh you let it go,” he let out a big exhale and pushed his arms forward and down, relaxing his shoulders, “A fresh start.” This ritual of laying things aside and giving permission to open to new opportunities was an important reminder. I don’t have to hold on to everything that shows up while I’m looking closely. I can see clearly, learn, and then release it. Let it go. Wash it away.
It reminded me of a ritual they have at a Buddhist Monastery in Cape Breton, Canada. At the monastery on the full moon and the new moon, they have a Starting Anew Ceremony, where you review the last two weeks and look at the things you regret, that you’re ashamed of, or wish you hadn’t done.
After the review, there’s a ceremony where you acknowledge to yourself what you’ve done and then you lay it aside so that you can start anew. It can be paired with a variation of the meditation practice of Tonglen where you picture yourself standing in front of you and on the inhale you breathe in the sensation of regret, shame, guilt and on the exhale you breathe out forgiveness, compassion, peace. Lay it aside. Start anew. I love the idea of this practice. A clear, kind acknowledgment of what we do and a continued opportunity to learn from it, and then put it down. Keep the understanding, leave the punishment. Inhale. Exhale.
The pain of Svādhyāya has to be balanced by a spirit of gentleness.
Things that help me when the sharp edges of Svādhyāya are piercing my heart are listening to teachings on compassion (Pema Chodron and Tara Brach are my favorites), watching stand-up comedy that brings humor and levity to our human condition (we’re all in this together), reaching out to a friend who can reflect my goodness and humanness back to me, and remembering the workability of every feeling, every experience, every tendency.
As Pema says, “no matter how messed up we feel we are, if we turn our compassionate attention toward ourselves, it becomes a doorway to enlightenment, to full awakening, to this open, clear, unobstructed quality of life.”
Svādhyāya is the work of a lifetime. As I move forward practicing, as I face the things in myself that I wish weren’t there I will try to remember that this work requires gentleness, humor, kindness and compassion. I will work to remember the teaching of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche who encourages practicing with a sense of joy. “It’s a joy to release a great burden of suffering by acknowledging what you do and going forward.”
Wishing us all joy and gentleness on this path. <3