Saturday, October 06, 2007

Off the Mat -- Svadhyaya

(Another in my series of dharma talks with my yoga class.)

Try to pronounce that one.

Svadhyaya means “self-study.” It stands for the unremarkable point that if we don’t pay attention to ourselves, we won’t understand ourselves.

The remarkable parts happen when we do pay attention to ourselves – or, rather, when we try to do so. “Self,” it turns out, is a remarkably slippery critter. To get the point, it’s worth trying to spotlight it. So by all means, go ahead. Close your eyes, and use your mind to identify what is “you.” Sometimes, we think of our “self” as an occupant of the position in space defined by the outside of our skin. But once you close your eyes, that spatial relationship mechanism starts to seem pretty artificial. Sit in a silent place, and you’ve lost the audial stimuli. Holding still, you will quickly lose track of most sensory stimuli. So once you get that far, move into your mind.

Are you your name? Well, that’s easy – of course not. You can change your name. Are you a particular set of memories? Are you the same person you remember being last week? Last year? Ten years ago? Thirty? If you’ve changed, what does it mean to talk about yourself during those periods? If you’ve changed over time, are “you” a particular pattern of behaviors and responses? When those change, are you someone other than you are today?

Whether we look at body, memory, behavior, or whatever, while we can see reasons to talk about a “self,” the more carefully we look, the less we seem to find. If you can look at something and think of it as a thing – whether it be a shoe, a fingernail, or a memory – once you see it as a thing, you realize that it doesn’t define you – in fact, it seems very much to be not the “you” that observes it. It’s just a stream of various perceptions.

If you sit in meditation (and meditation is the basic practice of “self study”) even for just a few minutes, you’ll quickly discover lots of thoughts – some are memories, some are fantasies, some are judgments. But whatever they are, they are like pictures that flash up on a movie screen. They aren’t you – you are the one observing them. Sometimes they convey a sense of familiarity – not only do you remember a particular event, you remember remembering the event previously. You can learn to recognize that sense of familiarity. But the fact that a memory is familiar does not make the memory “you.” Memories are other than “you.”

So what’s left? It’s a secret, and you have to find out for yourself. Or your “self’ Or your “Self” or your “SELF” or however you want to think of it.

Really – I’m not trying to hide the ball here. I could tell you what I’ve found when I looked, but if I did, what you would hear (or read) would seem (unremarkably) something that is not “you.”

To some degree, this is all quite sensible. If you first learned of yoga from seeing someone else practice, whether live or in a book or on a video of some kind, see if you can reconstruct what you thought yoga was and would be as you looked at it from the outside, and then compare that with your experience of yoga the first time you stepped onto a mat. And then compare that with your most recent experience on the yoga mat. One teacher I’m familiar with suggested that you perceive about 10% of what’s really going on when you watch someone else practice yoga compared with practicing it yourself. I’d go farther: they’re simply different experiences. One happens from the outside to someone else. The other is your own experience. One is a glove. The other is your living hand feeling the glove around it.

So if “self” is so slippery, what point is there in looking for it? There’s an easy answer and a deeper one. The easy one: realizing what isn’t “me” helps me to let go of ideas and beliefs that no longer serve me. I tend to get attached to things that I like, that provide security, that are familiar. While attachment itself can be a problem, attachment to things as they no longer are can really cause problems. Svadhyaya, self-study, helps bring me back to the present, to things as they are now, while I’m looking at them, rather than as how I remember they once-were-but-no-longer-are. The deeper answer to why not? Self-study, Patanjali’s svadhyaya, enables us to see our prejudices, our habits, our addictions, our self-delusions, our hypocrisies, our self-ish-ness. And seeing them enables us to work more skillfully around and through and past them. But it also allows us to see the warmth of our compassion for other beings, the clarity of our intelligence and perception, and to understand our relationship to – our “inter-being with,” as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it – all of existence. Wisdom.

When you’ve looked, what have you found?