“Listen friend, this body is a dulcimer. He draws the strings tight, and out of it comes the music of the inner universe.” -Kabir
If we want to hear the music of our inner universe, the answers are not contained in a book or “out there.” All we need to know is within us. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of self-help books, and from them I have learned a lot! However, the Buddha did not have access to Brene Brown or Pema Chodron-- he found enlightenment by sitting under a tree and facing his demons.
Svadhyaya, or self-study, is one of the observances laid out in the Yoga Sutras. The “self-study” referred to in this ancient text is not the kind of soul searching we do in western psychology-- looking at how past experiences inform us. The intention of Svadhyaya is to fully experience our moment exactly as it is, by shedding our filters and removing obstacles. This self-knowledge is not something we need to seek, because it is already in us. It’s about deconstructing everything you have been taught by society and all you believe to be true and reflecting on it. Peeling back the layers of identity until we remember our true identity, the Divine inside of us.
So, we begin to question everything we’ve learned. Our belief systems are rooted in our identity as it is shaped by our country, culture, gender, ancestors and family. These influences shape our preferences, likes/dislikes, fears, imagination and our view of the world. To begin to peel back these layers, we just come face to face with our assumptions, and “witness” ourselves. In the west, we are always trying to “fix” ourselves. In the east, we are instructed to “witness” ourselves. We can watch the ego, rather than identify with it. Yogiraj Achala tells a story about taking his son to the mighty Mississippi river. His son asks if the river is polluted. His father answers, no… the river is only carrying the pollution, the river itself is pure. Our minds are like the river, carrying things. Rather than identify with the pollution (thoughts, stories, beliefs), we can practice identifying with the river (the divine in us), and merely watch the thoughts float by.
How liberating it is to become the watcher of your own drama, but not be defined by it. As we watch, we can then peel back the layers of our experience and reveal our underlying beliefs. When we encounter conflict or feel uneasy, our tendency is to blame what is outside us, and then justify what we are thinking or feeling. It takes courage to trace what we are experiencing back to ourselves. Charlotte Kasl, in If the Buddha Got Stuck summarizes some “false core beliefs” as outlined by Stephen Wolinsky.
I am powerless.
I am unlovable.
I am worthless.
I am helpless.
When we carry one of these beliefs, we work hard to prove the opposite, which creates suffering. If we believe we are powerless, we try to prove our power by earning money, looking good and being successful. If we believe we are unlovable, we seek proof of love through sex, admiration and praise. If we believe we are worthless, we will seek to feel worthy by achievement, being good and helpful and gaining recognition. If we believe we are helpless, we will seek someone to take care of us, we will seduce someone, we need lots of money and our children to do well, we seek rescuing. (Charlotte Kasl).
The way out is realizing these beliefs are false. “No matter how much money you accumulate, how big your successes, how many people you seduce, how many good deeds you do, no action or force of will can ever dispel the uneasiness stemming from a false core belief, for the simple reason that it’s false to begin with, just a concept or illusion. You can’t disprove something that is false to begin with. You can’t run away from it, overcome it, or conquer it - you have to meet it face to face and realize it’s all fiction. Gradually, while the thoughts may arise, you won’t grab hold of them, take them so seriously, or let them stab you in the heart.” (Charlotte Kasl, if the Buddha got Stuck)
Consequently, reassurances from friends and spiritual teachers or self help programs, although they might make you feel better temporarily, won’t resolve your feelings of unworthiness. You must realize the very concepts of worthiness and unworthiness are not real. The idea is to give up trying to feel lovable, wanted, powerful, good or worthwhile, and come back to the knowledge that you simply are.
In addition to looking at our attitudes towards ourselves, we can witness our attitudes towards others. How we perceive others is often a projection of our own interior landscape. We create our world with the lenses we look through. In the series Kung Fu, Caine, fondly called “Grasshopper” by his master, as a child was looking into the pond. His master asks how many fish are in the pond. Caine answers 12. The master says very good. And how many ponds are there? Caine, thinking this is so obvious, quickly answers 1! The Master replies “No, there are twelve ponds. Twelve fish, Twelve ponds.” If we remember that each of us is swimming around in our own unique pond, with its own unique qualities, we will be less judgmental about how another fish swims.
Pema Chodron, whose wise reminders to practice kindness and compassion to ourselves on the path are so important, said this regarding peeling back the layers-- “Use all the unwanted things in your life as the means for awakening compassion for yourself and others. Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself. It is healing to know all the ways that you’re sneaky, all the ways that you hide out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people, all your weird little ways. You can know all that with some sense of humor and kindness. By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. We are all in this together.”
If we approach self-study with humility and openness, aka a beginner’s mind, we will find ourselves grateful for our mistakes. When our ego and it’s judgements step aside, mistakes become fertile ground for learning and growth. If we are not making mistakes, perhaps we are not stretching ourselves enough. As this learning from experience becomes habitual, even small things like burning something in the kitchen or making a wrong turn, will help us to know ourselves better-- they will become our practice as much as our time on our meditation cushions and yoga mats.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” -Pema Chodron
* (For further reading, check out “If the Buddha Got Stuck” by Charlotte Kasl, “Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice” by Deborah Adele, and “Start Where You Are” and “How to Meditate” by Pema Chodron. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)