Tame your stress: How to stay cool un­der pres­sure

See through your thought pat­terns and per­cep­tions, and dis­cover the free­dom to just be your Self.

Yoga Journal - - Contents - By Sally Kemp­ton

LAU­REN, A LOS AN­GE­LES yoga teacher, slipped in a lunge while teach­ing and in­jured her an­kle. Be­cause she’s a prac­tice-through-the-pain kind of yogi, she didn’t even stop to as­sess the in­jury be­fore con­tin­u­ing her class. When she fnally got to the doc­tor, she dis­cov­ered she would have to stay off the an­kle for at least a month.

For Lau­ren, this trig­gered an iden­tity cri­sis. Since her teens, her strong body has been the source of her well­be­ing, her self-es­teem, and, in adult­hood, her in­come. She can still teach, and her in­jury may even deepen her un­der­stand­ing of align­ment. But be­cause the “me” she has al­ways felt her­self to be is so tied to her phys­i­cal­ity, the accident has left her dis­ori­ented. Of course, she tells me im­pa­tiently, she knows she’s not her body. But know­ing that doesn’t cure her feel­ings of self-doubt and fear.

Ge­orge has a dif­fer­ent is­sue. His wife told him she’s in­volved with an­other man and wants an open mar­riage. Ge­orge feels shocked, aban­doned, and in­se­cure, which leads him to thoughts like “I’m not good at re­la­tion­ships” and “I’m not lov­able.” Es­sen­tially, he feels the same dis­ori­en­ta­tion that Lau­ren does. “I don’t know who I am when the per­son I love doesn’t want me,” he says.

Both th­ese peo­ple have suf­fered a wound to their sense of self. A psy­chol­o­gist might say that the ex­ter­nal blow cracked open some of the fs­sures in the fab­ric of their iden­tity, bring­ing up feel­ings that prob­a­bly stem from their child­hoods. But from a yo­gic point of view, this feel­ing of ground­less­ness is ac­tu­ally an in­vi­ta­tion to each of them to look se­ri­ously at the ques­tion “Who do I think I am?”

Deeper than the trauma it­self, deeper even than the mem­o­ries that may be con­tribut­ing to their feel­ing of per­sonal de­rail­ment, Lau­ren and Ge­orge both suf­fer from the mis­un­der­stand­ing that the yo­gic texts call avidya— a ba­sic

ig­no­rance of who we are and of the un­der­ly­ing re­al­ity that con­nects ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse. Their cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is an op­por­tu­nity for each of them to rec­og­nize this fun­da­men­tal mis­per­cep­tion—to look into the na­ture of iden­tity it­self. When ev­ery­thing you have re­lied on seems to dis­solve, you get not only a glimpse of the cracks in your psy­cho­log­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture but also a chance to ex­am­ine the source of the prob­lem, which gives you a bet­ter shot at get­ting free of it.

The San­skrit word vidya means wis­dom or knowl­edge—the wis­dom earned through deep prac­tice and ex­pe­ri­ence. The prefx “a” in­di­cates a lack or an ab­sence. Avidya means some­thing that goes far be­yond or­di­nary ig­no­rance. Avidya is a fun­da­men­tal blind­ness about re­al­ity. The core ig­no­rance we call avidya isn’t a lack of in­for­ma­tion, but the in­abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence your deep con­nec­tion to oth­ers, to the source of be­ing, and to your true Self. Avidya has many lay­ers and lev­els, which op­er­ate in dif­fer­ent ways. We see it threaded through ev­ery as­pect of our lives—in sur­vival strate­gies, re­la­tion­ships, cul­tural prej­u­dices, the things we hunger for and fear. All forms of clue­less­ness and fogged per­cep­tion are forms of avidya. But be­hind each of avidya’s man­i­fes­ta­tions is the fail­ure to rec­og­nize that es­sen­tially you are spirit, and that you share this with ev­ery atom of the uni­verse.

For in­stance, one com­mon way you can see avidya in ac­tion is in the habit of think­ing that other peo­ple should treat you bet­ter or that you need some­one’s ap­proval to feel good about your­self. You might “know” that this isn’t true—that peo­ple of­ten act with­out re­gard for the wel­fare of oth­ers and that making your self-es­teem con­tin­gent on how oth­ers feel about you is a bit like try­ing to buy zuc­chini at the Gap. If some­one points out to you that you are re­spon­si­ble for your own in­ner state, you might think, “I know!” But know­ing that truth in­tel­lec­tu­ally doesn’t change your feel­ings or be­hav­ior. It doesn’t stop you from try­ing to ca­jole or ma­nip­u­late your friends and part­ners and chil­dren into act­ing the way you think you “need” them to act—per­haps de­mand­ing con­tin­ual re­as­sur­ances of love from a part­ner, or look­ing for con­stant ev­i­dence of be­ing needed. Knowl­edge alone does not have the prac­ti­cal power to help you. For that knowl­edge to be­come vidya, or true wis­dom, you need to understand it on a vis­ceral level. Un­til you do, you are suf­fer­ing from avidya on the level of re­la­tion­ships, with all of the dis­com­fort and pain. And the same goes for all other types of avidya.

More than skin deep

In Patan­jali’s Yoga Su­tra II.5, we are given four use­ful clues for iden­ti­fy­ing when we have slipped into avidya. Each clue points to a par­tic­u­lar way in which we take sur­face per­cep­tions for re­al­ity. It cau­tions us to look deeper—to in­quire be­neath what our phys­i­cal senses or cul­tural prej­u­dices or egoic be­lief struc­tures tell us. “Avidya,” the su­tra says, “is to mis­take the im­per­ma­nent for the eter­nal, the im­pure for the pure, sor­row for hap­pi­ness, and the not-Self for the true Self.”

If you ex­plore this su­tra, it can lead you to a pro­found re­fec­tion on the il­lu­sory na­ture of per­cep­tion. Even a ca­sual look at history re­veals that each ad­vance in science and cul­ture has called into ques­tion be­liefs that our an­ces­tors took for granted—ev­ery­thing from the idea that Earth is the cen­ter of the so­lar sys­tem to the no­tion that mat­ter is solid. The pri­mary pur­pose of the su­tra is to ques­tion our no­tions of iden­tity. But, at the same time, it of­fers a win­dow into some of our gar­den-va­ri­ety forms of clue­less­ness.

No­tice how Patan­jali’s def­ni­tion ap­plies to so many lev­els of ig­no­rance. Mis­tak­ing the per­ish­able for the im­per­ish­able? That’s the ev­ery­day de­nial that keeps peo­ple be­liev­ing they can de­pend on fos­sil fu­els in­defnitely, or jog on as­phalt with­out dam­ag­ing their car­ti­lage. It’s that hope­ful be­lief that your ro­man­tic pas­sion will last for­ever, or that an­other per­son’s

Re­ly­ing on how oth­ers feel about you is like try­ing to buy zuc­chini at the Gap.

love will give you se­cu­rity. On a deeper level, it’s what keeps you from see­ing that your con­cep­tion of “me”—“my self,” “my per­son­al­ity”—is not stable and is cer­tainly not per­ma­nent, that just as your body is an ever-shift­ing con­fgu­ra­tion of atoms, so your in­ter­nal sense of self con­sists of thoughts about who you are (as in “I’m pretty” or “I’m con­fused”), feel­ings like hap­pi­ness or rest­less­ness, and moods like de­pres­sion or hope­ful­ness—all of which are sub­ject to change.

Mis­tak­ing the im­pure for the pure? That could ap­ply to our mis­per­cep­tion about the pu­rity of bottled wa­ter, or to an un­con­scious spir­i­tual at­ti­tude, like be­liev­ing that be­ing a vege­tar­ian or a Bud­dhist or a yogi will pro­tect you from the in­evitable suf­fer­ing of life. But when you ap­ply the su­tra on a deep level, you see that it is de­scrib­ing the ig­no­rance that makes you mis­take what is a pass­ing state—a com­plex of thoughts, emo­tions, and bod­ily sen­sa­tions—for the pure con­scious­ness that is your true Self.

Be­liev­ing that sor­row is hap­pi­ness? That mis­per­cep­tion has been kick­ing our butts since the frst time we longed for a toy—be­liev­ing that hav­ing it would be the best thing ever—and then grew bored with it. Real joy is the nat­u­ral de­light that arises spon­ta­neously from within us, the de­light in life it­self. It’s not that a good date or a pow­er­ful yoga ses­sion or a de­li­cious meal can’t trig­ger joy. But the kind of hap­pi­ness that de­pends on some­thing else, even some­thing as sub­tle as a ses­sion of med­i­ta­tion, al­ways ends, and when it does, it leaves an empti­ness in its wake.

Mis­tak­ing the false self for the true Self? This is the essence, the linch­pin, of the whole struc­ture of avidya. It’s not just that you iden­tify with the body; you iden­tify with ev­ery pass­ing mood or thought about your­self, with­out rec­og­niz­ing that within you there is some­thing un­chang­ing, joy­ful, and aware. Thus, some­one like Lau­ren, whose true Self is vast, bril­liant, and made of love, comes to feel that her life is in ru­ins when a torn lig­a­ment keeps her from prac­tic­ing War­rior Pose II.

Wake-up call

Taken to­gether, th­ese fa­vors of avidya cause you to live in a kind of trance state—aware of what’s ob­vi­ous on the sur­face but un­able to rec­og­nize the un­der- ly­ing re­al­ity. Since this per­sonal trance is fully sup­ported by the be­liefs and per­cep­tions of the cul­ture around you, it’s dif­fcult for most of us even to rec­og­nize the ex­is­tence of the veil. To fully dis­man­tle avidya is the deep goal of yoga, and it de­mands a rad­i­cal shift of con­scious­ness. But the good news is that just rec­og­niz­ing that you’re en­tranced is to be­gin to wake up from the dream. And you can be­gin to free your­self from its more egre­gious man­i­fes­ta­tions by sim­ply be­ing will­ing to ques­tion the va­lid­ity of your ideas and feel­ings about who you are.

Avidya makes you be­lieve that the way you think or feel things are is the way they ac­tu­ally are. You can step past this mis­per­cep­tion by look­ing at what your mind ha­bit­u­ally tells you and by ques­tion­ing its con­clu­sions about re­al­ity. Then, go a step fur­ther and no­tice how feel­ings cre­ate thoughts, and thoughts cre­ate feel­ings—and how the re­al­ity they con­struct for you is ex­actly that: a con­struct!

One of the great mo­ments for catching your own avidya is to tune in to the frst con­scious feel­ing that sur­faces as you wake up in the morn­ing. Then, no­tice where it takes you. For sev­eral days re­cently, I woke up feel­ing lonely and slightly sad. This is not usual for me, so it caught my at­ten­tion. I would emerge from the pre­wak­ing state and open my eyes to a gray sky (we were hav­ing a lot of morn­ing fog on the Cal­i­for­nia coast that week). I’d feel a dull, sink­ing en­ergy in my body. Within sec­onds, some­thing would grab hold of that feel­ing, iden­tify with it (“I’m sad”), and ex­pand it into a dulled gray in­ner land­scape. This au­to­matic process is the ac­tion of what in yoga is called the “I-maker,” or ahamkara— the me­chan­i­cal ten­dency to con­struct a “me” out of the sep­a­rate com­po­nents of in­ner ex­pe­ri­ence. The in­ner di­a­logue ran some­thing like this: “Oh, no, an­other gray day. Gray skies make me feel de­pressed. I need to get out of this cli­mate. No, I shouldn’t blame the weather. It’s me. I have th­ese de­pressed fam­ily genes. It’s hope­less!” Be­fore I even got out of bed, I had writ­ten off my en­tire day.

Be­cause the thought stream is so per­va­sive and the habit of iden­ti­fy­ing with it so deeply in­grained, it takes some ini­tial ef­fort to rec­og­nize what is go­ing on at a mo­ment like that. But if you look care-

fully, you’ll no­tice that th­ese mech­a­nisms of iden­ti­fca­tion and self-def­ni­tion run on au­topi­lot. The mood, the thought, even your feel­ing of “me” is a loop. It may be a repet­i­tive loop, but if you look closely, you see that it’s just pass­ing through. The prob­lem—the avidya—oc­curs be­cause you iden­tify with it. In other words, you don’t think, “Here’s some sad­ness,” but, “I’m sad.” You don’t think, “Here’s a bril­liant idea.” You think, “I’m bril­liant.” Re­mem­ber, avidya is “to mis­take the im­per­ma­nent for the eter­nal, the im­pure for the pure, sor­row for hap­pi­ness, and the not-Self for the true Self.” In your in­ter­nal uni­verse, that means ha­bit­u­ally mis­tak­ing an idea or feel­ing for “me” or “mine.” Then you judge your­self as good or bad, pure or im­pure, happy or sad.

But none of th­ese feel­ings are you. They are just pass­ing through. True, they may have deep roots—af­ter all, you’ve been iden­ti­fy­ing your­self as this or that for years. Nonethe­less, to let that sad feel­ing defne you is as nutty as it would be for the ac­tor play­ing Julius Cae­sar to come off­stage and is­sue com­mands to the stage­hands as if they were his sol­diers. But we do it all the time.

That morn­ing, I re­mem­bered to work with the feel­ing (some­thing I might not have done had I wo­ken up feel­ing more pos­i­tive). I closed my eyes and breathed into the lower belly, felt the sen­sual bliss of the breath in­side my body, and watched the feel­ings. I re­mem­bered that I am not my thoughts. I also no­ticed how my sad­ness acted like a pair of blue-tinted glasses, col­or­ing ev­ery­thing, so that a friend’s fail­ure to call me back looked like re­jec­tion (she was only busy with a dead­line) and even the branches on the oaks out­side my win­dow seemed to droop (in an­other mood, I might have no­ticed their leaves sprout­ing to­ward the sky).

Then the sun came out. Within sec­onds, the sad­ness had dis­si­pated. Now, the self-iden­ti­fca­tion mech­a­nism was busy say­ing, “I’m happy! That was just a re­ac­tion to the weather. My prac­tice worked!” In fact, my mind was en­gag­ing in the same process—grab­bing the mood, iden­ti­fy­ing and “de­scrib­ing” it as happy, then iden­tify- ing my­self as “happy.” To free my­self from avidya de­manded that I free my­self from iden­ti­fy­ing with the happy mood, too.

What you’ll no­tice here is how the ba­sic mis­per­cep­tion—tak­ing the non-Self (that is, a mood) for the Self—leads in­ex­orably to feel­ings of aver­sion (“I can’t stand be­ing de­pressed”) or at­tach­ment (“I feel so much bet­ter now that the sun is shin­ing”). And th­ese feel­ings bring up fear—in this case, fear that the sad­ness would be per­ma­nent or that I was trapped by ge­net­ics or that I needed to change where I was liv­ing.

Lifting the veil

Dis­man­tling avidya is a mul­ti­lay­ered process, which is why one break­through is usu­ally not enough. Since dif­fer­ent types of prac­tice

None of th­ese feel­ings are you. They are just

pass­ing through.

un­pick dif­fer­ent as­pects of avidya, the In­dian tra­di­tion pre­scribes dif­fer­ent types of yoga for each one—de­vo­tional prac­tice for the ig­no­rance of the heart, selfess ac­tion for the ten­dency to at­tach to out­comes, med­i­ta­tion for a wan­der­ing mind. The good news is that any level you choose will make a dif­fer­ence.

You free your­self from a piece of your avidya ev­ery time you in­crease your abil­ity to be con­scious, or hold pres­ence dur­ing a chal­leng­ing event. You can do this in dozens of ways. For in­stance, you can in­crease your con­scious­ness about your con­nec­tion and re­spon­si­bil­ity to the planet by sen­si­tiz­ing your­self to the en­ergy in the nat­u­ral world. You can in­crease your aware­ness of your con­nec­tions to oth­ers by lis­ten­ing bet­ter and by prac­tic­ing kind­ness. You in­crease your con­scious­ness of your­self by notic­ing your blind spots, or by notic­ing your emo­tions and their ef­fect in the body.

Sit­ting with the self

Med­i­ta­tions that tune you in to pure Be­ing will be­gin to re­move the deeper ig­no­rance that makes you au­to­mat­i­cally iden­tify “me” with the body, per­son­al­ity, and ideas. On a day-to-day, mo­ment-to- mo­ment level, you burn off a few lay­ers of avidya ev­ery time you turn your aware­ness in­ward and re­fect on the sub­tle mean­ing of a feel­ing or a phys­i­cal re­ac­tion.

Th­ese types of in­ter­ven­tion are not just key spir­i­tual prac­tices; they are also prac­ti­cal self-help tech­niques. When Ge­orge asks him­self, “Is it really true that my wife’s in­volve­ment with an­other man dam­ages my sense of self?” he has a chance to rec­og­nize that his wife’s choices are not state­ments about who he is. This calms his anx­i­ety, which gives him some lever­age for mov­ing for­ward. Notic­ing where the sad­ness sits in his body, feel­ing his way into the sen­sa­tions around the sad­ness, might lead him to look for the root feel­ing be­hind the fear and dis­ori­en­ta­tion. He might no­tice that he has a hid­den be­lief about him­self, like “I’m unlov­able,” and rec­og­nize that it is not really re­lated to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. He could then prac­tice with the sad feel­ing, maybe breathe it out, or sub­sti­tute it with a pos­i­tive thought, and no­tice how ei­ther prac­tice changes his mood. In this way, his self-in­quiry prac­tice gives him sup­port and clar­ity as he de­cides how to han­dle his wife’s re­quest for an open re­la­tion­ship.

Avidya is a deep habit of con­scious­ness, but it’s a habit that we can shift—with in­ten­tion, prac­tice, and a lot of help from the uni­verse. Any mo­ment that causes us to ques­tion our as­sump­tions about re­al­ity has the po­ten­tial to lift our veil. Patan­jali’s su­tra on avidya is not just a de­scrip­tion of the prob­lem of ig­no­rance; it’s also the key to the so­lu­tion. When you pull back and ques­tion the things you think are eter­nal and per­ma­nent, you be­gin to rec­og­nize the won­drous fux that is your life. When you ask, “What’s the real source of hap­pi­ness?” you ex­tend your fo­cus be­yond the ex­ter­nal trig­ger to the feel­ing of hap­pi­ness it­self. And when you seek to know the dif­fer­ence be­tween the false self and the true one, that’s when the veil might come off al­to­gether and show you that you’re not just who you take your­self to be, but some­thing much brighter, vaster, and freer. Story orig­inially pub­lished in Yoga Jour­nal, May 2o11.

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