Here’s a fun thing to do on a slow afternoon: make a list of ‘me’s. I have plenty of them. And they’re predictable, arriving on cue like programmed robots. When I’m driving, the ‘impatient me’ arrives as soon as the car in front of me drives one mile per hour below the speed limit. When the sun deepens its arc into the western sky, ‘anxious me’ arrives to tell ‘complacent me’ that I’m running out of time for all the things I wanted to do today. ‘Complacent me’ couldn’t care less.
There’s ‘grateful me’, ‘grumpy me’, ‘garrulous me’, ‘guilty me’, ‘greedy’ me, ‘generous me’ – one way to create a list of ‘me’s is to just pick a letter of the alphabet and run with it. If you have enough time you can go the distance; I’ve got ‘me’s from ‘abiotic’ to ‘zippy’.
There’s one thing that all of these different ‘me’s have in common: they’re not me. Yes, they’re manifestations of various aspects of my personality but my personality isn’t ‘me’, either; it’s something I possess. That’s why I talk about it as a possession: I have a personality.
And so do you. And our thoughts and feelings matter but the stubborn fact of the difference between our thoughts and our ‘self’, the possessor of thoughts, remains. The Bhagavad Gita puts it this way:
“Spirit souls bewildered by the inﬂuence of false ego think of themselves as the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three qualities of material nature.” (BG 3.27)
Which brings us to svadhyaya. Svadhyaya means “study of the self.” In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali recommends svadhyaya as one of the three essential actions of yoga (YSP II.1). Of course, this assumes that we know what the self is: that we can see it or experience it in some way. Otherwise, how can we study it?
Well, therein lies the problem: prior to making this recommendation, Patanjali confirms the opinion of the Bhagavad Gita: the reason we need to do yoga in the first place is because we’re under the influence of an illusion: we misidentify the ‘self’ as being something other than what it really is, namely, the parade of ‘me’s that make up the personality we possess.
Okay, strap in because this is the part where we see how deep the rabbit hole goes: all of those ‘me’s are really just different combinations of the qualities of material nature that arise in response to a world made up of… different combinations of the qualities of material nature. For all intents and purposes, we’re asleep in the back seat of a car while our personality is driving us down the road of life. The process of yoga is the process of waking up and taking control of the vehicle.
If you think this sounds a lot like The Matrix, well, that’s because it really is a lot like The Matrix. Returning to the Gita for an elaboration:
“One who can see that all activities are performed by the body, which is created of material nature, and sees that the self does nothing, actually sees.” (BG 13.30)
So if our starting point is a dream-like condition wherein we don’t know who we are and we think we’re someone we’re not then how can we practice svadhyaya?
We can do it by studying yoga wisdom texts that describe the nature of our illusion – how it works, why it occurs, and what we can do about it – and the true nature of the self as it is understood by those who are self-realized or, in other words, awake.
Svadhyaya is not just a matter of dropping in to see what condition our condition is in: it includes, and actually emphasizes, scriptural study. Why? Because one of the functions of a yoga wisdom text is to provide us with the opportunity to re-create the revelatory experience of the author. The value of a genuine yoga wisdom text is that the person who wrote it – or spoke it – is in a position to help us wake up because they’re not sleeping.
Unfortunately, no one can just be told what illusion is: we have to see it for ourselves. That’s why svadhyaya is not just theory, it’s applied theory: when we take theoretical knowledge about the mechanics of illusion out of the book and into our lives we can start to see how the qualities of material nature affect us and operate in the world. And by trying to align our thoughts, words, and actions with the conception of the self that we learn about from self-realized authors of transcendental knowledge, we can actually begin to feel the distinction between our material and spiritual identities.
Svadhyaya is the red pill. Welcome to Wonderland.