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What If We Could Weed Out Avidya (Ignorance)?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

by Baxter

What if We Could Weed Out Avidya (Ignorance)?

Constellation Awakening at Dawn by Joan Miro

In her post Ignorance About Ignorance, Nina did a lovely job discussing avidya, a key concept in yoga philosophy that has everyday ramifications for us. In a nutshell, the yogis of old noticed that our everyday unrestrained mind was the underlying culprit not only of our present psychological suffering, but also of our ability to reach many desirable goals regarding health, well-being, and spiritual growth.
Their cure for this was to gain control of the fluctuations, whirls, or cycling of our minds and thoughts (see Thoughts About Quieting the Mind). But they noted that there were obstacles to clear out of the way if we want to make any progress in achieving our goals, and the giant at the doorway to our success is this thing called “avidya,” which Nina so astutely pointed out can mean both ignorance (just plain not knowing something true and real) and misapprehension (having a mistaken understanding of the way things are). 
There are entire fields of knowledge that I am entirely ignorant about, such as quantum physics or jet propulsion engineering, as well as huge pieces of personal history I don’t know about for even some of my closest friends. And although I might still operate in the world on a daily basis without too much trouble or suffering due to these particular areas of ignorance, there are other times where my ignorance does contribute to my suffering and the suffering of others.
To illustrate this, here is little story Nina shared with me that shows how lack of knowledge directly contributed to the suffering of a young woman who was dealing with bouts of anxiety. The young woman’s mother told Nina, “Well, I guess, anxiety just comes and goes.” Nina’s friend and her daughter seemed to feel that the daughter was at the mercy of some emotion that took her over periodically and that there was nothing she could do to change that. But, of course, we now know that there are things you can do to manage anxiety. Through a combination of educating yourself and making some lifestyle changes, you can empower yourself to deal more effectively with stressful situations and hopefully reduce the levels of stress and/or anxiety. Once Nina’s friend learned all this about anxiety, she was able to start taking steps to help her daughter, instead of just feeling helpless.
And when it comes to misapprehension, I do fall into the trap of mistaken understanding all the time, as I—and I suspect you do, too!—tend to make a lot of incorrect assumptions about other people and situations that may not be based in reality at all. These assumptions can often lead to all sorts of difficulties, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, etc., both for me and for others. At its most serious extreme, I can’t help but think about the recent spate of unnecessary killings of young black Americans by local law enforcement based on blatantly false assumptions, such as they were brandishing a weapon that turned out to be a toy gun, or assuming someone is a criminal based on a hooded sweatshirt and the color of their skin. 
Ignorance and misapprehension happen on a personal level regularly, and also happen on a societal level around issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on. And the resulting behaviors and responses in action and policy are often misguided and destructive both individuals and to large groups of people. What if we could weed out this avidya? Would this lead to less psychological suffering and a more peaceful world? The ancient yogis said yes to the first and probably to the second. And our yoga practices, when performed regularly, are the practical way to uncovering these inaccurate perceptions of the world around us, especially the more refined practices like pranayama, concentration, and meditation.
I certainly love to apply yoga philosophy to practical everyday situations to make it relevant and helpful for my own life and my student’s lives as well. But it is also worth noting that the concept of avidya originally applied more specifically to the relationship of ignorance and misapprehension to yoga concepts. This means you would eliminate avidya by studying to scriptures to learn more about how the mind works, what the other obstacles are to quieting the mind, and which practices in life and in meditation would be helpful for moving beyond those obstacles. For example, learning about the yamas and niyamas can be helpful for living a more harmonious life, which in turn will help quiet the mind, eventually leading to the deeper experiences of yoga, such as identifying with the connectedness and inseparability of the individual with the divine.
If you want to learn more about avidya and its outgrowth obstacles known as the klesas, consider reading more about them in a translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, such as those by BKS Iyengar or TKV Desikachar. I often find it helpful to compare two different commentaries, as individual commentators can have unique takes on the same Sanskrit words and concepts. Nina has written briefly about the klesas in her post The Pains Which Are To Come.
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