Avidyā and anxiety: finding peace through clarity

Do you ever have anxiety? Do you ever overthink things?

While I was growing up I lived with both pretty badly. (I guess that’s partly how I initially found, then stuck with yoga). Over time (and through a lot of self study) i noticed that a lot of my anxiety started from the stories I told myself in my head ~ most of which were made up to fill gaps of missing information: e.g. worrying about how something might turn out, or wondering what someone really thought. Essentially living with a filter of fearful imagination over the way I saw life.

Through studying yogic philosophy I learnt of a concept that explained this well — Avidyā, which translates into ‘misperception’: the unhelpful mental affliction of seeing life inaccurately. In fact, it’s such a big deal that the Yoga Sutras (an ancient yogic text) say it’s the #1 obstacle we fact on our path to living a happy and fulfilled life.

Our minds don’t much like mystery ~ that’s why when we don’t have all the info on something (like what somebody else might be thinking, or how things might unfold) we simply make it up in our imagination (and unfortunately it’s often the worst case scenario ~ and it’s often played over and over again, until it feels true enough that the mystery is gone). This is Avidyā ~ working with patchy facts and filtered imagination to create a complete misperception of what’s actually going on.

Having a name to put to this reoccurring state of mind helped me to disidentify from it. With that newfound space, I could better scrutinise possible misperceptions as they arose. I started to notice that most of the time when I felt overwhelmed, I was not ‘working with the facts’ of a situation; rather my emotions and storyline of fears and assumptions. “Probably not a totally accurate perception,” I’d realise. And the anxiety would drop.

Over time this little practice of gently dropping the fear-driven storyline to instead wait for more clarity to inform a thoughtful response rather than a jerk reaction has helped me manage the now much less frequent bubbles of angst I once suffered with daily. Calling misperception ~ avidyā ~ out for what it is and for the damage it can do has helped me rest into more trust that I am never ‘out of control’ or doomed to be ‘an anxious person’ forever. Rather, I am someone who is consciously becoming better and better at witnessing the seed of anxiety before it sprouts ~ and instead of letting it cripple me, I create space for clarity to bloom instead.

Today, mindfulness and regular reflection help me to see how quickly the mind likes create these unhelpful stories ~ simply to fill gaps of unknown. And so I’ve learned to always question the origin of my thoughts before I go believing them. Is this thought a fact, or emotional imagination? Is it driven by fear, or by love? And over time, shedding light on my unhelpful mental patterns helped me to break them. I still experience anxiety sometimes but I catch it early and manage it well.

This teaching, and so many others like it are the parts of yoga we take way beyond the mat. These are the life changing parts of the practice ~ they work their way into our fibres and bring us to LIVE our practice, not just move in it.
I am by no means perfect on this yoga journey ~ but I am consistent in trusting and returning to it. Because it works.

A prayer offered for today: may practice bring us the space we need to see with more clarity. ✨🙏🏽😌


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