The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom or knowledge—the wisdom earned through deep practice and experience. The prefix a indicates a lack or an absence. In the yogic sense, 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 our survival strategies, our relationships, our 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.
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.”
Taken together, these flavors 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 underlying reality. Since this personal trance is fully supported by the beliefs and perceptions of the culture around you, it’s difficult 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.
Dismantling avidya is a multilayered process, which is why one breakthrough is usually not enough. Since different types of practice unpick different aspects of avidya, the Indian tradition prescribes different types of yoga for each one—devotional practice for the ignorance of the heart, selfless action for the tendency to attach to outcomes, meditation for a wandering mind. The good news is that any level you choose to work with is going to 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. 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 reflect on the subtle meaning of a feeling or a physical reaction.
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 flux 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, much vaster, and much more free.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article, Who Do You Think You Are by Sally Kempton