The number one obstacle on our journey toward greater awareness of self is thinking that we know something when we really do not.
Known as avidya in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, this obstacle (klesha) translates as “not seeing clearly” and indicates that our ignorance comes from a lack of true spiritual insight.
Avidya is the first of five inner states of being that prevent us from liberation of the ego or, enlightenment. Asmita (egoism) follows, then raga (attachment) and dvesa (aversion to higher self), then finally, abhinivesa — (fear of death), the final klesha.
These teachings are not meant to discourage us, but rather to provide a model from which we can understand the nature of our experiences in life and move toward greater clarity and joy.
When we are experiencing avidya, we feel unsettled in some way. This is recognizable since most of us feel unsettled in some way a good portion of the time — incessantly striving to achieve without ever feeling really complete just as we are. Or maybe we spend too much time seeking pleasure or self-definition from things that are transitory.
When we cling to a certain belief and are unable to consider another viewpoint, we are operating in avidya. If we cannot still the restless mind in order to discern truth beyond our current desires, this too is a state of unclarity. Emotionally, avidya manifests as anxiety, fear of rejection, or tumultuous mood swings within our internal landscape.
This lack of clear vision is driven by the ego-self — the part of us that thinks it knows everything and has to maintain its position of control. Avidya only leads us to suffering.
So we have a choice: In our thoughts and actions, we can either feed avidya, or starve it out. When we begin to move away from avidya and progress toward clarity, we will feel more at peace and less clouded with anxiety.
To overcome ignorance and liberate yourself from the ego self, consider these three spiritual practices:
No matter how much knowledge we acquire, it is important to remember the Universe is infinite. We must allow ourselves to be humbled by this awareness. Only when we are willing to admit that we do not and cannot know it all, can we then open our hearts to the Self that does know and can guide us into Truth.
Through practices to help eliminate the ego we become more able to act from the standpoint of Higher Self, rather than personal agenda. This includes putting a cap on your desires, dedicating the fruits of your actions to the Divine, and maintaining a sense of mindfulness.
Integrating a disciplined self-reflection process each day helps us to remain watchful of our physical, emotional and mental habits. By careful self-observation, we begin to see the ways that ignorance or lack of clarity starts to shift within us. It is our job to polish the glass of the mind where pure consciousness is trying to shine through.
In order to uproot the powerful connection we hold to our ego nature, we must become devoted to that which is higher and greater than our individual selves. Even if we cannot comprehend what this may be, we can acknowledge the difference between the ego/personality self and the self that is the light within us. We can meditate to make contact with this "Soul Self" and connect with universal consciousness to experience it more completely.
With humility, introspection and devotion, our inner vision will clear and we will begin to identify with the true self, rather than the temporary body self. By overcoming avidya we will feel more peace within. Sitting in the humble recognition of not-knowing versus knowing, we feel no tension or agitation, but rather a stillness from which we can consciously choose to speak or act (or not).
As avidya loses its grip on us, we sit as compassionate witnesses to the fluctuations of our human experience, while maintaining identification with the real self that holds infinite space for all learning and wisdom to occur.