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Svadhyaya: Know Thyself (and thy monsters)

The second last niyama is svadhyaya: self study. Self-study can be done in any number of ways. Some use meditation to observe their bodies, emotions and thoughts. Some journal. Some explore their inner workings and express themselves through the arts. Some use athletics or other physical pursuits to learn about themselves. The form that self-study takes is not so important. The key is to set an intention to use an activity as a means of studying the self and then sticking with the process.

The intention is important because we are very adept at finding ways to distract ourselves. Most things that we do alone we couple with something that allows us to avoid our experience in some way: we listen to podcasts while walking; we watch TV while exercising; we talk on the phone while cooking. These things are fine, but if we always do this, we miss out on valuable opportunities to watch what is actually going on in our bodies and minds while we engage in certain activities.

The sticking with it is important too because, while self-study uncovers our strengths, it also brings us face-to-face with the parts of ourselves that we may not want to look at: our weaknesses, our addictions, our negative patterns. Yogi and writer Donna Farhi calls the things that we like to deny or ignore about ourselves our “box of monsters.” What is the natural thing to do with a box of monsters? Firstly, avoid going near it, and then, if you do happen to open it, shut the door fast and nail it shut.

However, avoiding or slamming the door on our own personal box of monsters is troublesome for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the monsters don’t go away. They are there, affecting our behaviour. We just aren’t aware of it, which makes it difficult to make positive changes. Secondly, when we reject parts of ourselves, we send ourselves the message that these monsters, which are part of us, make us bad. Farhi explains that when we discover something in ourselves that we aren't proud of, we must be gentle:

The worst thing we can do at these times is give ourselves the double whammy of both uncovering a soft spot and beating ourselves up for what we perceive as a fatal flaw. At these times, it’s important actually to welcome and accept our limitations. When we welcome a limitation, we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, our impatience, or self-loathing. We can have a little compassion for the forces and conditions that molded our behaviors and beliefs, and in so doing develop more skill in handling, containing, and re-directing previously self-destructive tendencies. The degree to which we can do this for ourselves is the degree to which we will be tolerant of other people’s weaknesses and flaws.

Of course, just opening up a box of monsters and letting them run around wild would just be irresponsible. There is probably a reason the box exists. If we open it and let everything all out at once, it will create chaos and likely do some damage. If we do want to start dealing with this box, the responsible option is to start to let one monster out of the box at a time, or maybe even just peek through a crack and take stock, get a sense of what is in there and decide which one might be the easiest to deal with first, or if we see a big one in there, decide that we aren’t equipped to deal with on our own and engage the assistance of a professional like a psychologist or counselor who is well-versed in dealing with monsters.

When we are ready to start dealing with our monsters, either on our own or with assistance, we can let them out a bit at a time and work on being with them. We can work on allowing them to exist, listening what they have to say, observing them from a bit of a distance, seeing that they are not us and we are not them and making skillful decisions on how to work with them or seeing if they are ready to leave. While we are doing this work, returning to the breath and the sensations in the body can be helpful. When we begin spinning out stories about what this monster means about us, we can regain that healthy distance between it and ourselves by centring ourselves in the present moment, focusing on the breath, focusing on the body.

Sometimes the monster will be ready to take off and sometimes it won’t, but at least once it is out in the light, we know what we are dealing with, and it is no longer controlling us from the shadows. Also, it is free to go and if it returns, we may be less likely to lock it up and keep it. Maybe eventually we will get to the point where we see it, acknowledge it and let it go.

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