Suffering and the Promise of Yoga
One of the most imposing realities of existence, and especially human existence, is the reality of suffering. Thus the question regarding the nature, purpose and origin/cause of suffering in existence has been front and center for human beings as long as there has been a humanity to speak of.
Yoga literature reveals the root of suffering via the Sanskrit word avidya. Other causes of suffering and fragmentation are said to be secondary to this. The term avidya is usually translated as “ignorance”. It is the negative of vidya, which in turn comes from the verb root vid, which means “to know”. The noun form vidya identifies the acquisition of knowledge or the learning process as opposed to the act of knowing. In this manner, avidya is not exactly lack of knowledge, but the negation of learning.
As other commentators on the subject have noted, knowledge in this context is not about formal education and books. It is more about revelation. In this writer’s opinion it refers to a dynamic of contact with the known, reminiscent of the biblical term “carnal knowledge”.
The long and the short of it is that the cause of suffering reflects a gap between the knower and the known, or the subject and object of knowledge. To know, in this particular context, is the same as to perceive- to experience- where experience is akin to reality being revealed along the way. To experience reality in this way is to establish intimacy with “it”, and by implication, with and in one’s own nature. To “know” is to, therefore, be one with that which is known; to experience it or have it revealed from the inside-out; from one’s own inside and outward into worldly realization.
If the one who knows, in other words, cannot connect with what is known then knowledge is not complete. It is a fragmented dynamic, not a genuine representation of what is real. If true knowledge is also self-knowledge, then its fragmentation is also the fragmentation of self-realization. All we then know and experience of and as ourselves is an accumulation of shards held together by conditioned and erroneous assumptions. Such a condition would feel terrifyingly brittle, and under the threat of existential collapse if defenses are not constantly maintained. It is no surprise our actions and reactions are mired in suffering when all we can be is a shattered image that puts on a show of coherent being.
Even with the above implications, it is still perplexing- at least for me- to think that “ignorance” is the root of all suffering. The popular saying that ignorance is bliss, after all, is based on enough experience of individuals so it is not forgotten. It is also rather obvious that not knowing might cause inconvenience, or indirectly lead to trauma. But implying it is the root cause of suffering as Yoga literature asserts may seem a bit much, because it is. The translation is unsatisfactory and cannot cover the depth of meaning that justifies the critical existential state that does justice to the notion of avidya.
To reiterate, we can understand avidya as qualified by a state of separation between subject and object, but also between consciousness and energy. This is really a state of con-fusion or sañyoga. The separation is supplanted with an artificial or distorted conjunction of what is still for all practical considerations a schizoid state.
Processes of yoga are said to remedy this. Such practices can be broken down to exercises in being aware. It is said: “use it or lose it”; so exercising awareness cultivates and increases its presence. Cultivating awareness in specific ways disentangles the con-fusion or false union. The nature of being establishes itself by being allowed to receive the presence of its own revelation. One of these ways of cultivation is known as meditation.
Meditation comes from a Latin word meaning “in the middle”. The middle is where one has equal access to both ends. Perhaps we can see those ends as the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, or perhaps as being between objective and subjective or energy and consciousness. Be that as it may, the middle is where one can best bring things that have been apart together. It is where one finds balance.
In yoga tradition the physical body is not the only form acknowledged in human beings. The bodies of sensation, emotion, mind and wisdom are said to constitute our subtle and refined frames, with even more abstract and intangible forms of being that express the dynamics of existential causation where out manifest embodiment is concerned.
All this is not easy to understand because there is little to reference as such in mundane worldly- socially conditioned- experience. It is therefore unlikely one would normally establish conceptual precedence and notions for comparison and contrast with the principles of yoga and esoteric unfolding. It is a topic of unfathomable depth, more of the nature of profound mystery than the likes of an art or science.
On the other hand we can establish reference points of potential understanding if we are open to assimilating revelations that rise out of the mystery. We might even consider the proposition that avidya is a- if not the- primary cause of suffering as one such revelation. As expressed earlier, it seems incredible that simply being uninformed is why we suffer. It does, however, make more sense if we interpret “ignorance” as being alienated from our selves, the world and all that reality is. In other words, our experience of suffering is reality being disconnected from itself, hence in a state of fragmented alienation. This kind of state is even identified in the clinical sense where the human mind is concerned. It is labeled “schizophrenia”, a term that means something to the effect of “torn mental state”.
The good news is that what has been torn asunder may be reintegrated and made whole. At least that is what many individuals deemed wise on this planet have in one way or another expressed through the ages. At the very least the possibility is worth exploring, for we are talking of nothing less than a healing and hence redemption of the human condition, and perhaps much more. That is one of my reasons- or excuses if one wishes to be cynical- for pursuing esoteric cultivation.
In my experience commitment to such cultivation is well worth the challenges one faces along the way, even when there is no end in sight to them. I consider the possibilities of yoga to be true hope. They offer a promise whose fulfillment one can witness unfolding over time, even if at times it seems there is little reason to credit its existence. In these days of turmoil, however, I value and do all I can to keep true hope alive, and to refrain from easy counterfeits. It is not just a whimsical belief or blind faith. True hope is a power to be reckoned with, even as it is marginalized. True hope, in other words, is what redeems us from entering through the gates of hell, the domain where suffering is absolute, and where avidya is law.