Svādhyāya: February 21, 2020

1. self-study and study of sacred scripture
2. a fun, laid-back book club through Eden Yoga in which participants discuss yoga philosophy and life

Readings for 2/21/20:
The Book of Joy, “Obstacles to Joy” pp. 81-171
Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, B.K.S. Iyengar; II.1-II.11 (pp. 108-118)

(What the heck are The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali?)

Last month we fell prey to the temptation to wax philosophical about social problems. As the facilitator, I take responsibility for that. It is hard to avoid talking about racism when reading Reverend King and it IS an important topic. However, the purpose of this book club is Svādhyāya, the study of self and sacred scripture. More specifically, it is a forum to support us in asking ourselves “What do I value? How can I live with more integrity? What support and guidance can these texts contribute to my personal growth?” Forming and voicing opinions about how others should behave is easy. It is a more formidable (and in my view a much more valuable) challenge to look inward, to evaluate and fine-tune our own thoughts, words, and deeds.

Svādhyāya: a couple of pitfalls

Svādhyāya: I don’t like what I see~
One of the major pitfalls of a Svādhyāya (self-study/self-improvement) practice is that a sharp, clear focus on our “shortcomings”, while necessary, can generate guilt and self-reproach. One thing that I love about The Book of Joy is that while it offers specific techniques about how to minimize the obstacles to joy such as anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and envy, Archbishop Tutu continually reminds us that these emotions are natural and we must accept them as part of life. Co-author Douglas Abrams sums it up: “The Dalai Lama was saying that if we eat healthy, take our vitamins, and get enough rest, we can stay healthy, and the Archbishop was saying, ‘Yes, even so, there will be times when we catch a cold, and we should not make it worse by beating ourselves up.'” (Joy, 86). In everything, find balance. Self-deprecation is never productive and self-study is necessary for growth. In his commentary on sutra II.5, Iyengar writes

“Naturally we make mistakes, but when, thorough want of understanding, we fail to reappraise or reflect, error becomes a habit” (Sutras, 114).

Svādhāya: Isn’t that awfully self-centered?~
Another potential pitfall of self-study is becoming overly-focused on oneself. This, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop agree, is a sure-fire way to be less happy. This paradox in the pursuit of happiness is addressed at length in The Book of Joy. Both men emphasize that to have a happy, healthy mind it is essential to recognize our interconnectedness and cultivate compassion for others. Studying the nature of the mind, developing the skills that lead to greater mental immunity, and strengthening those skills through practice: this is svādhyāya.

Mental Immunity

The Dalai Lama advocates cultivating “mental immunity” and defines it this way: “Mental Immunity…is just learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones…And just as a healthy immune system…protects your body against potentially hazardous viruses and bacteria, mental immunity creates a healthy disposition of the mind so that it will be less susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings” (Joy, 83-84). This state of greater equanimity is an important aspect of “mental mastery,” which is the goal of yoga practice and leads to samadhi, or “ultimate freedom.”

I highlighted so many passages in this section “The Obstacles to Joy” it was kind of ridiculous. So much wisdom, so many touching stories. Instead of attempting any type of summary, I will list the titled of the chapters in this section. They serve as a list of obstacles we can refer back to when discussing the kleśaḥs below.

-You Are a Masterpiece in the Making
-Fear, Stress, and Anxiety: I Would Be Very Nervous
-Sadness and Grief: The Hard Times Knit Us More Closely Together
-Despair: The World Is in Such Turmoil
-Loneliness: No Need for Introduction
-Envy: That Guy Goes Past yet Again in His Mercedes-Benz
-Suffering and Adversity: Passing Through Difficulties
-Illness and Fear of Death: I Prefer to Go to Hell

Is there a passage from either text that you found particularly inspiring?
Please share it in the comments section below!

The Five Kleśaḥs

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists five kleśaḥs, or “afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness.” Not surprisingly, these afflictions parallel the “obstacles to joy” and the Archbishop’s and Dalai Lama’s discussion on these obstacles enhance our understanding of the kleśaḥs.

The Five Kleśaḥs:
Avidyā: spiritual ignorance
Asmitā: ego, pride
Rāga: desire, attachment
Dveṣa: hate, dislike
Abhiniveśaḥ: love of life, fear of death

One type of spiritual ignorance is thinking that we can control things that are not within our control. Abrams identifies this as a source of stress and anxiety and writes “So much of what causes heartache is our wanting things to be different than they are” (Joy, 87).

Sutra II.5: Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidyā” (Sutras, 114).

Given how ubiquitous chronic stress is in modern times, perhaps we should add “mistaking something harmless as a threat” to the above sutra. Abrams describes research by psychologist Elissa Epel and Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn that shows that “constant stress actually wears down our telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect our cells from illness and aging” (Joy, 98). They discovered that how we interpret stressful events determines the impact on our bodies.

Epel and Blackburn…encourage us to develop stress resilience. This involves turning what is called “threat stress,” or the perception that a stressful event is a threat that will harm us, into what is called “challenge stress,” or the perception that a stressful event is a challenge that will help us grow. (Joy, 98)

Epel and Blackburn have given us biological evidence that ignorance–in this case, mistakenly believing that a stress response indicates a physical threat–does indeed negatively impact our physical and mental health.

There are spiritual beliefs that bring us peace in stressful times, (or in other words, convert a “stress threat” into a “stress challenge”) such as the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God will take care of me.” Whether our thought process is based on faith or scientific pragmatism, we can develop mental immunity.


According to the sutra II.4, avidyā, or ignorance, is the source of the other four afflictions. Asmitā, or ego, refers to being ignorant of our “true self.” The affirmation from Louise Hay “I am a spiritual being having a human experience” speaks to this. It is the idea that our real “self” (or “soul”, “spirit”) is something that transcends the human body. Pride and arrogance come from thinking of oneself as more important than others. Likewise, asmitā is the erroneous perception that the material world is of utmost importance.

Abrams’, the Dalai Lama’s, and the Archbishop’s stories of frustration over canceled flights and getting stuck in traffic are good examples of asmitā. We get frustrated when we believe that our plans should take top priority, yet somehow the world fails to deliver.

An overvaluing of our material differences, on thinking that I am so different than you, is another way that asmitā causes suffering. According to the Dalai Lama “When someone is warmhearted, they are always completely relaxed. If you live with fear and consider yourself as something special, then automatically, emotionally, you are distanced from others. You then create the basis for feelings of alienation from others and loneliness” (Joy, 130).

Rāga & Dveṣa~

The chapter on envy offers insight into the needless suffering caused by comparing ourselves with our peers and wanting what they have. The story of the capuchin monkeys is a perfect example–the monkey is perfectly content until he sees another getting a better reward for the same work (Joy, 136). The problem with rāga isn’t specifically the “wanting” per se, rather the feeling of lack that often accompanies it. Getting what we want is not much better, because then our happiness is contingent on continuing to have it. Dveṣa is the flip side of this coin. There are many things we dislike and spend untold amounts of energy trying to avoid–not the least of which is suffering and adversity. In the chapter by that title, both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama relate their own stories of pain and adversity and both conclude that “The path to joy, like with sadness, did not lead away from suffering and adversity, but through it” (Joy, 150).


Sutra II.9 states “Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men” (Sutras, 116). The Archbishop’s faith in the beauty of God and heaven brings him peace. He says “Heaven is going to be forever a place of new discovery” (Joy, 162). The Dalai Lama describes his meditations on the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, “that it is the nature of all things that come into existence to have an end” (Joy, 165). He also offers some advice he received during his frightful escape from Tibet: “If there is a way to overcome the situation, then instead of feeling too much sadness, too much fear, or too much anger, make an effort to change the situation. If there’s nothing you can do to overcome the situation, then there is no need for fear or sadness or anger” (Joy, 167).

In his commentary, Iyengar writes “While practising asana, pranayama or dhyana, the sadhaka (practitioner) penetrates deep within himself. He experiences unity in the flow of intelligence, and the current of self-energy. In this state he perceives that there is no difference between life and death, that they are simply two sides of the same coin. He understands that the current of self, the life-force, active while he is alive, merges with the universe when it leaves his body at death. Through this understanding, he loses his attachment to life and conquers the fear of death. This frees him from afflictions and sorrows and leads him to kaivalya” (Sutras, 117)

Do you have a personal story about how one of the klesahs has impacted you? Please share below.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments!

2 thoughts on “Svādhyāya: February 21, 2020

  1. I found the charter “Frustration and Anger” in Book of Joy very inspirational. I have suffered from bursts of anger which afterwards seem unwarranted leading to embarrassment and hard feelings from others. I can see myself in the The Dalai Lama’s humorous story about the car mechanic becoming angry for banging his head and than doing it again in frustration. I found the idea that the root of anger is fear to have wisdom. Also, the approach to mitigate the negative affects of anger through awareness of the underlining fear leading to compassion is something I want to focus on.

  2. The chapter in Book of Joy on loneliness struck me personally. The conditions of modern life as described by all three TuTu, Abrams, and DL which lead to loneliness in a crowded world, I see in myself and others. The statement by the Dalai Lama that mutual trust is the basis for friendship is a great insight and leads to awareness of caring for and building friendships. I was also impressed by the strong tie between our acceptance of the interdependence of all life and the resultant focus on kindness and compassion. This seems to be the path to being joyful and connected. Wow A really good charter which I reread several times!!

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