Lauren, a Los Angeles yoga teacher, slipped in a lunge while teaching and broke her ankle. Because she's a practice-through-the-pain kind of yogi, she didn't even stop to assess the injury before continuing her class. When she finally got to the doctor, she found out she would have to stay off the ankle for at least a month.
For Lauren, this triggered a deep identity crisis. Since her teens, her supple, strong body has been the source of her wellbeing, her self-esteem, and, as an adult, her income. She can still teach yoga with a broken ankle, and her injury may even turn out to be the incentive to deepen her understanding of alignment. But because the 'me' she has always felt herself to be is tied to her physicality, the accident has left her deeply disoriented. Of course, she tells me impatiently, she knows she's not her body. But knowing that doesn't seem to cure her feelings of self-doubt and fear.
George has a different issue. His wife has told him that she's involved with another man, and wants to have an open marriage. George feels abandoned and insecure, which leads him to thoughts like "I'm not good at relationships," and "I'm not lovable." Essentially he feels the same disorientation that Lauren is suffering. "I don't know who I am when the person I love doesn't want me," he says.
Both these people have suffered a wound to their sense of self. A psychologist might say that the external blow cracked open some of the fissures in the fabric of their identities, bringing up feelings that probably stem from childhood. But from a yogic point of view, this feeling of groundlessness is actually inviting each of them to look seriously at the question: "Who do I think I am?"
Deeper than the trauma itself, deeper even then the implicit memories that may be contributing to their feeling of personal derailment, Lauren and George are both suffering from the core misunderstanding that the yogic texts call avidya—a basic ignorance of who we are, and of the underlying reality that connects everything in the universe. Their current dilemma could become an opportunity for each of them to recognize this fundamental misperception—to look into the nature of identity itself. When everything you relied on seems to dissolve, you not only get a glimpse of the cracks in your psychological infrastructure, you also get a chance to examine the source of the problem, which gives you a better shot at getting free of it.
The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom or knowledge, the wisdom earned through deep practice and experience. The prefix 'a' indicates a lack of, or an absence of. 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 an actual 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—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 all of avidya's manifestations stem from the failure to recognize that essentially you are spirit, and that you share this with every atom of the universe.
For instance, one common way we see avidya in action is the habit of thinking that other people should treat you better, or that you need someone's approval to feel good about yourself. You might 'know' this isn't true—that people often act without regard for the welfare of others, and that making your self-esteem contingent on how others feel about you is a bit like trying to buy zucchini at The Gap. If someone points out to you that you are responsible for your own inner state, you might think, "I know!"
But knowing that truth intellectually doesn't change your feelings or behavior. It doesn't stop you from trying to cajole or manipulate your friends and partners and children into acting the way you think you 'need' them to act—perhaps demanding continual reassurance of love from a partner, or looking for constant evidence of being needed. Intellectual knowledge alone doesn't have practical power to help you. For that knowledge to become vidya, or true wisdom, you need to understand it on a visceral level. Until you do, you are suffering from avidya on the level of relationships, with all of the attendant discomfort and pain. And the same goes for every other type of avidya.
More than Skin Deep
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra II.5, we are given four useful clues for identifying when we have slipped into avidya. Each of them 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 what is perishable for the eternal, what is impure for the pure, what is sorrow for what is happiness, and the not-Self for the True Self."