Distorted Sense of Self
If you compare yourself to others, you may become
Vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser
Persons than yourself.
Max Ehrmann, from Desiderata
“Asmita” means “I am-ness” in Sanskrit, and it is one of the klesa-s, or mental-emotional afflictions defined in the yoga sutras. What this word means is: possessing a distorted send of self that does not match reality, usually manifesting as egotism or insecurity. Both egotism and insecurity are misrepresentations of the truth; they are forms of delusions. “We are not better or worse than anyone else,” writes the author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman, on which this blog is based on.
The sutras thus far covered are as follows:
- Atha: Readiness and Commitment
- Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
- Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
- Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
- Viveka: Keen Discernment
- Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
- Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
- Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
- Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
- Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
- Parinama: Transformation
- Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
- Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
- Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
- Pramana: Correct Evaluation
- Viparyaya: Misperception
- Vikalpa: Imagination
- Nidra: Sleep
- Smrti: Memory
- Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract
- Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions
- Avidya: Lack of Awareness
- Asmita: Distorted Sense of Self
This section of Bachman’s book is dedicated to the understanding of suffering. Understanding is important because once something is understood, it can be owned, and whatever is owned, gives you the power of choice to let it go or to keep that thing which is causing suffering.
Bachman’s analysis of asmita is excellent: “Asmita is a mental-emotional affliction because it makes us think that we are our body, we are our mind, and therefore, we are our thoughts and emotions (vrtti-s).”
Believing we are only those things limits us to who we truly are and could be. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, said that it is our duty as human beings to constantly ask ourselves, “Who am I?” and implies to never be satisfied with the answer.
But it isn’t enough to mindlessly ask “who am I” to ourselves over and over again and feign wise detachment from it. That would be the farthest thing from authenticity. What Aristotle challenges is that you take on and own different possibilities and aspects of yourself as modes of self-exploration. Explore what it means to live your labels, whether it’s good/bad, mother/father, girl/boy, man/woman, writer/laborer, business owner/employee, artist/chemist, and the list goes on and on. All things essentially are identical, because all things do one thing simultanesously: exist. Good cannot exist with bad, light cannot exist or even be understood without dark.
Yoga teaches we are ultimately our purusa, our inner light of awareness, and not the outer shell of our bodies. Light is infinite and expansive, all the contradictory labels listed above are limited. Not that they are not powerful or empowering or true, we are just so much more than those labels.
Asmita is very closely related to ego. Ego is afraid of change, and it loves to win. Winning is not an inherently bad thing, nor is your ego bad. In fact, competition can be good, healthy, and fun, and as human beings, we are born with egos because it is human nature. It is important to be in a practice of viveka, keen discernment. It is easy to be in a state of competition in all walks of life. If you find yourself in a field or life path where competition is ever present, it is important to remember it is not essentially bad, it just is. Competition becomes “bad” when we are controlled by it. Competition has it’s positive attributes in that it can help you become the best version of yourself, but ultimately the only thing competition creates is emphasis on someone or something outside of yourself, because your focus is on what or who is creating or doing on the “other side” of your own business. Competition does not always serve nor does it tend to serve well. Even the best and most competitive of athletes will speak to this: creativity is a very close cousin to competition, and those who truly excel at their work, whether it’s as a CEO or athlete, will speak to the importance of focusing on creating their performance or product rather than competing with others around them or in the field.
Competition can be great when it is playful. When it becomes intense and rife with negative, downward spiraling energy is when it no longer works for you. It ‘s energy takes on the element of wanting to crush another competitor. With playfulness present, competition takes on an air of creativity and creation, the energy of life and growth. With playfulness and curiosity gone, and only a sense of forcefulness driving competition forward, expect things to not go your way, to not work in your favor, because you are out of alignment with your own inner light, your purusa. Purusa connects us all to our highest self, to isvara (Source of Knowledge), and to one another.
Conjure the focus of a cheetah, and focus on what you can create, and create from joy, and asmita will be at bay because ego and insecurity have a difficult time penetrating your awareness when you are focused on the things you love to do and create.
If viveka (keen discernment-what TRULY benefits you?) is not honored during a creative process and competition is relied upon instead, then avidya sneaks in, or, “lack of awareness” in Sanskrit, the sutra directly ahead of this one in the yoga sutras.
Awareness is the ultimate goal of the practice of yoga. Awareness is our true power as human beings. Tony Robbins says that our greatest power as human beings is our ability to choose. The ancient yoga masters would argue that our greatest power is awareness. What good is our ability to choose if we are not aware that we CAN choose?
Insecurity is a powerful form of asmita. Bachman uses the example of the yoga student, which is an obvious choice, so I am going to use my personal example of learning to play the violin. For years I masked my desire of wanting to play the violin as musical inadequacy within myself. I would also blame it on the fact my parents “didn’t let me play” due to their divorce when I was a young child. Truth is, I could have been more vociferous in my desire to play, and had gotten the chance to play, but the asmita of insecurity got in my way: I believed music was not an inherent talent of mine. I see this all the time with new students of both yoga, meditation, personal training, and CrossFit. Just because they have not been told that they could be good at those things from someone outside themselives, they automatically think they will not be good. What this sutra reminds us is that it does not matter what others may think or say, or how they may perceive us, what matters is how we perceive ourselves, move beyond the negative assumptions we may have about our own abilities and potentials, and choose to move into them.
Enter the transformative power of awareness.
I became aware a couple months ago when my frequency of listening to Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach were reaching an all-time high in my life, and I kept picturing myself playing the violin. I noticed the tape recorder of words floating through my mind: “I am not good enough to play the violin. I wish I was smart enough to play the violin.” I realized that the only way to silence the negative voice was to get a violin and learn. A very affordable violin soon arrived in my life, and many YouTube videos and a violin lesson later, I am able to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Silent Night. Learning new anything, whether it’s an instrument or a new way to move your body during exercise, is a journey! This has helped to silence my heart-mind and increase my confidence. After a couple short weeks of playing the violin I have shown to myself that learning it is possible, and it has expanded my life in great ways, and allowed me to forge new relationships with people I otherwise never would have met, and deepen existing ones from those who play or played violin and never would have otherwise known.
By honoring a two-decade long desire to play the violin, I have conquered one aspect of asmita within myself: I have let go of my ego resisting the change in my life about becoming a musician, and I have overcome my sense of insecurity about playing the violin. Through this experience, I have learned that ego and insecurity are two sides of the same coin, one often existing to help the other exist. My insecurity around playing the violin maintained my ego’s desire to never play, and therefore remain the same out of fear.
By reading this chapter by Bachman I realized that my blaming and excuses about not learning to play the violin when I was a kid was my own asmita rising up to save my ego. The truth is I didn’t have the confidence to voice what I wanted when I wanted it and I had the chance. The opportunity was there, and I didn’t take it. Despite the fact I was a child, it was a great learning experience. Blaming my parents because I was a child was an excuse, and thusly made me seem powerful in my powerlessness. This is a form of delusion and conceit, which is essentially on par with lying.
Bachman defines a healthy ego as feeling content and not feeling threatened by change.
“When we realize that the inner heart-mind is distinct from, yet close to, the inner light of awareness, and that we are better off when the ego takes orders from the inner heart-mind, then asmita will not cause us suffering.”
Practicing viveka even on the powers that exist within us will earn us contentment and peace, and an empowered life and way of being. It will create a life of fearless action. When our actions are governed by our higher selves, our higher, inner intelligence, instead of the heavy ego, which is stuck in the belief that our lives are about our bodies and we are confined by our emotions and thoughts, we live a freer and more abundant life rife with possibility and promise.
Asmita may be weakened by the practice of kriya-yoga, or practice in action (coming in a much later blog post, but go ahead and read Bachman’s book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras from which this blog series comes from if you wish to learn it right this second). Self-observation, or svadyaya, is always a simple and powerful starting point, which opens us up to tapas, or the heat of change. The best way to stay grounded is to remember none of us are better than the other, and change is not a threat to our survival and safety, but rather is a tool to strengthen and empower us. The harder the change, the more profound the growth.
Having a healthy ego is important for proper functioning in society, as well as for self-fulfillment. The contented ego means we think of ourselves as equal to others, and we welcome suggestions to self-improvement and feedback, even if it’s difficult to hear. “Saving face” and avoidance are non-existent because we are beyond embarrassment; what this looks like in action is being in open and generous listening to what our peers have to say about us or to us, and practicing compassion is we are met with anger, jealousy, or any other heavy emotion from other people.
The beauty of yoga is the divine light within that unites us all. The light that illuminates us from the inside out is what we are truly made of. The outer casing around it has nothing to do with who we actually are as people. Our work as human beings is to continuously cleanse our citta (pronounced “cheetah”!), or the lens through which our inner light shines, through meditation and yoga practice, and I also include the practice of pursuing your dreams, because you live authentically in that moment, and you are expressing a contented version of your ego.
We are all important. Every single one of us. You are living in the body you are meant to live in, and it is great. Shift your listening to your inner, divine voice, and you will be empowered to the end of your days, and be bestowed with boundless spirit energy, because your asmita-klesa will be controlled, just because you are aware.
And the beauty of learning to play the violin at 32 instead of 12, is that I never have to worry about competing for first chair in an orchestra. My chosen focus is the love and desire of playing alone, and not succumbing to competition from teachers or peers.
Playing with joy is life’s simplest form of gratitude.
Who am I really? Am I limited by the façade of external things such as my name, occupation, reputation, and preferences?
I am no more or less important than anyone else.
I will not be controlled or confined by an overinflated or underinflated sense of myself.