Kashmir Shaivism, a school of Tantric philosophy and technique, offers the analytical tool of the three “malas,” or impurities, to help us cognitively unveil the obstacles to the experience of our infinite nature. These malas are likened to veils obscuring the truth. If they were tangible, physical things, they would be easier to overcome, but the fact is they are ever so subtle!
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 behind 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.
To live a life according to the wisdom of ecology is the most urgent task for humanity today. What can the philosophy of yoga contribute to this critical challenge? How can we develop an environmental ethics according to yogic principles? What would a sustainable ethics based on yoga look like?
The human race is a single species at constant war with itself. Strange, isn’t it?
This state of affairs exists for one simple reason: the great majority of individual human beings are at war with themselves. “As inside, so outside; as here, so elsewhere.” The world is nothing but a macrocosm of the inner state of most individual human beings.
Individual human beings are at war with themselves for one simple reason: they are internally divided, and these divisions are not compatible. They do not cohere.
The yogic theory of saṃskāras, or subliminal impressions of past painful or pleasurable experiences, is one of India's most fascinating contributions to our understanding of human psychology. Briefly, when we experience aversion to a painful experience, or attachment to a pleasurable one, then an impression of that experience is laid down in our psyche, which is said to be a 'seed' of experience which will sprout again.
"Tantra" is now a buzzword in the modern Western world. We see it on the covers of popular magazines and books, usually linked suggestively with the notion of superlative sexual experience. Though almost everyone has heard this word, almost no one—including many people claiming to teach something called tantra—knows anything about the historical development of the Indian spiritual tradition that Sanskrit scholars refer to as Tantra. What these academics study as Tantra bears little to no resemblance to what is taught under the same name on the workshop circuit of Western alternative spirituality. It would take a much longer post to explain why that gap is so wide—it's a deeply complex issue of cultural mediation and strange misunderstandings. However, my book Tantra Illuminatedpresents a comprehensive overview of the original Indian spiritual tradition that was articulated in Sanskrit scriptures called tantras (which is where the name came from). Why would this be of interest to modern Westerners? There is one outstanding reason: millions of Westerners are today practicing something called yoga, a practice which, though much altered in form and context, can in many respects be traced back to the classical Tantrik tradition.
Contrary to popular interpretations, the path toward seeing the true Self does not involve destroying the egoic self. The egoic self is not the problem. It is a tool that everyone needs to function in the world. The problem arises when we attach ourselves to that narrower self, when we confuse our identifications with it. When we stop identifying with it, the ego will change, surely, but it will never leave completely. We wouldn't be able to navigate the world if it departed without remainder.
In the Guru Gita, it says “the first syllable ‘gu’ represents the principles such as maya, and the second syllable ‘ru’ the supreme knowledge that destroys the illusion of maya.” Part of that illusion is the idea of a separate self. Therefore, the guru is the name for that which reflects back the Truth of Brahman or Siva, the ground of consciousness from which all emanates and proceeds, and which is our true identity.
The guru as a person is simply a signpost for the experience of that reflection. Confusing the guru for a god, as has so often happened in our history, would be like sucking on the finger of someone pointing to the stars, mistaking the outstretched hand for the vast cosmos it is directing us toward.
Explaining the premodern Indian conception of mind to Westerners poses an interesting problem. Western popular culture tends to posit two primary centers of our being other than the body: the mind (locus of thoughts) and the heart (locus of feelings). This is in complete opposition to the Indian model, whereby 'mind' and 'heart' both translate the same Sanskrit word (chitta), for as every good psychologist knows, thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked--indeed, they exist on a continuum. Thus the center of our individuated consciousness is a 'heart-mind' (chitta), in which vibrate fluctuations (vrttis) that can be more rational and linguistic (what we generally call thoughts) or less linguistic, less rational, and more charged with affect (what we generally call emotions). This heart-mind has three primary aspects, in the Indian model: a faculty of attention and sensory processing (manas), an identity-maker or self-image former (commonly called "ego," ahamkāra), and a capacity for imagining things, for forming judgments and making decisions (buddhi). These are explained at greater length in my book, Tantra Illuminated.
When I refer to this ground as zero, I do not mean there is nothing there. Or perhaps I do, in the sense that there is a nothing there which is also a something. It is only a nothing with regards to words and the objectified world of discrete objects. Because it is the very ground of the possibility of anything whatsoever, words cannot wrap themselves around it. The only way to speak of it is through seemingly paradoxical poetry, for it is the space in which emptiness and fullness and every opposite ever imagined lives comfortably. It is where contradiction and sense are not at odds.
We are not meant to analyze it into a logical equation, which is perhaps why this sort of Truth cannot be recognized by Western philosophical discourse. It is outside the realm of what that discourse deems legitimate - which is of course unfortunate, because it is a flat out denial of a well-documented world of diverse experiences.
It is a staple of so many religions that there is a "higher" and "lower" expression of existence. The higher is typically associated with consciousness and pursuits of abstraction and transcendence, whereas the body, emotions and the material world get the shaft as the "lower" realm of existence. Naturally, there is a not-so-subtle sexism built into this hierarchical distribution, as the feminine has often been the energy of the body and emotions, thus seen as an inferior force in the face of the more masculine practices of thought, abstraction and transcendence.