Self-Study: We live in a society that pits us all against each other. A society that tells us again and again that we are lacking in some way. We are incomplete. We need to be richer, smarter, prettier, wiser, louder… we are never enough. But what if I told you that you are already whole and complete exactly as you are? That you are enough? Would you believe me?
Probably not, since that’s undoing a lifetime of social conditioning which, let me tell you, is hard work! But it is possible to accept yourself and who you are, it is possible to be happy with who you are. I promise you. You just have to look within.
Mastering The Art of Self-Study
Often when we think of self-study, it brings up a fair few feelings of anxiety.
Firstly, because many of us are still trying to assuage any residual pressure to work so hard at school or university. The word studying brings to mind tearful exams or long, lonely hours holed up in a dank library.
Secondly, because study often involves a certain level of critique or judgement. When it’s a study of the self, this often turns into a bitter, negative inner voice that thrives from your moments of weakness, getting louder the more attention you give to it.
But, self-study does not have to be anxiety or burnout inducing. Self-study can be beautiful, transformational, enlightening, healing even.
Self-Study in Yoga
In yoga, the study of the self is one of the binding principles of yogic philosophy. The term Svadhyaya is a Sanskrit term for self-study and is about deepening your practice beyond the mat. That is to say, not just practicing the asanas, the physical poses, but picking off any of the myriad yoga petals and allowing them to blossom with time and perseverance.
Let me quickly point out that it is impossible to break down a millennia of history in just a few words(!), but to give a little bit of context, eight key elements make up the guiding principles of yoga. These are made up of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. More about this guy later.
In layman’s terms, the yoga sutras, often translated as verses or scriptures, break down what it takes to become enlightened or reach Samadhi, a state of enlightenment. Each sutra focuses on a different aspect of yoga theory and practice, guiding practitioners to lead a purposeful and meaningful life.
Let’s not over-complicate this though. You see, self-study doesn’t have to be complex. You also don’t have to be a die-hard yogi to get self-study or to use it in a practical, life-affirming way.
Self-Study Begins With Just a Few Moments of Introspection
Self-study begins with just a few moments of introspection. Now, let’s clarify this: introspection doesn’t mean spending time alone just to chase your thoughts around in your head on a loop. It doesn’t mean getting caught up in some narrative about your past, replaying an event over and over in your mind like a broken record. This is unhealthy and can become terribly destructive. Try and think about introspection as consciously observing your mind.
Self-study involves spending time learning and observing how your mind works without getting attached to or identifying with the thoughts and feelings that pop up. It involves harnessing a certain level of, albeit oxymoronic, compassionate objectivity. Compassionate, insofar as we do not judge ourselves for thoughts that arise, and objective, insofar as we do not become attached to or triggered by the thoughts that arise either.
The more time we spend getting to know ourselves, understanding what it is that makes us who we are, the more chance we have of actually managing the whirlwind of human emotions that we’re somewhat destined to experience.
Live Your Best Life, Be Your Best Self
The thing is, how can you expect to live your best life and be your best self if you don’t even know who you are? If you don’t know what makes you tick? Through self-study, by taking just a few moments every day to check in with our minds and with our bodies, we can figure out what triggers us to feel a certain way – be that hunger, hormones, lust, latent but present pain from a past remark or traumatic experience. When we know the cause, we can choose how best to act.
When we begin to realise that all these triggers are external, or rather, not actually who we are, we can begin to detach ourselves from them. To explain this further, we begin to understand that these thoughts, these feelings, these emotions, are not who we are. They do not define us. We are merely the awareness of these thoughts, these feelings, the awareness that brings them into existence.
Recognise, Acknowledge, Observe, Let Go…
When you study yourself enough, and you know how your body and mind respond to certain stimulants, you can decipher the difference between the thinking mind and the observing mind.
The human body is so, so incredibly intelligent. But it can’t tell the difference between a thought and a situation. For example, you’re completely safe sat in an office at work, but because your thoughts are going crazy about your next work assignment, despite the fact that there is no real danger, your manic thoughts instinctively send your body into fight or flight mode. This gears you up for some kind of attack by giving you an unnecessary rush of adrenaline and cortisol.
When you can observe this kind of scenario taking place, you can rein these feelings back in. You can take control of the thinking mind before it ruins your day, your week, or even your life.
You Deserve To Be Happy
I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying self-study could save your life. It’s hard. Most of us have fueled and refueled that inner negative critic for most of our lives, it feels like it’s part of who we are.
If it helps, try and put it this way: why would you want to be associated with someone who makes you feel like shit? Why would you want someone to hang around who doesn’t make you feel like you are divine? Because you are, and you deserve to feel that way.
Thinking Can’t Be That Bad, Can It?
It’s a valid question: if it’s something everybody on the planet seems to be doing, surely it can’t be that bad?
Compulsive thinking is dangerous for many reasons; the majority of our thoughts not only lead us astray from the present moment but they also, coming back to my very first point, convince us that we are lacking in some way; this moment, you, your job, your relationships, your future prospects, or your past achievements.
These all generally lead back to one root cause: feeling like you can’t be happy where you are; you’re not good enough, your job isn’t enough, your home isn’t enough, your face or your body isn’t enough. Whatever it is, according to your anxious, thinking mind, there’s always something you could be doing better. Sound familiar? You’re always looking for something beyond the present moment, thinking when I get this or when I get that I will be enough or my life will mean something.
You Are Divine, Darling
But. Yes, there’s always another but. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says: “Study thyself, discover the divine” II.44. In other words, everything you seek is within you. If you look deep enough, you will realise that you are enough.
Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and mystic, also states that the universe, the divine, is within you. What you seek, which essentially always boils down to just being happy, is in you. Nothing else matters.
Through self-study, you will realise that you are divine, darling.
Look To Yourself, Not To Others
So, rather than spending all your time studying what everyone else is doing and comparing yourself to them, look within. Find the light within you and discover that you are enough.
There are thousands of inspiring and eye-opening yogic texts to help with your self-study such as the Upanishads or The Vedas. It goes without saying that these were written many a millenia ago and may feel a little alienating to someone not particularly familiar with the history of yoga. We can also practice self-study through meditation, reading more modern texts, writing, listening, practicing yoga, or simply expressing ourselves in ways that make us light up.
Now, Where To Begin…
How about start by asking yourself: What makes me light up? Remind yourself that you are worth the time and effort. You deserve to get to know yourself. You may even find a new friend within yourself.
Practice checking in with yourself a little every so often. A bit of meditation here, a bit of me-time there. Remember, self-study is a journey. Take your time, be kind to yourself, and see what happens.