Confessions of a Navel Gazer
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | September 10, 2020
When I returned from my 4 years in Asia, I moved in with my parents for a few months until I could figure out what to do with my slightly confused 29-year-old self.
I was in the habit of meditating every morning. But my mom was unimpressed. “You’re just sitting there,” she told me one day, “It’s unproductive. And frankly it seems selfish.”
Sure it stung at the time, but I gotta cut my mom some slack. In the west we’re taught that being busy and being good are basically the same thing. So, anything that isn’t productive at least externally, can seem quite selfish – particularly for women who are acculturated to put everyone else’s needs before their own. And of course, when you stay perpetually busy, you can avoid dealing with the accumulation of uncomfortable emotional clutter.
I was trying to sort out my life – to process what I had experienced while abroad, to think about who I wanted to be, how I wanted to live, and what I was going to do with myself. At that point in my life I needed to do a lot of navel gazing – it was helping me, it was clarifying things.
I was praciting Svādhyāya – self-reflection and self-study in order to gain a deeper sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.
Svādhyāya comes from the words svā (self) plus adhyāya (a lesson, lecture, reading). So Svādhyāya can be interpreted both as “studying the texts by yourself” as well as “studying yourself.”
The idea that intuitional practice is merely “navel gazing,” smacks of intolerance, underscored by puritanical thinking and the protestant work ethic. It’s a phrase that conveniently and wittily discounts contemplation as a waste of time, and shores up stereotypes of South-Asian, colonized laziness.
I would suggest that most westerners could use a lot more navel gazing – particularly during these very difficult times when we are called upon to make significant changes in the way with think and act – about race, about the environment, about how we organize ourselves economically, and much more.
The west has been excellent at developing technology for manipulating the external world – but the relentless pursuit of external resources to meet unexamined, largely subconscious internal needs is deeply problematic. Unfettered accumulation is a cultural mental illness that feeds off of and eventually destroys itself.
Yoga evolved in the east as a technology for manipulating the internal world. This inner contemplation is precisely the balance that western culture needs if it is going to survive in any sort of healthy, sustainable way.
I believe that in today’s world, a dedicated svādhyāya practice can support the resolution of pressing individual as well as social problems.
In order for it to be effective, Svādhyāya is ideally a daily, regular process/practice. And I would argue that regular Svādhyāya actually makes you less lazy and self-absorbed. As Mahātmā Gandhi famously said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”
While Svādhyāya and meditation are not the same thing, they certainly dovetail into each other. It’s hard not to reflect on yourself, your actions, your day, your hopes, dreams, aspirations, when you are sitting still with your eyes closed.
One way to practice Svādhyāya is to take the yamas and niyamas and reflect on your day in light of them. You may choose to focus just on one, or do them all at once. How did the principles show up for you today? Is there anything you could have thought, said, or done differently? How would you like to show up tomorrow?
What you are doing here is creating a connection, a relationship, or a flow between how things are, and how they could be. Between reality and idealism. Yoga is a practice of ideals and potential. The yamas and niyamas are very much ideals which we will always fail to live up to – and that is perfectly okay.
(image credit: Mado Biddle)
The lives of saints and the sages pointed in a direction of possibility – this is what humanity can be. So it’s important to leave shame out of the equation, it’s just not helpful. Just because you aren’t achieving something today, doesn’t mean that you can’t become something better tomorrow. Yoga promises something so optimistic and positive that it makes my heart sings. Things can always, always get better.
I want to say one more thing about Svādhyāya. Ironically, regular self-reflection often elicits a desire to serve.
Rather than helping out of some twisted church-lady-sense of duty, Svādhyāya inspires you to help out from a sense of inner knowing and awareness.
Self-reflection complemented by serving others is a synergistic pairing. If you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself (as we all do because that’s quite a human thing) then as my mom feared, you can get a little self-absorbed.
But when you spend time thinking about yourself in light of the yamas and niyamas, you start to expand your self-concept and your potential. You also start to expand your circle of compassion and empathy – and feel more compelled toward benevolent action in the world.
When Svādhyāya is practiced in this spirit, it brings with it the possibility of personal and social transformation, something the world desperately needs at the moment.
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