Get wise, get free – are you reacting or responding?

‘However disturbing or powerful something may appear to be, it is our reaction to it that determines its effects.’  TKV Desikachar

What we learn from yoga boils down to one thing: waking up. Waking up from the illusion that all life exists between our ears and that the version we see through our lens is reality. When we’re caught up in our mind-created dramas and judgements and fears and projections, we are asleep, spiritually unconscious. From behind that lens we can’t see clearly, so when just about anything happens it pushes our buttons and we react, usually with very little wisdom! When, through our yoga practice, we get practised enough in waking up to the here and now, to the present moment as it exists right in front of us, then we can start to find that split second’s pause just as we’re about to fly off the handle and make a crisis into a drama. If we can wake up in that moment and fully engage with the reality of what’s presented to us rather than buying into our own skewed misinterpretation, we give ourselves time to consider a RESPONSE rather than a REACTION. And that determines both the effect that events have on us and what we do next, and so helps us to forge a more helpful path.

So that all sounds very nice, but… how? Well, we develop something called viveka – discriminative knowledge, wise discernment – through meeting the quiet presence within, via practice.  This is not book knowledge, not intellectual analysis, but something much deeper which we can only access when we get free – even temporarily – of all our usual mental nonsense.

It’s going to be helpful, on this journey, to understand how we get in own way in first place. 

The yoga tradition holds that we all have these things called the kleshas, or mental afflictions. There are five of them, and they are:

Avidya – misapprehension, ignorance, misunderstanding. This is the root of all the others, so we’ll come back to it in a minute.

Asmita – ego-identification; that is, believing that we actually ARE all the labels we collect and stick on ourselves – name, job, where we live, our education, possessions, relationships and so on.

Raga – attachments; there’s no problem with liking things and having preferences, but if we suffer when we can’t get them, it’s become an attachment which is causing us problems.

Dvesha – aversions; again, no problem with disliking things, but if we get all wound up when we’re stuck with them anyway, we’re in trouble.

Abhinivesha – fear, insecurity. Tends to bring out the worst in everyone!

But that first one, avidya – ignorance, lack of understanding, misinterpretation – that’s really the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa would say. We basically just don’t GET how things are! We mistake the transient for the permanent and vice versa; we mistake things we can’t change for things we have control over (worrying about the future largely falls into this bracket) and vice versa (we think we’re stuck with what we actually DO have the power to change, ie what’s inside our heads and the way we see things), we can’t see clearly because we’re all caught up in putting our own spin on things and making up stories, and we believe we actually ARE our thoughts. What a mess! No wonder we can’t all get on – most of the time we can’t even get on with ourselves!

So what can we do? How do we get out of avidya? Viveka – discriminative knowledge, wise discernment – is the way out.

Sutra 2.26 tells us:

viveka khyatihi aviplava hanopayahaundisturbed flow of discriminative knowledge destroys ignorance.

How do we develop viveka?

We come to yoga for all sorts of reasons but if you stay, it’s likely because you’ve realised, sensed, that there’s something more. That ‘something more’ is what’s beyond all the mental wrangling and living in the past and future. That ‘something more’ is the Consciousness, the witnessing awareness that observes. In those rare moments when you have no thoughts, in flow, aren’t you still there? You haven’t died or vanished, have you? And yet there are no thoughts, no mind. So you’re not your thoughts… you’re that ‘beingness’ that can watch your thoughts. When the penny drops and we really get this, rather than just intellectually understanding, we’ve made a major breakthrough. We understand that a mind is something you have, and use, but it’s not all you are, it’s not WHO you are.

When we can wake up to this – and it’s usually a process, a long one, but we’re here anyway so we might as well try and get ourselves out of suffering whilst we’re about it – we open ourselves up to the flow of true knowledge, discriminative wisdom, that is viveka. Viveka means to see both sides, to be able to see what we are and what we are not. It cuts through avidya. In those moments of absolute presence and clarity, we can act freely and wisely – right action, doing simply what needs to be done, untethered by our misunderstandings and identifications and attachments and aversions and fears.

Viveka is not instinct – instinct often saves our lives getting us out of the way of, say, a speeding car, but it’s generally driven by fear. Viveka is closer to intuition – there’s no panic, no sense of urgency, just absolute calm clarity about what needs to be done. You might have had a sense of it if you’ve been a first responder on the scene of a crisis – there’s no hand-wringing, no running round in circles, just absolute clarity like a beam of light cutting through fog – you do simply what needs to be done. Viveka calls on the power of pure Consciousness, as distinct from mind, to discern right action. It’s beyond intellect – it’s the art of learning to listen, so that we can HEAR, rather than decide, what we should do next. And that comes from steadying our minds to find the spaces between the thoughts, to hear the silence that’s always there beneath the noise. This wisdom is innate – it’s actually right under our noses the whole time. Our practice helps us to cut through all the noise, see through the fog, and find what was there all along.

I think it’s helpful to know that our emotional reactions have a very short lifespan – just ninety seconds!! – IF we can avoid getting caught up in them and turning them into a story about how right we are and how wrong they are and we’ll never speak to them again and how bloody dare they….. If we can wake up and WATCH the reaction, let it pass through and do its thing, then we’re really getting somewhere. It’s not that you don’t then take action, say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done; but the action and words you choose from that place of witnessing are of a totally different quality and so will bring about a totally different result. It’s like you have a life raft and you can stay afloat and ride along with the wave of the emotional charge, rather than drowning in it.


Everything life throws at us, even the really hard stuff – ESPECIALLY the really hard stuff –  is an opportunity to wake up from unconsciousness. Start with the small stuff – can you look at a tree, notice the commentary in your head about what sort of tree it is, how pretty and so on, let that commentary run its course then disengage from the monologue, and just be with the tree? Then graduate to small irritations – your partner left wet towels on the floor – what’s your reaction? Can you notice it? At first you’ll be doing well to notice that you unconsciously reacted AFTER the fact… in time, you’ll realise a bit sooner after the fact that you unconsciously reacted; then you’ll realise DURING the reaction; then sometimes you’ll wake up just in time and start to notice you’re ABOUT to react, and THEN you have the chance to take a moment. Just be with the situation. What do you want to happen next? Now you can respond and simply take right action. You can just do what needs to be done.


‘However disturbing or powerful something may appear to be, it is our reaction to it that determines its effects.’



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