On Releasing Asmita and Being Open to Gratitude

“perspective.” [source]

Confession: Yoga Journal magazine makes me cry when I read it on airplanes.

A year ago, almost to the day, I read my November issue of Yoga Journal on the way home from an academic conference, and felt so moved that it inspired me to get my yoga teacher certification and to go on to teach yoga in prisons.

This year, on the flight home from that same conference, the pages of the magazine spoke to me again. I felt my throat tighten. Am I really about to cry on this plane?, I wondered, glancing at the woman next to me to determine if I could get away with it inconspicuously. Right then, a big fat tear escaped the watery glass that had welled up over my eyes, and plopped deliberately on the page in front of me. Too late.

The waterworks-inducing article in question was titled “Mistaken Identity” and focused on Pantajali‘s Yoga Sutra II.6: “Drgdarsana saktyoh ekatmata iva asmita.” Loosely translated, asmita means “false-identification.” The author, Katie Holcombe, goes on to describe ways in which we often tend to self-identify:

“Asmita happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change–everything from your mind, your body, appearance, or job title–instead of the quiet place within you that does not change. It’s when you mistakenly believe, on some level, that how you look or feel or what you do for a living…has something to do with who you are and that these things define you, instead of recognizing that your true Self–who you are at your core–is unchanging.” (54)

Pantajali warns that “if you identify too closely with the changeable aspects of yourself…that you set yourself up for disappointment and suffering” (56).

The universe has a way of providing you messages when you need them most. This sutra is incredibly relevant and poignant to me in my life right now as a PhD candidate on the job market. Being “on the market” when you’re in the academy is a pretty grueling process. In many cases (and in my case), you are applying for upwards of 20-50 jobs at the same time that you’re teaching and/or TAing, trying to finish a dissertation, trying to publish, and trying to maintain your commitment to academic service, (plus, of course, trying to have a life, and trying to not be a big jerk to your friends, partner, and family). Applying for jobs involves writing eloquent cover letters, updating your CV (very long, detailed academic version of a resumé), gathering and often creating various materials (teaching philosophies for some, teaching portfolios for others; research statements for one, future research proposals for another; past syllabi for some, intended syllabi for others; and it goes on). You’re also trying to delicately bother your committee members for letters of reference, spend a scary amount of time and money mailing applications, and/or dealing with the electronic uploading system of Interfolio. We’re also applying to these things a year-ish in advance (applying now for jobs that start in Aug or Sept 2013), and have to continually be reminded that we’ll be uprooting our lives to some random, unknown location.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking for violins. As I’ve written about elsewhere, complaining about the “hard work” of being an academic is laughable to a woman who grew up with a single-mom working two low-paying, thankless jobs. A lot of people have it a lot worse, and I’m the first to admit it. Plus, there are a ton of things I love about academia, so in the end, it feels pretty worth it.

But there’s something else pretty insidious about this whole process….The culture of the academy encourages you to tie your self-worth up with your performance in the “ivory tower.” Somewhere between thinking I could change the world by teaching and writing about social injustice and now, I let my self-worth be dictated by my performance as a “scholar.”

I don’t have as many publications as many people on the job market, and so I started to feel worthless. I know for sure that I didn’t get at least three of the jobs I applied to (still waiting to hear back from about 15 more at this point), and so I started to feel worthless. I have yet to make it through A Thousand Plateaus, and that too makes me worthless.

I wish I were exaggerating.

I had some great experiences at the conference last weekend, but the couple of less-than-great experiences started to swallow the good experiences whole, smothering them with self-doubt and anxieties. This has been a pretty common trend the past few years of my life in grad school.

So you can imagine what an impact this sutra had on me, reading it on the plane. As I read, I started to remember another important yoga lesson: everything is temporary. My sensations, good and bad, will both pass. And in order to more fully realize this, I have to stop connecting my sense of Self with one small part of my identity. My asana practice teaches me this everyday. Although I strongly identify as a yogi, I have learned to not beat myself up if I am not able to get as fully into a pose one day as I am another day. Every day is different. Every moment is different. And if one day I can hold hurdler’s pose, that doesn’t make me a better person at my core. And if one day I can’t; I am no worse a person.

It seems to me that one of the worst parts about asmita is how dreadfully self-centered one becomes in the midst of it. How obnoxiously selfish it is to be wallowing in self-pity! And obsessing so much about the things that are connected to ego leaves very little time to practice gratitude for the things that are outside of yourself (but, of course, still connected, as we all are, to everything!).

I finished reading the article on my first of two plane rides home. During the layover, I caught up on email and Facebook, and noticed this on my News Feed:

(This made me cry, too….It was juxtaposed to stories on my News Feed about Gaza.)

Between the wise wisdom of YJ and this silly, but totally touching little cartoon, I felt like a new person. I started to notice the people around me, feeling heart-fluttery when I heard someone laugh, or witnessed someone hug. I started to focus again on the good parts of my weekend rather than the bad, and started to feel wildly grateful for the absurd amount of beauty and joy I experience on a daily basis.

As I may have mentioned before, I get pretty excited about Thanksgiving (and holidays in general). But it’s not because I honor or respect the history of the holiday (—a history that is rooted in genocide and colonialism). It’s because I cherish opportunities to share food with my family….And (as Binya noted in her comment last week), because it’s an opportunity to remember the struggles of indigenous peoples across the world….And, of course, because I value a holiday that asks us to reflect and to practice being present and grateful.

I am grateful that my Self is not my job. I am grateful for the friends that make me laugh til my sides hurt, the friends that can finish my sentences, and the friends that know the songs I like to dance to best. I am grateful that I have a partner and a family that love me no matter what. I am grateful for finding more joy in food, and less fear. For the four seasons, and how, no matter what, I get crazy-happy during the first weeks of them. I am grateful for books that make me think, and conversations that teach me new things. For smells that make me remember The Summer of 2002 or The Fall of 2006 (for example). I am grateful for my kitty and how she reminds me of the importance of being kind to all living creatures. I am grateful for the perseverance of movements against injustice; for those that struggle daily to make our world better. I am grateful for bus drivers who get me to work, for the farmers that grow our food, for the baristas who make my tea, for the nurses that care for us when we’re sick, for the janitors who keep my school clean….

I am grateful for you! I mean that. Now that you got a glimpse into my work-life, maybe you can better understand how having a food blog provides me a much-needed, sanity-maintaining break from all that. I really love seeing the number of readers grow, getting more comments, and getting more emails. It truly warms my heart. <3

I know not everyone reading celebrates Thanksgiving. Maybe you’re not in the US, or you reject celebrating the history, or maybe you don’t have a safe family space. So instead of wishing you a happy holiday, I want to wish everyone a very happy day. A very happy everyday. And I hope that you can find ways to free yourself from asmita, and instead focus your mind on and open your heart to gratitude.

What are you grateful for?

10 thoughts on “On Releasing Asmita and Being Open to Gratitude

  1. Kari @ bite-sized thoughts says:

    I have a draft post for tomorrow that is going to touch on some similar points to you :) Mine is less eloquent though, and less important I think – as someone who also works in research and academia, I so relate to your comments here. It is a world of constant rejection (papers, grants, and yes, jobs) and constant striving to perform and it is really exhausting sometimes! I think that cartoon is a much nicer angle on things, and gratitude goes a very long way to making even the not-so-good days better :)

  2. Lachrista says:

    I love this so much. You’re such a great writer, lady, and I bet you’re an amazing yoga instructor, too! Good luck on your application process for jobs! You are WORTHY! :)

  3. Lou says:

    Oh I needed to read this today, Raechel! Thank you. Some days I just feel as if I am getting NO WHERE for ME (if that makes sense) – being a Mama kinda swallows up the majority of my time, and that makes me feel as if I am lacking in other aspects of my life. Thanks for the perspective :)

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