In Yoga Sutra 2.5, Patanjali gives yogis a clear idea of ignorance as an obstacle to enlightenment. If we remain in the dark about the truth, he says, we will suffer.
Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self. ~Sutra 2.5
As this sutra points out, things change. Nothing lasts forever. Acceptance of this undeniable truth is necessary if we want to break free of misery. We also need to understand what is pure, and we must avoid attachments. Finally, we must let go of the ego, the “small self” that keeps us stuck in a state of ignorance.
Understanding Ignorance as An Obstacle to Enlightenment
As yogis, we’ve heard variations on this theme of letting go before. When we don’t understand our true nature, we suffer. Enlightenment—freedom from suffering—requires us to return many times to a better understanding of our true selves. We cannot remain ignorant, believing we are who we are not. We must also understand what we need and don’t need if we want to find and maintain inner peace.
For most of us, many of the things we think we need turn out to be obstacles to happiness instead. We tend to cling to our lives, our possessions, and our relationships. They do make us happy, at least initially, and that’s fine. It’s even desirable. But most things we strive for are temporary, and we cannot hold on to any of them forever.
Loss is never easy, but remaining aware of impermanence can help us accept the reality of change so it doesn’t come as a shock when it happens. That’s why part of our yoga is to practice letting go.
Only Purusha is Pure and Unchanging
Another point central to our quest for understanding ignorance as an obstacle to enlightenment is that only truth is pure. Yogis call this state the Purusha. Purusha is pure consciousness or the universal higher self that seekers aspire to connect with.
Purusha is the only thing that doesn’t change. Another way to look at it is only God is pure. Patanjali’s warns us to be careful about who or what we worship. His warning is like the Bible’s caution against worshiping false gods or idols. There are many false gods and idols in our lives.
We may also believe something that is not good for is us is desirable. Unhealthy relationships, overindulgence in food or drink, workaholism, superficial social lives that keep us from going within, and complete avoidance of others are some examples. While it’s difficult to know when something healthy (friendships, time alone, career goals, etc.) becomes unhealthy, we need to be aware so we can change our mindset or behavior when something no longer contributes to our goal of seeking truth.
Finally, we must understand the ego itself—our individual identities—as ignorance that is an obstacle to enlightenment. Patanjali returns many times to this warning. When we’re unable to see ourselves as part of something greater than our small, false selves, we cannot be enlightened.
Once we understand the forms of ignorance that create obstacles to enlightenment, we can begin to recognize how they show up in our lives. Then we can focus our practice on removing these obstacles.
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