The feeling I had when I encountered this verse for the first time was ambivalence laced with objection. I imagine that when I was younger my response would have been inverted: fierce objection laced with a fine layer of dismissive ambivalence. The experience of living in this body for almost five decades ( and especially the last decade of living closer to the ground), has tempered me.
So let’s address the elephant in the room: verse 20 seems to say that conscious choice is an illusion. All those times in my life where I felt like I was a good person for doing the right thing: illusions. All those times in my life where I felt shame for doing the wrong thing: illusions.
I am thinking of the magic trick of yanking out the table cloth from a dinner table set with my grandmother’s “Good China” laid out on it. In my imagination the trick doesn’t work, everything gets pulled off the table, falls, and shatters on the ground. This is what I imagine verse 20 can feel like. The “Good China” shattering on the ground is the collection of often unspoken yet foundational cultural notions of self & identity I was born into.
As I contemplate writing about a verse that has this potential to shatter entrenched western notions of self and identity I am reminded that Yoga, at least in the lineage I belong to, was originally taught in one-on-one settings where a continuous and intimate relationship enabled a teacher to tailor a learning path for a student. Delving into the particulars of this verse feels out of alignment with that.
I feel growing admiration towards the text as a whole and am increasingly reticent to discuss any of these verses (and the ideas they point to) as isolated parts, out of sequence, separated from the text as a whole. I believe that texts like Samkhya, though packaged in pocket-sized books, are not meant to be directly read and linearly ingested. The text itself is not a body of knowledge. It is a place-holder, a seed around which knowledge can crystallize. The knowledge is held in a kind of morphic field of all the teachers and students who have together engaged and explored the text and brought it into their lives. The actual knowledge crystallizes over lifetimes of intimate exploration.
If Samkhya is approached this way, there is no need to pull out the cloth and shatter the “Good China.” Like “Good China” that is saved for special occasions, the old ideas of self and identity end up stored in difficult-to-reach cabinets. Their value comes into question and maybe they are eventually forgotten. My favorite meals sit comfortably in a single simple clay bowl.
I am now curious how this reticence will affect future journal entries.