I re-read the first twenty or so Sutras of the Yoga Sutras this morning. The Yoga Sutras are 196 pieces of ancient yoga wisdom, collected around the year 400 by the sage Patanjali. They’re an excellent read, any and all of them; not long, not complicated, not weird – even if you haven’t bought entirely into the notion of yoga as a complete system for living.

The thing I like best about reading them is the feeling of clean, simple lightness and truth I’m left with afterwards. That, and how succinct they are. There is so much room to extrapolate and muse, to uncover and form a meaning that stays personally with you. The best thing to do after reading a Sutra or two or ten is to stare out a window for a while, no phone checking allowed. The first two dozen Sutras contain simple and yet wildly useful and rejuvenating ideas like, “Improvement takes faith.” “Faith varies from person to person, but any and all can improve their discipline and thereby their faith.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s some of the good stuff.

A great gem of the first several Sutras is 1.5, the Sutra that defines the five actions of the mind: comprehension, misapprehension, deep sleep, memory, and imagination. And then in the following Sutras, each activity of the mind is defined further. It might seem cynical or mistrustful of humanity that the mind activity designated as most frequent and common is the most palpably negative of the Sutras, but I think most of us would guess it: it’s misapprehension. But it doesn’t surprise most of us, and acknowledging it is extraordinarily liberating. You may have heard a version of the yoga aphorism, “You are not your thoughts.” The activities of the mind, (even the most frequent, misapprehension), do not express something deeply true and unchangeable about ourselves. I allege that the majority of negative emotions, experiences, relationships, moments, etc. that we have in our lives stem quite directly from this errant mind activity of misapprehension. It’s an error in perception, and it’s mercifully resolvable.

When I can employ the good sense to notice misperception in the moment of misperceiving, (and this is not the majority of the time, I’m afraid), I can usually locate it as rooted in some kind of fear. If I can stop myself, and trace the misperception to its root in past experience, I can usually find a point of deeply-held fear. Others might name it as something different than fear, but the word deeply resonates and moves things for me. Once I unearth the fear’s origin, I can almost always laugh with deep relief, and the misperception goes up in a puff of satisfyingly wispy smoke. Many fears are wisps of nonsense!

An example: I was once, as many of us probably were, a slightly (at least slightly) socially awkward person. One particularly harrowing set of experiences was in CCD, an acronym that signified Sunday School for my siblings and me at our childhood Catholic church. The church stood in a neighboring county, and therefore none of my CCD classmates were schoolmates of mine. When things got bad, I was occupying the merciless pre-teen years of 12 and 13. In CCD class, I never spoke to anyone, never answered questions, never made anything close to a friend. I sat in excruciating self-consciousness and self-judgment for the duration of the 90 minutes every Sunday morning, inventing all kinds of plotlines wherein the youngsters around me might have appeared to be discussing the answer to the teacher’s question, but were actually discussing my awkwardness and strangeness and awfulness. On at least two Sunday mornings, I developed ingenious hiding techniques to obviate Sunday school attendance. Once, I hid in my mother’s clothes hamper. I guess I wasn’t claustrophobic. It was excruciating. I was a pre-teen. It was understandable. But it was a harrowing couple of years.

(An interesting sidenote: in the Sutra that defines memory, it states that there is no way to tell whether a memory is true or false, real or imagined. You could take this a bit too far – there’s no question I went to CCD most Sundays, and that I hated it. But it also has a ring of liberating truth – I don’t know whether any of those kids were making fun of me. I imagine it wasn’t as bad as I thought was, even at the very worst. There’s just no reconstructing the “truth” of that memory.)

Back to the present, and potential for present misapprehensions: even as 33-year old, no longer socially-awkward me, I’m still seized my moments where I feel or fear the tide of a social interaction turning against me. Covert conversations might be festering anywhere, discussing the unsuitability of my person and presence in that particular situation. It happens a couple times a month. And it’s not real. It’s rooted in a fear of inadequacy, of unsuitability, of social pariah status. And because I have a handling pattern for this misperception type, I can often avert its negative reaction in the moment of its occurrence. That’s the goal of understanding the five types of mental activities: to be able to sort through them and mitigate the damaging effects of any of them, but mostly of misapprehension.

So, it’s my suggested formula for tackling misperceptions. When a negative feeling surfaces, question yourself about its root. What are you afraid of? If fear isn’t the right word there, see what negative emotion or quality is accurate. Test a few out. Then, question that something’s origin and validity. Trust that it's a misperception, and then you can free yourself from it.

I’ve got at least one misperception category worked out. Others, beware!

  • Elizabeth