I recently began studying Ayurveda, a complete system of medical science from ancient India. As a homework assignment, my teacher asked us to write down all our current limiting beliefs about ourself. She said to write each one in a different color pen, with circles around each of our limiting beliefs.
It was truly an exercise in vulnerability and fearlessness. I have such a strong connection with my teacher that I often find myself wishing she would not share so much about me and my experiences in our classes, until I remind myself she’s not talking about me, but her own self! I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to bare as much as I did on paper if it hadn’t been for her willingness and courage to be so open and vulnerable with us first.
Because I have so many limiting beliefs, I took some creative license on my assignment and drew flowers, with the center of each of my flowers representing a specific category of limiting beliefs. I wrote my beliefs within each petal. I had to write them as small as possible so they could fit into the petals. I ensured that each of the flowers was symmetrical and that the balance of colors complemented one another nicely. I spent a lot of time on it, as I have more limiting beliefs than years of age. I drew five flowers total. Five in numerology is known as the number of freedom, expansion and change.
On the back of the page, I drew two more flowers. The two flowers are green (a color often associated with healing) and pink (a color symbolizing feeling). These two flowers are not filled in. They represent the emptiness from which fullness emerges. My teacher, in fact, goes by the name “Shunya,” which is short for “shunyata:” the central philosophical concept of Hinduism and Buddhism of emptiness.
“Emptiness signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling ‘self.’ This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependent.”
I wrote the following reflections on the back of my assignment for my teacher:
I was quite puzzled as to why you would ask us to make such ugly beliefs look beautiful. I suppose that’s the work of healing, though. Making the invisible visible, turning darkness to brightness, our burdens into beauty.
Many of my limiting beliefs have been and still are liberating, at certain times and in certain contexts. I suppose it is only the sources of our contraction that can contain within them also the potential for our expansion. Such is the mysterious nature of the universe we live in.
I trust that this exercise is an important part of the soul work of self-realization: being present with whatever comes without running away or hiding from ourselves, accepting paradox and learning to choose more wisely.
One of my favorite quotes on self-realization and awakening spiritual consciousness comes from Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye System in India:
“When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify ourselves with all that is in the world. So there is no exploitation. It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.”
My attempts at trying to figure out others’ behaviors and characteristics have always been limited. When I start to look within myself, infinite answers, not constrained by time or space, slowly begin to reveal themselves. It is only in understanding the microcosm (jivatman) that we can come to know the macrocosm (paramatman); to know ourselves well is to know the inner workings of the whole world. We and the world are one. There is no separation.
Doing this exercise also reminds me of what my first American yoga teacher Ruth wrote in “The Guru’s Breath Count:”
“We have all these fixed notions about ourselves and about others. Breaking down our fixed notions is the guru’s undertaking, while encouraging us to accept change, impermanence and difficulty. The challenges in Guruji’s yoga class totally exhausted our acquired strength. This is how we found our innate strength. Our innate strength is our real strength, but we’ll never find it if we don’t work hard. This is why whenever Guruji made things harder, he’d say “Now, easy!”
The way of the teacher is never an easy journey. It involves seeing things that are hard to see, to accept them even while working to change. And then to show others their way through the most difficult, exhausting – and important – journey one can ever undertake: the journey deep inside one’s own self, where we come to know the traveler, the travel guide, and the road traveled as one and the same. We become who we really are on this journey, which is all that is.