January 19, 2023
I wouldn’t claim to have a photographic memory by any means, but I can close my eyes and visualize the running list of presidents I made at the back of my five-subject spiral notebook for eleventh-grade AP U.S. history. As we moved through time, rehashing elections and economic crises and wars, I’d fill in the name, party, and years of terms for the Commanders in Chief, knowing that I’d need to have this information at my fingertips for the AP test in May. My studying for individual quizzes and unit tests, as well as midterms and finals, always included a cumulative recitation of these facts and dates, which I repeated like the refrain of an *NSYNC song in my head as I walked to the bus, sprinted through the halls, and changed shoes between dance classes. (My memory was good, but fleeting—two days after any test all that info I’d etched into my inner dialogue was—poof!—gone…)
If you were to ask me the name, party, and term of the twenty-third president of the United States today, I’d come up blank. And yet, while I was in the thick of my high school academic whirlwind, those facts, formulas, and various other things I memorized (for however short a time), were everything to me. Committing myself to hours of reading, note-taking, and half-whispered recitations made me feel like I was doing some higher-purpose, spiritual even, service to the future of academia and scholarship; I imagined myself growing up into a Stacy Schiff-type, whose various curiosities led to best-selling, culture-enriching books without the financial burden of grad school. It was also, as I now see in hindsight, a kind of anchor for my mind, which at the time was completely overwhelmed by the expectations I set for myself and had set for me by others, the competitive nature of my school that was not in alignment with my disposition, and the inner conflict I had between longing to be an artist and knowing how “unstable” that career choice would be. So I shrunk, and my brain grew. Stable? Maybe (not)…
This essay is meant to be an exploration of the third source of knowledge according to the Yoga Sutras, agamah—which translates to authority or, specifically, authoritative texts and teachers—so I’m sorry if I’m starting off with a rant. Rebellion is also not in my nature, which might be why authoritative texts have appealed to me so much in the past and now. It’s comforting to be able to trust someone else who’s been in your shoes and moved beyond them, who has made the mistakes you have yet to make and can offer some advice. And as one of my teachers likes to say regarding clinical work, listening to other practitioners’ case studies is a great way of learning the infinite permutations of human health; if someone shows up to your door with a strange combination of symptoms, those stories might help you give better and faster medicine.
But as we are getting farther away from direct perception, this source of knowledge presents more challenges. In the case of agamah, we’re leaning on the direct perception of someone else, someone we can supposedly trust—first to have experienced the thing clearly at the outset, then to have authentically described what came after. Can any such account be 100 percent reliable? My literature studies, and real-life studies, tell me a resounding NO, which is perhaps why we need multiple sources of knowledge beyond our own flawed and limited perceptions.
What happens when others’ experiences, even the best and closest-to-objective among them, become texts, though, is where I feel the biggest risk of trusting agamah lies. As any writer will tell you, one of the scariest things about putting something to paper is that it becomes permanent, fixed, lasting. No matter how many times a book is “revised” or amended with new appendices etc., it’s challenging to get past the first one, what’s written in it and the person who wrote it. Take Root & Nourish for example; that book was the culmination of my almost ten years of cultivating a deep reverence (partly gleaned from study!) for veganism. The month before it was published, I made—and ate—ghee for the first time. Ghee! Dairy! So not vegan! And while no one really knew at the time, breaking my own creed colored that publication with a film of hypocrisy and confusion. Are the recipes in the book still tasty and healthy? Yes, but I would write a very different book today if I had the chance. The authority of it, in my eyes, is already incomplete, not that it ever was.
Texts and authorities, then, are only useful insofar as they contain space for evolution and interpretation. This gets a lot of hype when it comes to things like the U.S. Constitution, but what about other sources of authority? Do we leave space for interpretation, changing of minds, or seeing where we were just plain wrong on Instagram? In web articles and blog posts? In statements from the CDC or NIH? In conversations? Saturated by information from so many places, it’s hard to know whether these authorities really have the right or enough direct experience with their subject, let alone to know whether it aligns with our direct experience.
A memorized life, where our claims to knowledge are mere empty abstractions, is not a path to knowledge or wisdom. Rather, we might use others’ passed-down experiences as jumping off points for our own inquiries. While I’m sure this is true in many lineages, Ayurveda offers us a model for learning-through-authority that provides just that. The slokas/sutras—lines of text—often contain enigmatic riddles:
Future pain is avoidable.
—Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.16
“Keeping in mind the nature of the people, one should deal with them in such a manner as best pleasing to them, becoming well-versed in the art of adoring others.”
—Astanga Hrdayam, Su. 2/26-28
What do these lines mean? We can no doubt glean a literal meaning, but their application to life requires some living, too. Avoiding future pain requires having already felt pain. Pleasing other people sounds nice until doing so requires a radical realignment of yourself, or confronting a person whom you’d rather not please at all.
I’m not giving up on study anytime soon, but I’m not letting books be the primary way I experience the world these days. Rather, there’s a newfound excitement and relief when something I’ve gone through shows up in something I read—a confluence of souls, a meeting of memories formed not through recitation but through a sense of humble surrender to our most venerable teacher, life itself.