January 26, 2023
Last weekend, I found myself face-down on a massage table for the first time in three years. It was everything I expected and nothing I expected. The places where I thought I’d feel a big release if tension were underwhelming, whereas the places I hadn’t been feeling much at all screamed out at the therapist’s (admittedly strong) touch, leaving me feeling like a sore piece of meat for days. Afterward, I was reflecting on what was going on internally while I was being worked on externally. Was I relaxed? Was my mind planning for the week or making a grocery list or testing my recall of that week’s material in my herbalism class? No, I was following the therapist’s hands, trying to record her every touch and my every response and tell the story of my body in that moment. Trying to analyze what the degree of pain meant or didn’t mean, and how I could continue to address it once I dressed my tenderized body and we walked back out into life.
I didn’t intend for this to be a self-study session, but I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge my tendency toward this frame of mind—self-study, self-awareness, self-consciousness, all alter-egos for my greatest strength and tragic flaw. What keeps me from trying to edit this tendency out of my system is the fact that it’s also a form of knowledge—and a meaningful one at that, in the quartet of sources of knowledge we’ve explored the last month. Although the Vedic texts tend to put most emphasis on the first item in any list (here, direct perception), in this case I dare to suggest the opposite: that self-study is the best and only form of true knowledge, because it’s an aggregate of the other three that came before. When we sit with ourselves, studying our behavior or thought patterns or desires and aversions, we need to draw on all the experiences and resources that got us to that place. It’s like searching for something in Google, then doing the human work of interpreting the results and determining which one you’re going to believe.
My massage-table experience is a great example of how self-study is more complex and multivariable than it seems. It is not, as the name belies, isolated or isolating; rather, self-study requires two perspectives that can complement or (and?) contradict each other. The first is internal, or the ways in which we analyze and make sense of things for ourselves. Most of the time I live here—preferring to mentally chew on hypotheticals or (nonjudgmentally) observe my thoughts, allowing myself to be in a dynamic state of flow. It’s an abstract place of dreams and schemes, ideals and fears, but good work still happens here. To me, it’s more preventive in nature, as pausing to assess things internally, to check in on what I feel about a situation before acting, preserves my energy in a net way for what matters and helps me not make unnecessary mistakes due to haste. It’s an expression of what my teacher likes to say to folks who are approaching overwhelm or confusion: “keep calm and do nothing.”
But there’s only so far that our minds, infinite as they are, can take us when it comes to knowledge. This is where externalizing our self-study can be useful—as well as scary and vulnerable. Recently, I took a leap of faith and starting journaling about life “goals” (a word I don’t really like, but it’s hard to find a good synonym); what came out on the page, after a bit of hesitation, were all things I’d chewed on internally for days, weeks, even years. Goals for my health, business and finances, and the details of my home environment. I thought I’d digested all of it before, but up in my head it turned out only half-cooked.
By putting those details on paper, I began to realize the divide between logic and emotion, and what was holding me back from changing the status quo. I was able to determine, pretty immediately, what things I could act on now (and start imaging—there’s the internal side flexing her muscles—how to do so), and what was on the back-burner. Whereas in my head everything was equally possible at all moments, which offered a kind of freedom alongside a tension-making vigilance (hence: post-massage pain, especially in the neck, the juncture between mind and body, thinking and doing), the external self-study helped me redistribute my energy to reality, or a more proximal reality. I could invest in improvements to my home as a first step before living elsewhere becomes feasible or necessary; I could commit to professional projects that will help me get to my longer-term goals (full-time clinical practice and apothecary—there, I’m externalizing for you!) but also have their own value even if those goals don’t materialize. Like the massage therapist’s hands, this exercise helped shape and sculpt and rearrange the map of my body-mind, revealing areas that need more attention and others that maybe need less than I was giving them.
Self-study is a constant in Ayurveda—dinacarya, mindful eating, all that contributes to this source of knowledge, which ultimately overrides the previous sources when we take in that data and make a conscious choice of what to do next. Sometimes we don’t have the energy or clarity to study ourselves in a healthy way—a mind tainted by rajas (aggravation, restlessness) or tamas (inertia, heaviness) surely will come to inaccurate or delusional conclusions about the evidence at hand. But the more we study, the more we can sense even those variations, and determine whether it’s a good time to act or not. Like knowing that your partner is irritated, so best not to broach a conversation about last month’s credit card bills; or when your belly is irritated, and best not to feed it lasagna.
In previous posts, I’ve written about my penchant for study in various forms—academia, practice, Eastern traditions, and surely more. What excites me most about these endeavors is how they all fall under the umbrella of self-study. While the topics of my lessons may be things like literary tropes or anatomy, they are all ultimately ways to know myself more, in the way that they spark my interests, push up against my preconceived notions, or challenge me to adopt new perspectives or habits. Self-study is the school we are all enrolled in from birth, and the more willingly we participate in class the better our grade—in the form of well-being, curiosity, and wonder at all we do and do not understand—will be.