Swadhyaya, which is the fourth Niyama, is the practice of self-study.
The value of this Niyama became clear to me when I went on a school student exchange programme to the Netherlands in the first half of this year. In these six months, I was pretty much living alone overseas and it was through being with myself and my thoughts, finding myself in completely new situations, meeting vastly different people from all over the world that I gained a much deeper sense of who I am as a person, my values, inclinations and beliefs.
Curiously it was not the result of a voluntary, active decision that I found myself having so much alone time. It just so happened that there weren’t many Singaporean students going for the programme in the same semester. Also, because I did not manage to secure accommodation within the school compounds and had to rent a room outside with a Dutch family, I had lesser opportunities to meet new people. On top of that, the modules I took were structured in a way that had minimal group work which again limited the chances for meeting new people, contributing to more ‘me’ time. The sudden increase in time alone compared to when I was in Singapore was uncomfortable and isolating at first. There were days, especially those where I had no classes, that I would literally not have a proper conversation with anyone at all, aside from random small talk here and there. It was not even a month into my exchange and I was already starting to feel lonely and homesick, how was I going to make the most of the rest of my time there?
In any case, I decided that I wasn’t going to let this new solo modus operandi stop me from doing new things and meeting new people. I booked trips to different countries and travelled to these places alone, meeting and interacting with people I would have never interacted with had I been travelling with other companions. However, it was not all rainbows and butterflies, all these experiences were peppered with multiple lows as well, the kinds of ‘lows’ I’ve never experienced before. It was through examining my feelings and emotions, how they influenced my actions and responses and how they sometimes caused me to think in irrational, debilitating ways in each new situation that arose that I gained a better sense of me.
The interesting thing about this unintentional practice of Swadhyaya and turning my focus within was two interesting realisations. First, was how little I truly understood myself. When a certain unexpected feeling or response arose in a situation, I would ask myself why I felt or responded in that way. And when I came to the answer for this first ‘why’, I asked myself ‘why’ again. In doing this sometimes I realised that I didn’t understand the true motivations or underlying reasons behind my feelings and actions as well as I thought I did. This questioning of ‘why’ led to a better understanding on some occasions, other times I just found myself stuck, unable to explain these feelings and responses except with a ‘because it simply just is’ response.
Next, was the realisation that I tended to attach a value judgement towards feeling or reacting in a certain way, that is I judged each of my responses as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For example, perhaps instead of just feeling a tinge of guilt for not donating to a street performer, attaching a value judgement whilst self-examining would be this: feeling guilt for not feeling guilty enough for not donating. My, what a mouthful. This secondary feeling of guilt came about only because you judged that not feeling guilty was ‘bad’ in the first place. Often, the presence of this secondary emotion created feelings of inner conflict which then led to self-beratement. What I realised over time is there is no need to add value towards your emotions and actions. Simply be an observer. Observe without judgement to understand yourself better, acknowledging and accepting these responses for what they are, a mere extension of you. You, that is unique and special. Embrace all that you observe and what you will find is self-acceptance and self-love along that journey coupled with a deeper, more intimate relationship with yourself. Perhaps one day you’ll find that notwithstanding all your imperfections, you have become your own best friend, your most diehard supporter, your most loyal fan. Oh, what an exciting new world that would be.
To conclude, I recommend that everyone take yourselves out for dinner at a new place you’ve been wanting to try out or go somewhere you’ve been wanting to go on your own! Sit with your thoughts, be an observer and just enjoy your own company. Perhaps that would kickstart your practice of Swadhyaya and your journey towards greater self-awareness and eventually self-love and acceptance.