Antidote to Abhinivesa: A Practice in Unfastening Fear

March 7, 2016    BY Zo Newell

Sometimes it feels as if everything we hold dear—our health, our safety, our political stability—is uncertain. We want life to settle down, but it just won't. We worry, If X happens, what will I do? When we begin obsessing about survival strategies in the face of “what if,” we are experiencing abhinivesa.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (2.9) identifies abhinivesa as one of the five kleshas, the “afflictions” or “poisons” which create states of mental discontent. Sometimes translated as “survival instinct,” abhinivesa is a deeply rooted clinging to life. It drives our impulse to duck when things fly at our faces, to catch ourselves when we trip, to struggle for breath when we choke, or to knit our broken bones back together. Abhinivesa is behind the mysterious ability some people possess to recover from grave injuries or near-fatal illness against all odds.

So why would a deep-rooted clinging to life be considered one of the kleshas/afflictions of life? Well, abhinivesa keeps us bound to our physical bodies. Yoga philosophy, in company with Buddhism, takes the point of view that we are not, ultimately, our physical bodies. We inhabit them for a time, but our true nature is eternal and transcendent. Getting stuck in identification with the body makes us believe that our happiness depends on physical comfort, safety, well-being—all the good things we wish for ourselves and those we love. But holding this belief means that when we become old, ill, injured, or otherwise lose the conditions on which our happiness has relied, we suffer. As human beings, we will become old and ill, we will lose our conditional happiness, because that is the nature of worldly existence—everything is transient. We suffer because we try desperately to cling to things that cannot last. This fear-driven clinging has its roots in our failure to understand that there is something more precious than our bodies, our possessions, our perceived roles in the world.  

The following meditation might be thought of as an “antidote” to abhinivesa. This practice offers an opportunity to experience letting go of worldly identification and reorienting our sights toward something deeper, more permanent. Patanjali tells us that, in the state of yoga, the seer “abides in his true nature.” This exercise helps to lead us away from identification with our mind’s changing states to stake a claim in our true nature. 

Face to face with that most precious symbol, you say, “You are my life. You are my destiny. My path leads to you. You are my goal, my home.”

With your eyes closed and your body relaxed, bring to mind a person or situation that is emotionally charged for you. It could be anything important to you: a person you once loved and lost, an achievement you hope to win one day, a decision that somehow continues to nag at you with whispers of “what if?” In your mind, say to this person or situation, “You are precious to me. Thank you for being in my life. But you are not my life. I have a destiny to meet and a path to follow that are different from yours. Thank you, and goodbye.” At the very end, you envision yourself in the presence of your highest spiritual value—God, guru, the spiritual path. You might choose to picture yourself before your personal altar, or in a temple, or a forest, or on your yoga mat. Face to face with that most precious symbol, you say, “You are my life. You are my destiny. My path leads to you. You are my goal, my home.” Having said that, allow yourself to rest in the comfort and certainty of that symbol of ultimate value. Know that, compared with this, none of those other attachments has any lasting claim on you.

You might want to add this letting-go practice to your regular meditation time, or to do it at the end of the day. Five to fifteen minutes is probably plenty of time; you will know when you’ve done enough. You can use it as a discipline to release the grief of a loved one’s death, and practice it formally every day for the first month following their passing, then reduce the frequency, perhaps ending the practice on the anniversary of their death. You can also use it to center your mind when a persistent thought or feeling crops up yet again. Maybe you wonder: Why do I keep thinking about that? It’s been years! It doesn’t matter why it’s so charged for you; what is important is to recognize your attachment and become willing to let it go. Next time that pops into consciousness, use this practice to honor its presence in your life, and to move on. 

This practice is liberating, but it can be difficult. You may be startled at the depth of feeling bound up with a particular, habitual thought pattern. You may even find yourself weeping unexpectedly. This is because you are challenging a deeply ingrained pattern in your mind, and when we bring unconscious contents into consciousness, deep transformative energies are released along with associated emotions. 

Experiment doing this practice with different kinds of people or situations. Try saying goodbye to every home you have had till now, to poses you loved when you first started yoga, to all previous jobs. What is it that now puts all those elements into perspective? You may be surprised that it is easier to bid farewell to someone or something you have really loved, than to where there is an unresolved grievance. When I was in graduate school I had a terrible, abusive relationship with my assigned dissertation advisor, and although I did complete the degree in spite of him, it was years before I could remember this man without feeling sick and angry. I used this meditation to overcome my attachment to those negative thoughts and feelings. I resisted the very thought of saying “You are precious to me,” but I had to admit that even if he was not precious, there was certainly something about the situation that I clung to, and that clinging was poisoning my mind. In the end, it felt very liberating to be able to say mentally, “Thank you, and goodbye,” and to affirm that the path of scholarship was, in fact, precious and valuable to me, even though the stretch that led through academia had been so painful.

As a yogi, you must remember: No matter how strong and lithe your body is now, it will age, and it will sustain injuries. You can use this meditation to acknowledge your love for your young, strong, flexible body, even as you discover higher value in your practice. In the end, I think you will find that abhinivesa’s clinging quality holds priceless insights into what really matters to you. As you let go of the things you hold dear, you gradually affirm that each one is not, after all, as all-important as you once thought; and as you let go, progressively, your life’s goal and ultimate purpose becomes more and more clear. 

Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>