Abhyasa: Re-discovering the Value of Repetition

Abhyasa: continuous endeavor, constant practice, repetition, exercise, exertion.
'as' to throw, 'abhi' toward

In Guru-ji's class Texts of the Yoga Tradition, we were introduced to the concept of abhyasa as one of the principles of exegesis. Exegesical analysis is the way that you look at a scripture/ancient text in its context. There are certain principles you apply when studying a scripture that will enable you to more closely match what the authors (seers) of such scriptures intended. Ultimately, even these principles are nothing without the skillful guidance of a Guru. Sarva shruti shiroratna, virajita padambuja: The Guru is the crest jewel of revealed knowledge. Abhyasa is one of these principles. One of abhyasa's many definitions is repetition. Repetition applies beyond the realm of exegesis, to all of our teachings and our practice.

Everything that we do leaves a trace, whether we are aware of it or not. These traces, vasanas, are subtle psychic impressions that with repetition become our karma and the fruit of our karma (karma phala). When we are exposed to a new subject matter, we bring with us our past patterns and, based on the nature of confluence, the new material we are exposed to is subsumed into the larger pre-existing patterns. This is why during teachings we have those AHA! experiences, only to have those revelations subsumed back into the mind fluctuations of the rest of our world (that have greater strength and momentum from more repetition in the past). These new insights are crowded out by previous patterns. This is why repetition is so important in building our intellectual and experiential knowledge. We need to create deep powerful new groves.

Repetition can take a couple of forms. A particular topic is revisited over and over. Or a theme can be revisited over and over, and each time it is repeated new information is added. The use of repetition is a cornerstone of classical teachings. Haven't you noticed? How many of us have the experience of hearing the same experience re-presented to us over and over and over from our Guru, and only really begin to grasp it the hundredth time over?

As a student in modern times, I have discovered myself to be relatively unfamiliar with the deeper understanding of repetition. Somewhere deep inside, I'm conditioned to think that repetition is a waste of time of sorts. With a mind tuned towards efficiency and a more-is-better mentality, repetition of teachings or notions sometimes seems impractical. Okay, I sort of get that idea, now can we pass onto the next one? That kind of attitude limits understanding. Another way we sabotage our learning process is, when we hear something that vaguely sounds like something we already have a limited conceptual understanding of, we shut out any new information that might be presented. Our 'concept' of something, solid and limited, blocks us from really being open to new insights and visions.

In the experiment that we are living with ourselves and within our community in these modern times, we lack constant daily exposure with our Guru. Something is lost from the teacher-student dynamics of old, where knowledge and experience were transmitted orally over and over again. Over and over again, day in and day out, for decades. Repetition was built-in to the equation of living with your Guru, and one of the main teaching methods. We don't always have the luxury of that as we juggle the integration of our studies with our family, our work, and all else that constellates our lives.

Repetition is fundamental to recreate that deeper groove within us of the view. And we can re-create that in many forms, from the obvious repetition of our practices, to repetition of teachings (attending that fourth or more 12 stage view teaching), to reviewing our notes, to meeting up for study groups, to going to classes held by fellow students. The ways are many, even in the physical absence of our Guru. In that respect, modern times give us many options that did not previously exist. Like listening to recordings of the teachings.

Repetition serves a dual purpose. Reinforcing what ve heard before. And preparing yourself to integrate new understanding into a model you already have. In this case, even though something is being repeated, you're hearing it at a new level of understanding. The classical image is that of traveling upwards on a spiral instead of going around in circles.

A story: during one of the chanting classes, we were going over the Puspanjali. The chant is an invocation to the essence of the elements, of fire, of water of earth, of the sky, of the constellations, of the planets, of the lunar mansions and so on and so forth. Guru-ji jokingly said how when he first learned this chant he couldn't understand why they had to repeat things over and over in such detail. Why not lump it all up in one phrase and be done with it? Then, over time, he understood how such elaboration, such repetition, builds depth of practice, depth of feeling. It takes a reformulation of our fundamental attitudes towards information and time.

May we have the blessing and insight to really value repetition as a learning tool. May we keep our minds flexible and open to the new kernel of essence that shines through with every new time we hear themes we think we 'know'. May our new patterns based on view grow to point that they become our primary patterns. May true knowledge dawn upon us.

Sri Acalayogini Sarasvati
Claudia Anfuso