Vedantic Philosophy: The Snake and the Rope

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Try and guess the source of this philosophical quip: “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them”.

This is actually from Star Wars Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi, but it might as well have come from the Vedanta philosophy (the philosophy stemming from the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures). Let’s take a look!

Is what we see real? How far can we trust our senses? How can Yoga help? Rope

We’ll start with the simple expression, “my eyes were bigger than my stomach”. This is an expression many of us have heard and used, though what does it actually mean? Sight only happens with our eyes, yet we use to sight to judge the visceral taste experience – we think, “boy, that chocolate cake looks good” and “wow, that pizza looks delicious!” How do we know they really are good, and how do we know we’ll enjoy the experience of eating it as much as assume? Here is the illusion. Seeing the whole picture is impossible, as we often base the outcome on how we feel about the first bite. It is very easy to be overcome by our senses and forget that they are just reactions to stimuli.

What would happen if we stopped and thought before eating, “how will this food make me feel? What happened the last time I ate this, or drank that?” These questions help us to see through the deception by clarifying our motivations and weeding out misconception so we can make choices that will lead to greater wellness and happiness.

To further illustrate the cloudiness of perception, here is a parable. This particular type of parable is a Nyaya – the didactic stories used in Vedantic philosophy to illustrate a point. This one is called Rajjusarpa Nyaya, The Rope and the Snake.

A man walks at night along a path. He sees a poisonous snake barring his way and turns and runs in the opposite direction. As he returns along the same path in the morning, he finds a coiled rope on the ground. He realizes that in the darkness, he mistook the coiled rope as a snake and it dawns on him, in the dark it is hard to see reality as it truly is. In the light of day, we see more clearly.

Our perception of reality can be clouded by darkness, which is ignorance to reality. This ignorance sometimes manifests as rapid judgment or fear, and we react solely based on senses or emotions. A common example of seeing the snake instead of the rope is when we’re asked to meet with our boss. If we have to wait a couple of hours to dwell on it before the meeting the mind can go all over the place, “what did I do, what does s/he want, am I in trouble?” But is there any real indication of trouble? Have you actually done something wrong? Expecting the worst is seeing the snake.

When you see the snake, practice yoga. Stop and take a breath. Think back to the outcomes of prior meetings with the boss. I know in my case I used to worry quite a bit, but I rarely had a bad meeting. Now I try to breathe deeply and see the rope.

Another common example could be coming home to your partner and they don’t greet you as joyfully as you are accustomed. Maybe a little tersely. The snake would say “what did I do this time”, or “why are you mad at ME”. Often when people are curt with us it has nothing to do with us! This particular snake is called ego. What an easy time to get into an argument. Stopping and taking that deep breath might lead to a response on our part more like: “Did you have a rough day? Care to talk about it”? Then we can find the true cause of the disturbance instead of escalating the reactivity of the situation.

Seeing through it is where yoga comes in. I have mentioned several times to stop and take a breath – the essence of yoga. Be it postures, breathing exercises or meditation, we always observe and control the breath. In this way, we watch the mind and see where it jumps to, how it reacts. It gains us some distance between awareness and reaction so you can choose how to react.

The next time you are in shoulderstand or warrior three, try to breathe calmly, be aware of your thoughts and feelings. If you work towards this awareness in your physical practice, it will be that much easier to do it in daily life. Yoga develops the ability to stop and see the rope before acting! With practice it is possible to discriminate perception from reality and pause for reflection.

Practice Asanas, Pranayama and Meditation. Build the strength to let go of the snake and tie yourself firmly to reality with the rope!

May the force be with you.

Michael Hutkins
Read more from Michael on his website: Michael Hutkins Yoga.

2 thoughts on “Vedantic Philosophy: The Snake and the Rope

  1. Janine Rhodes

    The understanding of the snake & the rope is so so true to life.
    So don’t jump the gun & just breathe through your day. Will
    consciously try that particularly @ the Senators game tonight.

    Be Well Namaste,
    Janine

    Reply

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