Kleshas: the five afflictions

As practicing yogis we will inevitably come up against difficulties in our lives. Sometimes they are related to practice (here's a post I wrote about that: Obstacles to Practice) Sometimes they are challenges just associated with being a human in the world.

Which is challenging. Seriously.

What creates these difficulties?

In the yogic philosophy, the klesha(s) are five afflictions are the root causes of why we suffer as human beings. The kleshas are at the heart of life's bumps in the road. They are innate to all of us as humans, as we all experience difficulties and subsequent suffering.

gabriellehopp-suffering.jpg

Nicholai Bachman calls the kleshas "arguably the most challenging aspects of ourselves to confront, yet the most liberating after they are weakened and eventually removed" (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg. 82). They tend to come up consistently when difficulties arise. So, on top of whatever trial we are experiencing, it may be exacerbated by the onset of a klesha and a deep emotional reaction as a result.

The 5 Klesha(s)

1. Avidya (ignorance)

  • Avidya is root the klesha and it is said that all the other afflictions are caused by avidya. It's translated as unclear seeing, ignorance, not-seeing and lack of awareness. I personally prefer to think of it as "unclear seeing" because it suggests that it may be something that we just don't fully understand yet and also gives us the opportunity to eventually see things clearly.
  • Avidya may result from an inability to see things for what they are or from avoiding the reality of things as they are.
  • Avidya happens when we see things as permanent, despite the impermanence of all things. Richard Freeman, yogi and yogic philosopher says, "This basic misidentification of the temporary as the permanent, of the happy as the unhappy, of the pure as the impure, this confusion generates all sorts of miseries." (The Mirror of Yoga, pg. 168).
  • The antidote to avidya is to try and understand things as they clearly are. In interactions with others, try to understand their perspective. When you have emotions, feel them for what they are. If there is something that you don't understand, avoid talking about it as though you understand it. And if it interests you, try to learn more about it in order to fully form an opinion. 
     

 2.  Asmita (egoism)

  • Asmita is the ego issue and is sometimes translated as "i-ness." 
  • Asmita happens when we see ourselves as the epicenter of the universe.  It creates a separation of ourselves from the rest of humanity, as though we are somehow different having a completely unique experience. This may be related to feelings of superiority or feeling misunderstood. Often in asmita, we hold ourselves to different standards than we would others or feel that we can play by different rules.
  • The antidote to asmita is to remember that we're a tiny blip in the grand scheme, but an integral piece in the order of the cosmos. We can work with feelings of ego by treating all humans as equal and valid and trying to imagine ourselves in other people's positions. What if we were all on giant universal team trying to work together harmoniously?

3. Raga (clinging to past pleasure)

  • Raga happens when we cling to our desires. When something feels good or makes us feel good, we want to perpetuate that feeling. We get attached to "good feels" and try to make them continue. Sometimes we do this to our detriment. Addiction disorders may arise from raga.
  • The antidote to raga is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. To work with raga we can begin to recognize when we are pursuing feelings of pleasure and joy, based on a past experience of the same feelings. We can work to try to feel emotions and experiences as they arise in each moment.
     

4. Dvesha (clinging to past pain)

  • Dvesha is the opposite klesha to raga and translates as clinging to past suffering.
  • Dvesha happens when we are unable to accept experiences for what they were and are attached to their effect upon us. This may occur as a result of asmita or ego, and a feeling that no one could understand our particular situation.
  • Dvesha may also arise when we become attached to something as permanent, which is impermanent and ultimately changes. In dvesha klesha, we perpetuate the notion of our own dukha (suffering).
  • The antidote to dvesha is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. Similarly to raga we can notice with our feelings in each moment as they arise and learn to recognize if it's a learned response based on a previous experience. It is okay to feel suffering and discomfort, but problematic when we are attached to a certain way of thinking/feeling based on a past event.
     

5. Abhinivesha (fear of death)

  • The final klesha is abhinivesha and it is the fear of death. Put another way, it's "clinging to the status quo."
  • Abhinivesha is another way in which we are unwilling to accept the natural changing and fluctuations of the universe. We fear death because we don't know what's coming next. This klesha is deeply rooted in all humans, even the wise.
  • The antidote to abhinivesha is to begin to accept the nature of the life cycle, not only for ourselves but for all living beings. One notion that's very comforting to me, is that the ancient yogis recognized these difficulties over 2000 years ago. In other words, it's not a modern problem to experience discomfort and suffering and to wonder what to do about it.

All kleshas are weakened and confronted through yoga practice. Consciously living, making mindful choices about our reactions and interactions help us to work with the effect of the kleshas. Additionally, accepting and exploring our interconnectedness with the cosmos, with fellow human beings, with the ebb and flow of all things is a step in the right direction.

Yoga in Action: Love in Your Heart

I am living with someone who has a very different life perspective than me. He's a super sweet guy—generous, friendly and interested. He also happened to end a very serious relationship recently. I thought he and I could commiserate in a similar way. Turns out it's not so easy.

Through my steady practice and work on the meditation cushion, I am able to see my breakup as something that happened. Not something that happened to me but as something that occurs when two people are no longer together. We had an amazing relationship. And I still love him because I loved him for 5 years, so why would that suddenly change?

Contrarily, this person is deeply full of hate. He feels extremely angry, bitter, resentful toward his ex-girlfriend and eager to move on. He goes on dates. He tries to make his ex jealous.

Now, I am aware enough to recognize that his actions are a result of suffering. A pretty typical human response to your own suffering is to try and make others suffer so that you'll feel better. The sanskrit word for suffering is dukkha. The pain and anguish of dukkha are the result of the first of the 5 kleshas (hindrances), avidya (ignorance). Suffering is caused by not having all of the information. By thinking that what you perceive as your reality is the reality.

There are many ways to combat the suffering that is the human experience. Practicing yoga allows you to understand your true nature. It brings to light that everything and everyone is interconnected. That suffering does not begin and end with you, and that when you feel deep painful emotions that there is a way out.

Through practicing yoga, we can begin to bring love into our hearts. Even if bad things have happened to us, even if we feel nothing but pain and sorrow, yoga offers us the possibility to lift dukkha and replace it gradually with sukkha (ease). That yoga offers us the possibility that we may move through the world on a foundation of love and ease is enough for me to get on my mat day after day.

Perseverance

This is an apt title for someone who hasn't written on their blog in a month.

Well, I am happy to report that despite my lack of perseverance in composition, I've been steadily humming along in my daily practice. And this week for the first time, I am experiencing a profoundly deeper serenity in my meditation practice than ever before.
This process of "enjoying" my meditation has taken two and a half years of diligent daily practice. In addition, I have read countless books and studied with multiple teachers to come to this minute achievement.
The point here is not to toot my own horn about progress but rather to illustrate the need for seriously dedicated perseverance to the yogic path. My teacher Theresa Murphy used to always say that achievement in yoga asana will not come quickly or easily. And 8 years later, I recognize that she's absolutely correct. Things get easier and more accessible, but there are still days when I have trouble balancing in Tree pose or I don't feel like coming to my mat to practice.
Progress in a meditation has been even more laborious in my experience. We are hardwired through our humanness and societal conditioning to attach ourselves to our ego and cling to our thoughts or emotional states. When we can begin to break down these barriers by practicing, we can actually begin to experience the peace of mind about which the ancient yogis were writing.
Through regular (and I mean daily) practice, we begin to develop tapas or the "fire" or "heat" that eggs our practice onward. The more you show up, the more you get out of it and in turn the more you want to continue to show up. See a whole post on tapas here: Tapas
Usually when we experience difficulty and pain in our lives, we tend toward a "woe is me" sort of attitude. This is naturally human of course, but certainly not productive. When we can change our perspective to reflect the need for daily practice, then we always have somewhere to turn when the going gets rough. When shit hits the fan, you make your way to your mat or your cushion as you would on any other day and spend some time presently, persevering on the path.

Tamping Down Reactivity

Through the practice of yoga in its many forms, we begin to acquire the skills to view each situation as an outside observer. We can begin to take a slight stance away from whatever is happening at any given time and observe it rationally without instantly reacting emotionally.  Rather than feeling that everything is happening to me, we can start to just recognize that things are happening, and assess them without too much involvement.
This type of ability doesn't occur immediately. And I do think much of this ability comes from a meditation practice, more than an asana practice. Though, yoga on the mat does teach us to slow down, watch our minds and explore our reactivity to poses and sequences.

This practice of settling our reactive state is about slowing down and it's also about our sense of self. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines 5 kleshas or "aversions" which prevent us from true liberation.
Asmita is the sense of the self as separate from everything and everyone. It is the ego. Verse 2.6 is

drg-darśana-śaktyor-eka-ātmatā-iva-asmitā

In literal translation, it says asmita is the misidentification of the power of seeing with what is seen. And asmita itself literally means "I am this" or I am that." (The Yoga Sutras by Ravi Ravindra pg. 61-62)
Asmita is clinging to the identification of "us" and not "them." Through this attachment to our sense of self, we are able as a human race to do really terrible things to each other. And it means that tend to feel that things are "happening to us" rather than just happening. We identify with our bodies and our minds as ourselves and do anything to protect them from being damaged.

When we step back from situations, even just for a brief second of assessment or contemplation, we can see that almost everyone is acting out of their reactive state of asmita. So the next time someone is cutting in line at the post office or putting their yoga mat really close to yours, can you separate from your sense of self and from that standpoint determine the level of reactivity necessary? In all likelihood, through just a few seconds of thoughtful consideration, you will act more kindly and rationally; a simple step to making the world a better place.