A few weeks ago, I briefly mentioned a concept of yoga philosophy called Kleshas. Patanjali tells us there are five main causes of human suffering, and these are the five Kleshas. Each of us has at least one (and maybe more) of these Kleshas that cause us to get “stuck” when the trials of life rear their ugly heads. In knowing and recognizing these Kleshas, we can begin to identify our sources of self-inflicted suffering, and therefore overcome them.
Avidya is the kingpin among the Kleshas. Patanjali tells us that all of the other four flow directly from this one. Avidya is, simply, ignorance. We don’t know what we don’t know, but we’re certain we know it all anyway.
It’s easy to see why Patanjali says this is the root of our suffering. From our limited perspectives, we see temporary setbacks as permanent roadblocks. We think our hard times are unique to us, and that no one else can ever possibly understand our problems. Unwilling to listen or to take a step out of ourselves, we create a frenzy of misery and calamity.
I am fantastic in a crisis. Calm, cool-headed, and ready to organize to work towards a solution, I’ve taken charge more than once in an emergency. That is, of course, unless the crisis at hand is my own. Last year was one calamity after another. My husband lost his job, my grandmother passed away after a prolonged illness, my husband’s car acted up, and there were continued issues that we battled all year over my husband’s old job. Through it all, I kept faith that things would turn out for the best if I kept trusting and extinguishing the fires one by one.
But then my car needed major repairs, and I lost my mind. I couldn’t see how we would afford it, or how I would get back and forth to my job. I allowed myself to become bogged down in the situation, thinking there was no way out. Avidya Klesha dominated my existence. Thankfully, we received help from our parents and although it took almost all year, we finally got out from underneath that cloud. It’s a situation I still look back on as an important learning experience.
The second Klesha is asmita, or ego. When we begin to define ourselves by what we do or how we look, we set ourselves up for future disappointments when we can’t do that thing or don’t look that way anymore.
From my perspective, this one is incredibly difficult to break free from. It seems to be the human condition to label and to sort. We learn these skills early in life, and they do have a great deal of utility. It would be tedious to sit across from an animal and have to evaluate it part by part before we decide it’s a bear. Much easier, and more helpful to survival, to look at those sharp claws and decide we’d best get out of its way. The problem, however, comes when we over-rely on these labels and classification systems and begin to pigeonhole ourselves.
I decided long ago that I was bad at math. I was never the type to give up or stop trying to learn, but I certainly did not ever push myself in school to really get good with numbers. As an adult, part of my regular job is now bookkeeping (it’s true kids: you *will* use math every day). As if that weren’t enough, one of my hobbies is knitting. Through both of those things, I realized I’m not really all that bad at math. I can even do some algebra in order to make a sweater fit properly. I don’t care for working with numbers in an abstract manner for the sake of it, but I can use it very effectively for real-life applications. How much better might I be at the subject if I hadn’t believed my own story as a kid that I was bad at it?
The third Klesha is attachment, particularly to those material things and experiences that bring us pleasure. I’m no stranger to this pitfall. I often say I am the picture of a Taurus: stubborn as a bull and very into creature-comforts and the finer things in life.
This is another difficult one, though moreso culturally than as a matter of basic human experience. Obviously, humans like to seek out pleasurable experiences as a matter of course. Plenty of research exists to show how addictive pleasurable experiences can be. But culturally, we’re bombarded from every direction with the siren song of buying our happiness. Companies advertise their products as just the thing to make our lives perfect. If we can just make a little more money, buy a newer car, go on that cruise, or eat according to this diet, we will finally achieve happiness and satisfaction.
The reality is that we all know deep down inside that these things can only bring us fleeting moments of joy. We soon learn to spend that extra money, the car eventually breaks down, the cruise ends, the diet fails. The true trick to happiness is to learn to be happy as we are with what we have. It’s easier said than done, I know, but I believe more and more people are waking up to that fact. That isn’t to say there won’t ever be the occasional pang to have that brand new flat screen TV. However, we can recognize that pang for what it is: Raga. Once we do, it becomes easier to let go of the idea of the new TV.
The Klesha of Dvesha is an aversion to that which we find unpleasant. At first glance, that just seems logical. Of course we want to avoid those things we find to be unpleasant. What kind of crazy person actively looks for ways to be made uncomfortable? Aren’t these Klesha thingies supposed to be ways we cause our own suffering? Isn’t avoiding the unpleasant avoiding suffering?
It’s hard to imagine how avoiding unpleasant things can cause suffering, but I’ll do my best to give you an example. Many years ago, I worked at on office made up of cubicles. My cube was next to a woman who initially seemed very negative. For the first few weeks, I really didn’t speak to her much. I was kind if she came to talk to me, but I didn’t seek her out. Over time, though, I realized she was a really great person. She honestly looked out for me at that office, and became someone I could trust. She turned out to be a really good friend, and I kept in touch with her for a number of years after I left that job. Had I continued to avoid her based on my initial perceptions, I would have missed out on a great friendship.
Avoiding unpleasant things can also stunt our potential for growth. I make no secret of the fact that I really don’t like dolphin pose. Something about it is ridiculously difficult and uncomfortable to me. However, I try to work it into my home practice as often as I can. Why? Because I will never get better at it or more comfortable with it if I avoid practicing it. Sometimes, we have to do the things we don’t particularly like in order to become better, more well-rounded people.
The last of the Kleshas is abhinidvesa, or fear. More specifically, it is the fear of death. This ties right back into Avidya in the eyes of Patanjali. We are afraid of death because we are ignorant of our true, eternal nature. Our bodies are only temporary, but the true self is eternal.
This is another of the Kleshas that is truly just a part of the human condition. We fear the things we don’t know, and we can’t really know what happens to us after death until we’re gone. At that point, no one can come back and tell the living what to expect. We’re on our own.
We combat this Klesha mostly by acknowledging it. We recognize that things are in a constant state of flux, and there are always endings. Out of those endings arise new beginnings, and we have to take these opportunities and make the most of them. We must trust that our own lives are a part of this cycle and that some new opportunity awaits us at the end of this life.
Naming Our Kleshas
I’m sure that as you’ve read along, you’ve recognized yourself in every single one of the Kleshas. Maybe you identify with one or two more strongly than others. Knowing that these Kleshas exist and recognizing them when they come up is the first step to dealing with them and ending our own suffering.
If just recognizing them doesn’t seem like quite enough, Patanjali offers further tools in the next section of the Yoga Sutras. Next week, I plan to write about Patanjali’s advice for further combating the Kleshas: the BhramaViharas. So be sure to come back next week for the flip side of this dive into yoga philosophy!